Skip to content

How to Read the Pastoral Epistles Theologically

The letters that Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus have been known as the Pastoral Epistles (PE) since at least the early eighteenth century. As helpful as this label is, it can subtly communicate that the real value of these letters rests in their practical instruction on various aspects of church life. But the PE are more than a simple manual of church practice. They are Paul’s attempt to address specific situations in the ministry contexts of Timothy and Titus. At the heart of these letters is Paul’s concern for “sound” doctrine/words/teaching (1 Tim 1:10; 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; 4:3; Titus 1:9, 13; 2:1–2, 8). The word (Gr. hygiainō) Paul uses here has the sense of something that is healthy or produces wholeness. For the apostle, doctrine and theology were the essential nutrition for the church. That explains why Paul’s approach to addressing the various issues Timothy and Titus were confronting in these churches was to address them from a theological perspective rooted in the gospel. As far as Paul is concerned, every situation or issue must be addressed theologically. Whether implicitly or explicitly, all of Paul’s instructions flow from his robust theology.

So, the very nature of the Pastoral Epistles themselves invites the reader to read them theologically—that is, with a view to what they teach us about God, humanity, sin, Scripture, and the narrative shape of the gospel message. The best way to learn how to read these letters theologically is to look at how Paul “does theology” in the context of addressing the various issues Timothy and Titus faced. Using our contemporary categories, we can observe Paul using both biblical and systematic theology. Let’s look at several examples of each. The very nature of the Pastoral Epistles themselves invites the reader to read them theologically. Click To Tweet

Applied Biblical Theology

Paul addresses several issues from what we would consider today a biblical-theological framework. At various points, he grounds specific admonitions in a brief summary of the gospel story. Thus after a section detailing requirements for elders/overseers (1 Tim 3:1–7) and deacons (1 Tim 3:8–13), Paul explains that his goal is to explain how believers ought to behave in the church of God (1 Tim 3:14–15). As the pillar and buttress of truth, the church is grounded in the “mystery of godliness”; the content of that mystery is a summary of the gospel that encompasses the incarnation, vindication, proclamation, and ascension of Jesus (1 Tim 3:16). Paul commands Timothy to pursue spiritual growth on the basis of a basic narrative about Jesus: he made the “good confession” before Pontius Pilate (1 Tim 6:13), he will appear again (1 Tim 6:14), and he will exercise “eternal dominion” (1 Tim 6:16). As Timothy labors to pass on to faithful men what he has heard from Paul (2 Tim 2:1–7), the apostle exhorts him to “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, offspring of David, as preached in my gospel” (2 Tim 2:8). In Titus 2:1–10 Paul exhorts Titus to instruct believers of different ages and positions within the household how to live in such a way “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.”

Paul explains the reason for this in verses 11-15, where he summarizes the gospel story as: (1) the grace of God appeared to enable us to live godly lives; (2) our Savior Jesus Christ will appear again; (3) Christ laid down his life to purify his people; and (4) Christ is created his people to be zealous for good works. In the very next chapter, Paul grounds a call for a range of godly behaviors (e.g. submitting to authorities, readiness for good works, avoiding quarrels, etc.) with a reminder of their former state apart from Christ (Titus 3:1–3) followed by a summary of the gospel story: God our Savior appeared to save us not on the basis of works but rather by his mercy, and because he has transformed us by his Spirit we are justified by grace and heirs of eternal life (Titus 3:4–7). It is on the basis of being transformed by the gospel that believers should be diligent to devote themselves to good works (Titus 3:8). In all of these examples, it is the narrative shape of the gospel that grounds Paul’s instructions for producing spiritually healthy believers and churches.

Applied Doctrinal Themes

In addition to giving instruction based on the gospel story, Paul also grounds his instructions to Timothy and Titus in specific doctrines. Prayer is to be offered for all kinds of people—including kings and those in high position—because God our Savior “desires all people to be saved” (1 Tim 2:4) and “there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). The reason women are not permitted to teach or exercise authority over men is grounded in the creation order: Adam was created first and Eve was the one who was deceived (1 Tim 2:12–15). In response to those who forbid marriage and demand abstinence from certain foods (1 Tim 4:3), Paul reminds Timothy of the original goodness of creation (1 Tim 4:4–5). Elders who labor in preaching and teaching should be considered “worthy of double honor” on the Scriptural principles of not muzzling an ox (citing Deut 25:4) and the laborer being worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7). In the face of real examples of apostasy from the faith, Paul reminds Timothy that “the Lord knows those who are his” (2 Tim 2:19, citing Num 16:5) and that those who name the name of the Lord should depart from iniquity (2 Tim 2:19). Paul grounds his charge to persevere in ministry in two different doctrines: (1) the inspiration and usefulness of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16–17) and the return of Jesus Christ to judge everyone and consummate his kingdom (2 Tim 4:1–8). These examples make it clear that Paul was capable of applying specific doctrinal themes to concrete situations for the health of the church.

Reading Theologically

Simply put, we should read the PE theologically because Paul wrote them as works of applied theology. To ignore the theological grounding of his practical instructions is to ignore the authorial intent (both human and divine) and deprive believers of the theological nutrients that produce spiritual health. When it comes to how to read the PE (or Scripture in general for that matter), the place to begin is with explicit statements in the text like we have noted above. Beyond those explicit statements, we should read Scripture with the key categories of both biblical and systematic theology in mind, always looking for how the text connects to or sheds light on the biblical storyline, key themes that span the canon, and doctrinal categories that help us organize our understanding of God, creation, humanity, salvation, Scripture, the Christian life, the church, and the future. Reading the PE this way is not imposing theology upon the text, but reading theology out of the text. Such a theological reading is essential for our spiritual health as individual believers and as the corporate body of Christ.

Matthew S. Harmon

Matthew S. Harmon (PhD, Wheaton) is Professor of New Testament studies at Grace College and Theological Seminary. He loves to help people understand the beauty of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures, seeing it as the key to life transformation (2 Corinthians 3:18). He has a passion for research and writing, specializing in the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, biblical theology, commentary writing, and the Pauline epistles. He is an active member of Christ’s Covenant Church, where he leads a small group, teaches Sunday School, and serves on the preaching team. He has written or edited several books including Philippians: A Mentor CommentaryMaking All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Churchand Asking the Right Questions: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Applying the Bible. He also co-hosts the Various and Sundry podcast.

Back to Top