1 Timothy: Working for Order in God’s Household

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
1 timothy

Each of the three Pastoral Epistles takes the form of a letter from the Apostle Paul giving counsel to one of his co-workers.[1] In 1 Timothy, Paul gives instructions his younger colleague Timothy about how to minister within the church and how to deal with false teachers. Yet the last words of the letter—“Grace be with you [plural]” (1 Tim. 6:21)—indicate that the letter is meant to be overheard by the whole church in Ephesus so that all may benefit from Paul’s counsel to Timothy.

Because the letters share some common themes, we will combine our discussion of related passages among the letters. The themes will be explored according to the order they first arise in the Pastoral Epistles.

Connecting Belief and Behavior at Work (1 Timothy 1:1–11, 18–20; 3:14–16)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

One of the repeated and stressed themes in 1 Timothy is the tight connection between belief and behavior, or teaching and practice. Sound, or “healthy,” teaching leads to godliness while false teaching is unpro­ductive at best and damning at worst. From the onset of the letter, Paul charges Timothy to “instruct certain people not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3) because this different doctrine, along with myths and genealogies, does not promote “the divine training that is known by faith” (1 Tim. 1:4).

Paul is speaking of the importance of sound doctrine in the church, but his words apply just as well to the workplace. W. Edwards Dem­ing, one of the founders of continuous quality improvement, called his methods a “system of profound knowledge.” He said, “Once the indi­vidual understands the system of profound knowledge, he will apply its principles in every kind of relationship with other people. He will have a basis for judgment of his own decisions and for transformation of the organizations that he belongs to.”[1] Knowledge of the deepest truth is essential in any organization.

Luke Timothy Johnson has translated 1 Timothy 1:4 more transpar­ently as “God’s way of ordering reality as it is apprehended by faith.”[2] The church is—or should be—ordered according to God’s way. Few would dispute that. But should other organizations also be ordered ac­cording to God’s way? The first-century Greco-Roman world believed that society should be ordered according to “nature.” Thus if nature is the creation of God, then God’s way of ordering creation should be reflected in the way society is ordered as well. As Johnson observes, “There is no radical discontinuity between the will of God and the structures of society. The structures of the oikos (household) and the ekklēsia (church) are not only continuous with each other, but both are parts of the dispensation [administration] of God in the world.”[3] Work­places, households, and churches all reflect the one and only ordering of creation.

A true understanding of God’s ways is essential in all workplaces. For example, a prominent theme in Creation is that human beings were created good. Later we fell into sin, and a central Christian truth is that Jesus came to redeem sinners. Workers are therefore human beings who sin, yet who may experience redemption and become good as God al­ways intended. The truth about goodness, sin, and redemption needs to be factored into organizational practices. Neither churches nor work­places can function properly if they assume that people are good only and not sinners. Accounts need to be audited and harassment needs to be stopped. Customer service needs to be rewarded. Priests and pas­tors, employees and executives need to be supervised. Similarly, neither churches nor workplaces can assume that people who err or sin should be discarded automatically. The offer of redemption—and practical help to make the transformation—needs to be made. In churches, the focus is on spiritual and eternal redemption. Nonchurch workplaces are focused on a more limited redemption related to the mission of the organization. Probation, performance improvement plans, retraining, reassignment to a different position, mentoring, and employee assistance programs—as opposed to immediate firing—are examples of redemptive practices in certain workplaces, especially in the West. The particulars of what is actually redemptive will vary considerably of course depending on the type of organization, its mission, the surrounding cultural, legal, and economic environment, and other factors.

If Christians in the marketplace are to understand how God would have them and those around them act (cf. 1 Tim. 3:15), they must un­derstand God’s revelation in the Bible and believe in it. Truth leads to love (1 Tim. 1:5), while false doctrine promotes “speculations” (1 Tim. 1:4), “controversy” (1 Tim. 6:4), and spiritual destruction (1 Tim. 1:19). Knowledge of God’s ways as revealed in his word cannot be the do­main of Bible scholars alone, nor is biblical understanding relevant only within the church. Christian workers must also be biblically in­formed so that they can operate in the world according to God’s will and for his glory.

Ethics and Branding (Click to Read)

What is at stake when leaders and workers operate according to the letter, instead of the spirit, of company policy? Steve Brock uses a personal experience to illustrate the value of ethics for sound business operation.[4]

All Christians have a leadership role, regardless of their place in the organization. Executives usually have the greatest opportunity to shape the strategy and structure of an organization. All workers have continual opportunities to develop good relationships, produce excellent products and services, act with integrity, help others develop their abilities, and shape the culture of their immediate work groups. Everyone has a sphere of influence at work. Paul advised Timothy not to let his perceived lack of status prevent him from trying to make a difference. “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).

It is interesting to note that some of this reality is already perceived in contemporary workplaces. Many organizations have “mission state­ments” and “core values.” These words mean roughly the same thing to secular organizations as “beliefs” or “doctrine” mean to churches. Or­ganizations, like churches, pay close attention to culture. This is further evidence that what workers believe or what an organization teaches af­fects how people behave. Christians in the workplace should be at the forefront of shaping the values, mission, and culture of the organizations in which we participate, to the degree we are able.

Prayer, Peace, and Order Are Needed at Work as in Church (1 Timothy 2:1–15)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

Paul begins this chapter by urging that “supplications, prayers, in­tercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:1–2). The aim of this prayer is that Christians “may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dig­nity” (1 Tim. 2:2). Presumably, these first-century rulers had the power to make life difficult and disruptive for Christians. So Paul urges Chris­tians to pray for their civic rulers. Prayer, peace, and order are Christians’ first instruments of engagement with the secular world.

Again we see that Paul’s instructions are grounded in the oneness of God, the singularity of Christ as mediator, Christ’s universal ransom, and God’s universal desire for all to be saved (1 Tim. 2: 3–7). Christ is the Lord of creation and the Savior of the world. His realm includes every workplace. Christians should be praying for all of those who are in their particular workplace, especially those who have supervisory roles “in high positions.” Christians should strive to do their jobs without disrupt­ing the work of others, without calling undue attention to themselves, and without constantly challenging authority—in other words, working “in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:2). For Christians, this kind of peaceable and submissive behavior is not motivated by fear, people-pleasing, or social conformity, but by a healthy appreciation for the order God has established and by a desire for others to “come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). As Paul says elsewhere, “God is a God not of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33).

Does this conflict with the duty to be at the forefront of shaping the mission and core values of our workplaces? Some Christians try to shape missions and values through confrontation around controversial issues, such as same-sex partner benefits, health insurance exclusion for abortion and/or contraceptives, union organizing, display of religious symbols and the like. If successful, this approach may help shape the mission and value of the organization. But it often disrupts others’ work, breaks the peace, and disrespects supervisors’ authority.

What is needed instead is a more personal, deeper, and more re­spectful engagement of organizational culture. Rather than clashing over health benefits, could Christians invest in friendships with co-workers and become a source of counseling or wisdom for those facing major life decisions? Instead of pushing the boundary between freedom of speech and harassment, could Christians do their assigned work with such ex­cellence that co-workers ask them to explain the source of their strength? Instead of arguing about peripheral issues such as holiday decorations, could Christians help improve the core activities of their workplaces, such as job performance, customer service, and product design, and so earn the respect of those around them? In answering such questions, we can remember that Paul’s advice to Timothy is balanced, not self-contradictory. Live in peace and cooperation with those around us. Seek to influence others by serving them, not trying to lord it over them. Isn’t that what the King of kings did?

Integrity and Relational Ability Are Key Leadership Qualities (1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

First Timothy 3:1–13 is well known and finds a parallel in Titus 1:5–9. Both 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:5–9 lay out qualifications for elders and overseers,[1] whereas 1 Timothy 3:8–13 describes qualifications for deacons including, possibly, women deacons. A variety of qualifications is given, but the common thread seems to be moral integrity and abil­ity to relate well to people. Competence to teach, though mentioned as a qualification for elders (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:9), doesn’t receive the same emphasis overall. In these lists, we again observe the connection between the household and the church: managing one’s family well is viewed as requisite experience for managing God’s household (1 Tim. 3:4–5, 12; Titus 3:6; cf. 1 Tim. 3:15). We will reflect on this connection more in a subsequent section.

As noted earlier, different organizations have different missions. Therefore, the qualifications for leadership are different. It would be a misapplication of this passage to use it as a general qualifications list for workplaces. “Serious” may not be the right qualification for a tour guide, for example. But what about the priority given to moral integrity and relational ability? Moral qualities such as “above reproach,” “clear con­science,” “faithful [or trustworthy] in all things,” and relational quali­ties such as “hospitable,” “not quarrelsome,” and “temperate” are much more prominent than specific skills and experience.

If this is true for church leadership, does it also apply for workplace leadership? The well-publicized moral and relational failings of a few prominent business and government leaders in recent years have made integrity, character, and relationships more important than ever in most workplaces. It is no less important to properly develop and select lead­ers in workplaces than it is in churches. But as we prepare for jobs and careers, do we put a fraction of as much effort into developing ethical character and relational abilities as into developing specialized skills and accumulating credentials?

Interestingly, many of the early church leaders were also workplace leaders. Lydia was a dealer in the valuable commodity of purple dye (Acts 16:14, 40). Dorcas was a garment maker (Acts 9:26–41). Aquila and Priscilla were tentmakers (or leatherworkers) who became business partners with Paul (Acts 18:2–3). These leaders were effective in the church after having already proven effective in the workplace and gain­ing the respect of the wider community. Perhaps the basic qualifications of leadership in church, work, and civic spheres have much in common.

God’s Creation Is Good (1 Timothy 4:1–5)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

First Timothy affirms “God’s way of ordering reality” and that this divine ordering has implications for how Christians should behave in their households, churches, and—by an extension of the text’s logic—in their workplaces. The clearest affirmation of God’s creation order comes in 1 Timothy 4:1–5. In 1 Timothy 4:4 Paul plainly declares, “Everything created by God is good.” This is a clear echo of Genesis 1:31, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Within the context of the letter, this sweepingly positive appraisal of creation is used to combat false teachers who are forbidding marriage and certain foods (1 Tim. 4:3). Paul counters their teaching by asserting that these things ought to be received with thanksgiving (1 Tim. 4:3, 4). Food, and any­thing else in God’s creation, is “sanctified” by God’s word and by prayer (1 Tim. 4:5). This does not mean that God’s word and prayer make God’s creation good when it isn’t good already. Rather, in thankfully acknowl­edging God as the creator and provider of all things, a Christian sets apart created things such as food for a holy and God-honoring purpose. As a Christian, it is possible even to eat and drink to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

This affirmation of creation means there is no created material that is inherently evil to work with, and no job engaged with creation that is unacceptable for Christians to do if it doesn’t violate God’s will. In other words, a Christian can dig wells, design computer chips, scrub toilets, walk on the moon, fix cell phones, plant crops, or harvest trees to the glory of God. None of these jobs or materials is inherently evil. Indeed, each job can please God. This may seem intuitive to those in the modern Western world who don’t struggle much with asceticism, as the ancient Greek and Roman world did. But 1 Timothy 4:4 reminds even us not to view the material realm as something neutral in moral value or to view something such as technology, for example, as inherently evil. The good­ness of all of God’s creation allows us to live and work in joyful freedom, receiving all things as from God’s hands.

Good Relationships Arise From Genuine Respect (1 Timothy 5:1–6:2; Titus 2:1–10)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

First Timothy 4:6–16 is full of specific directives Paul gives to Timo­thy. It would be helpful for Christian workers to remember that train­ing in godliness is a crucial component of professional development (cf. 1 Tim. 4:8). We quickly move from this section, however, to the next, which runs from 1 Timothy 5:1–6:2. Again, this section is similar to a section of Titus 2:1–10. Being a member of the church should not lead us to exploit others within the church (cf. 1 Tim. 5:16; 6:2), but rather should lead us to work harder to bless them. This applies also at work.

Providing for Your Family (1 Timothy 5:8) (Click to Listen)

In particular, these two passages describe how men and women, old and young, masters and slaves, ought to behave within the family of God. The first two verses of this section in 1 Timothy are important ones. “Do not speak harshly to an older man, but speak to him as to a father, to younger men as brothers, to older women as mothers, to younger women as sisters—with absolute purity.” This command does not flatten any distinction between families and the church (as 1 Tim. 5:4, 8 makes clear), but it does suggest that the kindness, compassion, loyalty, and purity that should characterize our most intimate family relationships should also characterize our relationships with those in God’s family, the church.

Paul’s exhortation to “absolute purity” reminds us that violations of sexual boundaries do occur in families and churches, as well as in workplaces. Sexual harassment can go unchallenged—even unnoticed by those not being harassed—in workplaces. We can bring a blessing to every kind of workplace by paying deeper attention to how men and women are treated, and by raising a challenge to inappropriate and abu­sive words and actions.

Is it right to think of a workplace as a family? No and yes. No, it is not truly a family, for the reasons portrayed so amusingly in the tele­vision series The Office. Membership in a workplace is conditional on fulfilling a role adequately. Unlike family members, employees who no longer meet the approval of management are subject to dismissal. Employment is not permanent, not “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”[1] It would be naive—possibly even abusive—to pretend that a workplace is a family.

Cultivating Young Talent (Click to Watch)

TMC Design, based in Las Cruces, New Mexico, champions young people by working with engineering students while they are in school. Owner Troy Scoughton’s goal has always been to keep young people in town by teaching them the joy of work.

Yet in certain senses, a workplace can be like a family, if that term is used to describe the respect, commitment, open communication, and care that family members should show toward one another. If Chris­tians were known for treating co-workers likewise, it could be a great point of the church’s redemptive service to the world. Mentoring, for example, is an extremely valuable service that experienced workers can offer to newer colleagues. It resembles the investment that parents make in their children. And just as we protect family members from abuse and exploitation, Christ’s love impels us to do the same for people in our workplaces. Certainly we should never engage in abuse or exploitation of others at work, because we imagine we owe them less respect or care than we do to family (or church) members. Rather, we should strive to love all our neighbors, including those in the workplace, as our family and as ourselves.

Godliness With Contentment Is Great Gain (1 Timothy 6:3-10, 17-19)

Back to Table of Contents Back to Table of Contents

The last section of 1 Timothy is packed with powerful exhortations and warnings for rich Christians. (We will skip over Paul’s charges to Timothy in verses 11–16 and 20, which are directed to Timothy in his particular situation.) First Timothy 6:3–10 and 17–19 have direct work­place applications. In reading and applying these passages, however, we must avoid two common mistakes.

First, this passage does not teach that there is no “gain” to be had by being godly. When Paul writes that those who are “depraved in mind and bereft of the truth” imagine that “godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5), what he is denouncing is the mind-set that godliness necessarily leads to financial gain in this life or that godliness should be pursued for the sake of immediate, financial gain. The folly of this thinking is threefold:

  1. God often calls his saints to suffer material want in this life and, therefore, God’s people should not set their hope on the “uncer­tainty of riches” (1 Tim. 6:17).
  2. Even if someone were to gain great riches in this life, the gain is short-lived because, as John Piper puts it, “There are no U-Hauls behind hearses” (1 Tim. 6:7).[1]
  3. Craving wealth leads to evil, apostasy, ruin, and destruction (1 Tim. 6:9–10).

Note carefully, however, that Paul encourages his readers to know that there is great gain in godliness when it is combined with content­ment in the basic necessities of life (1 Tim. 6:6, 8). Our God is a God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim. 6:17). Paul commands the righteous rich “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” (1 Tim. 6:18)—not to sell everything they have and become poor. They are to be rich in good works so that they might store up for themselves “the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Tim. 6:19). In other words, godliness is a means of gain as long as that gain is understood as life and blessings in the presence of God and not only more money now. Paul’s exhortation in 1 Timothy 6:18–19 is similar to Jesus’ teaching, “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:20; cf. Matt. 19:21; Luke 12:33).

The second mistake to avoid is thinking that this passage and its con­demnation of a love for money means that no Christian worker should ever seek a raise or promotion or that no Christian business should try to make a profit. There are many reasons why someone could want more money; some of them could be bad but others could be good. If some­one wanted more money for the status, luxury, or ego boost it would provide, then this would indeed fall under the rebuke of this section of Scripture. But if someone wanted to earn more money in order to pro­vide adequately for dependents, to give more to Christ-honoring causes, or to invest in creating goods and services that allow the community to thrive, then it would not be evil to want more money.[2] To reject the love of money is not to oppose every desire to be successful or profitable in the workplace.