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On Selecting Ministers

I agree with Ken Schenck that the most important qualifications in a minister are spiritual, not academic. I also agree with him that biblical scholarship has its place and every denomination ought to have a few Bible scholars laying around:

I’m involved with a PhD dissertation defense today at Andrews University and was finishing up the dissertation this morning when an amusing thought hit me.  You know, every denomination should at least have one or two Bible scholars, in addition to all its Spirit-filled prophets and leaders.  Every denomination should have one or two experts on what the Bible actually meant.

And what does that involve?  It involves things that I agree are not the priority for a minister or necessarily a denominational leader. I doubt massively that the most impactful pastors and leaders need to be or will be biblical scholars of this sort. Although I’m clearly having fun in this post, I really mean it when I say the heart and not the head is the number one priority even for a minister or church leader.

He then goes on to describe the sorts of skills a biblical scholar should be able to bring to the table in the service of the church. It’s a fine list, though I agree it is unrealistic to expect this level of scholarly acumen from all (or even most) parish ministers. Conversely, I wouldn’t trust a minister who isn’t at least somewhat conversant with the tools of serious biblical scholarship.

Ken’s words reminded me of the qualifications of church leaders 1 Timothy 3:

The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way— for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and the snare of the devil.

Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. Women likewise must be serious, not slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and great boldness in the faith that is in Christ Jesus. (1 Tim 3:1-13)

Churches work hard to get the best leadership they can. When searching for a new pastor, they look at the candidates’ formal education, preaching ability, charisma, pastoral skills, and a multitude of other variables.

First Timothy 3 discusses the qualifications to look for in church leaders. These suggestions are at odds with the way churches usually do things. For example, the passage overwhelmingly emphasizes issues of moral character and spiritual maturity. Only one qualification has to do with learned skills: a bishop or overseer must be “able to teach” (1 Tim 3:2). I have both interviewed with pastor search committees and spoken with them about colleagues they were looking to hire, and my observation is that the average search committee is more interested in a candidate’s skills than with the vitality of their spiritual life. This seems backwards: it is far easier to learn new skills than to adopt a new moral compass.

Who do you want in your church’s pulpit? A seasoned-but-cynical professional or a young kid fresh from seminary with a heart on fire for God? I know I would take the kid any day of the week.

Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles

Daniel Kirk of Storied Theology summarizes his reasons for concluding that Paul is not the author of the Pastoral Epistles (H/T: Euangelion). His opening remarks are worthy of reflection:

First, the freedom to pursue the question was instilled in me through my pro-inerrancy education at Westminster Seminary (though one going to WTS now would not be given the same freedom). At the time I went, there was a flourishing tradition of carefully distinguishing between the commitment to inerrancy and particular hermeneutical and/or critical conclusions.

This tradition was embodied in the title of a 1988 faculty collection, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic (ed. Harvey Conn). In that collection, Moises Silva says that even the issue of who wrote a letter, which may seem in some ways to be the most obvious conclusion to draw from an “inerrant” Bible (I mean, if you can’t believe the “From” line of the letter, what can you believe?), is an issue that must be decided based on historical evidence. And, if a letter is found to be pseudepigraphical, then our understanding of what it means to affirm an inerrant Bible must be shaped so as to allow for that.

This is reflective of an important factor that drives a lot of my work: that no theology worth holding is going to so exert its control over our reading of the Bible that it will forbid us from saying what good exegesis of the passage demands that we say.

In this case, I don’t find persuasive that there is much theologically at stake for recognizing that Paul did not write these letters. They are scripture and therefore we have them as part of the canon, the rule of the church’s faith and life.

For me, the most compelling arguments in favor of Pauline authorship are those compiled by Luke Timothy Johnson in his The Writings of the New Testament (which I have summarized elsewhere).

In my opinion, the most compelling methodology for deciding whether any New Testament letter is in fact pseudonymous is that proposed by Richard Bauckham in “Pseudo-Apostolic Letters” (JBL 107/3 [1988] 469–94). Briefly, Bauckham observes that, if the stated author is in some sense a fiction, then likewise the implied audience is equally fictitious. Therefore, a genuinely pseudonymous letter will use certain literary strategies to bridge the gap between the proposed audience within the letter (i.e., contemporaries of one of the apostles) and the actual audience living one or more generations later. This may be as simple as staying on a general level (and thus the more securely we find we can speak about the particularities of the church situation being addressed, the more likely we’re dealing with a genuine letter), historical scene-setting so readers can discern the connections between the supposed author’s time and their own (see 2 Tim 2:17-18), direct commands to pass the apostolic teaching on to future generations (see 2 Tim 2:2), and/or casting certain teachings as predictions of things to come (see 1 Tim 4:1; 2 Pet 2:1-3).

Bauckham’s conclusions (491) broadly confirm mainstream scholarly assumptions:

  • 2 Peter “can be regarded with very high probability as pseudepigraphal”
  • The Pastorals “could very well be pseudepigraphal”
  • Ephesians, James, 2 Thessalonians: “our criteria make pseudepigraphy a possibility, without deciding the issue.
  • All other NT letters: “the question of authenticity remains in these cases an open one which must still be decided on other grounds. But it seems that any other case for pseudepigraphy among the NT letters is by these criteria very implausible indeed.

For me, the pseudonymity of the Pastorals is an open issue but not a terribly important one. As Daniel says, they’re in the canon either way and therefore count as inspired Scripture. What I usually tell my class is that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays I think Paul wrote them; on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays I think they’re pseudonymous; and on Sundays I pray because I’m not sure what I think!

The Pastoral Epistles

We’re talking about the Pastoral Epistles in class today, so it was a happy coincidence that Brant Pitre of Singing in the Reign is musing about the perennial questions of authorship and the identity of the opponents in these three fascinating letters. Brant notes that, according to Titus 1:9-10, the opponents here are the same as in Galatians: those of the circumcision (I’m sorry, but “the circumcision party” conjures up some very strange images in my mind). I partly agree.

I’m one of that rare breed who thinks the Pastorals may very well be authentically Pauline, although I don’t lose a lot of sleep over it one way or another. In class, we’ll discuss the arguments both ways, although I’m mostly pursuaded by Luke Johnson’s case in The Writings of the New Testament (Fortress, 1999):

  • Chronology. Pseudonymity advocates wonder how the data in the Pastorals can possibly be squared with what we already know about Paul’s missionary activity. Johnson reminds us that we actually know relatively little. Acts gives only a selective and highly stylized rendering of Paul’s travels, and that the letters provide only fragmentary bits and pieces of data. Just as 2 Corinthians, for example, tells us about imprisonments we would ot have otherwise known of, the Pastorals may well provide accurate information about missionary activity we would not have suspected.
  • Style/Language. The Pastorals obviously contain many words not found in the other Pauline letters, yet there are real differences even among the three Pastorals. 2 Timothy’s vocabulary in particular is remarkably close to the undisputed Paulines. I find it interesting that people whose native tongue was Koine Greek apparently didn’t raise linguistic or stylistic objections to attributing the Pastorals to Paul. Paul may have used an amanuensis in composing the Pastorals. At any rate, stylometric analysis has generally concluded that the database isn’t really big enough to reach a firm conclusion here.
  • Church Structure. Another sticking point is the implied ecclesiastical structure in the Pastorals, which many see as far more ordered and hierarchical than the undisputed Paulines. But is this accurate? We must admit there is nothing about church order or structure in 2 Timothy. What structure there is in the other letters does not strike me as particularly elaborate. It corresponds rather well to what we know of Hellenistic synagogue structures of the first century and to prevalent Greco-Roman patterns. And the order is not so much prescribed as presupposed. The writer (whoever he is) doesn’t give us “job descriptions” as much as moral qualifications for offices apparently already understood. The undisputed Pauline letters refer by title to the same offices found in the Pastorals, elders/overseers and deacons (Php 1:1; Rom 16:1) and explicitly recognize the role of authority figures in the church (1 Cor 16:15-17; Gal 6:6; 1 Thess 5:12).
  • Theology/Ethics. The Pastorals use words like “faith,” “law,” and “righteousness” in ways that seem alien to the undisputed Pauline letters. But we must not assume too high a degree of uniformity within Pauline Christianity. Each community would have had a unique context that shaped its experience and expression. Therefore, for example, the “household” theme is prevalent in Paul, but developed differently in different communities. If the Pastorals represent a more “Greek” mode of presentation in contrast to the more “biblical” mode in Galatians or Romans, then we must remember that Paul also used a more “Greek” mode in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians. His style was affected by his subject matter, his audience, and the traditions on which he relied. Timothy and Titus, it must be remembered, both had Greek backgrounds and were ministering in Greek cultural centers.

The final point of contention is with the opponents in the Pastorals, which is Brant’s main issue, and how Paul deals with them. Paul of the undisputed letters is usually keen to refute his opponents on biblical and other grounds; Paul of the Pastorals seems content merely to slander them and warn against following them. The writer of 1 Timothy does, however, clarify theological points several times (1:8; 4:3-5, 7-8; 6:5-10) and the genuine Paul is not immune from the use of slander against rival teachers (2 Cor 11:13-15; Gal 5:12; 6:13; Php 3:2). What is distinctive about the Pasroals is not the presence of polemic but the shear amount of it, its largely stereotypical nature, and its literary function.

As for the religious or theological orientation of the opponents, that there is actually little in the “composite sketch” of these opponents that is not also found in the undisputed letters:

  • Dietary regulations (1 Tim 4:3; see Rom 14:2; Gal 2:11-14; cf. Col 2:16; Acts 15:28-29?)
  • Forbidding marriage (1 Tim 4:3; see 1 Cor 7:1)
  • Overly-realized eschatology (2 Tim 2:16-18; see 1 Cor 4:8; 15:12)
  • Emphasis on knowledge (1 Tim 6:20-21; see 1 Cor 1:5; 8:1; 2 Cor 11:6)
  • Myths and genealogical speculations (1 Tim 1:4, 6-8; 4:7; 2 Tim 4:4; see 2 Cor 11:22? Php 3:5-6?)
  • Claims to be “teachers of the law” (1 Tim 1:7; see Gal 2:11-14?)

I’m not entirely sure there isn’t a Gnostic component to this sketch, however. Although full-blown Gnosticism is a late first (Cerinthus) or second century (Valentinus) phenomenon, Birger Pearson theorizes that these diverse movements have roots in pre-Christian Alexandrian Judaism. It is not inconceivable that some judaizing groups in the church embraced pre- or proto-Gnostic elements. Earle Ellis in fact sees the opponents in the Pastoral Epistles as such a hybrid, holding to a form of the same “judaizing” tendencies that had plagued Paul’s ministry from the beginning. This faction

combined a demand for Gentile adherence to the Mosaic regulations and an ascetic ritualism with a zeal for visions of angels and, at least in the Diaspora, with Gnosticizing tendencies to promote an experience of (a distorted) divine wisdom and knowledge, and to depreciate matter and physical resurrection and redemption (cf. 1 Cor 15:12 with 2 Tim 2:18). At times their vaunted asceticism produced an arrogance primed for a subtle sexual licentiousness (cf. Gal 4:9; 5:13-21; Col 2:18, 23 with 1 Tim 4:3; 2 Tim 3:6-7; Tit 1:10, 15). While Paul argued that in the messianic age the OT ethical laws remained valid but its ritual laws were passé (Col 2:17; cf. Gal 4:9-10) and were no longer binding (Rom 10:4; 13:8-10; Gal 3:24-25), his opponents argued that the ritual laws remained binding and yet they vitiated the ethical commands by their conduct.

In the Pastorals the gnosticizing judaizers were known as “the circumcision party” (Tit 1:10) and continued their claim to be “teachers of the Law” (1 Tim 1:7), although they apparently no longer stressed, as in Galatians, the duty of circumcision. They forbade marriage, promoted food laws and claimed to impart a spiritual “knowledge” (gnosis) whose source was, in the words of an oracle applied to them, demonic spirits (1 Tim 4:1-3; 6:20). They represented on stage of a continuing counter-mission, which appears in Ignatius (Magn. 8:11; Trall. 9; ca. AD 110) as a kind of “Judaism crossed with Gnosticism” (Lightfoot) that denied not only Christ’s resurrection but also his physical incarnation and death, and which later in the second century developed or merged into the full-blown Gnostic heresies. While some of the opponents originated in the mission “the circumcision party,” others were teachers in Pauline congregations and defectors from a Pauline theology, including former associates or coworkers (1 Tim 1:3-5; 2 Tim 1:15-16; Tit 1:10-11). (E. Earle Ellis, “Pastoral Letters,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne et al. [InterVarsity, 1993] 662-63)

There’s a reasonable argument to be made for the authenticity of the Pastorals (although, as I’ve already stated, the question isn’t keeping me up at night). That argument isn’t weakened if one tends to see Gnostic tendencies in the opponents addressed in these letters.