Sunday, June 5, 2011

Love Is the Goal

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. (1 Timothy 1.5-7)

The Scenes Behind the Text

First and Second Timothy and Titus, the epistle following them, are collectively called “The Pastorals.” Together, they offer invaluable advice regarding structure, policies, and procedures of congregational life—even though they address different issues and, given variances in language, style, and subject matter, are believed to come from different writers at different times. Only 2 Timothy is immunized from doubts about Paul’s authorship. Linguistic and historical anomalies strongly suggest 1 Timothy and Titus are composed between 80-200 CE by one or two writers signing Paul’s name to their correspondence. While we would reject the practice as fraudulent, writing under apostolic imprimatur is routine for Early Church writers. Ancient readers don’t share our concerns about date, authenticity, and accuracy; they realize Paul isn’t the author, just as they’re aware Timothy and Titus (of whom we know little) have left the scene. The credited author and addressees are symbolic—perhaps to indicate the letters regard problems troubling European churches (Paul’s area of leadership) and to direct the letters to ministers carrying on Paul’s tradition.

With none of the Bible’s original manuscripts at our disposal, it’s possible 1 Timothy and Titus’s grammatical inconsistencies result from editorial decisions and/or transcription error. Thus, we can’t rule out their authenticity altogether. Still, speculation about authorship remains based on both alluding to events unnoted in The Book of Acts, Paul’s authentic letters, and other first-century church documents. The case for questioning First Timothy’s authorship is especially strong. It focuses on combatting Early Church vulnerability to Gnosticism, a rival, pseudo-Christian sect. This problem doesn’t obtain crisis status until the second century.

In light of our interest in 1 Timothy 1.10 as a frequently quoted clobber text, it’s essential we’re familiar with the scenes behind the text in order to align our reading with its stated intention: “The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have departed from these and have turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” (1 Timothy 1.5-7) These words gain tremendous resonance as we explore the clobber text in detail.

In its full context (v8-10), the text reads: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.”

Clear and Up-Front

So we enter the letter less sure of who wrote it when or to whom it’s written than whom it’s written about. And that’s important—particularly for those struggling to free the text from Fundamentalist and neoconservative readings—because placing a broad swipe against Gnostics (v3-7) just prior to rattling off a organized list of offenders (v8-10) appears to toss everybody in the same bin of Babblers Who Don’t Know What They’re Talking About. Which is not at all what’s happening. We need to be extremely clear and up-front about this while “de-clobbering” verse 10. A few points we can’t lose track of:

As a pastoral letter, 1 Timothy discusses, but does not declare, doctrine. The urgent tone and specificity of its criticisms—going so far as naming names—send up flares we must read it with utmost care, since confidential content plainly suggests the letter isn’t meant for wide consumption. Whether leaders or laity, our remove from the situation steers us to the letter’s desired outcome: a Christian culture of pure, conscientious, faith-driven love. That is the test for everything we say, think, or do about the text. Any interpretation evidencing impure motives, unjust attitudes, doubt, or fear of punishment (love’s opposite, according to 1 John 4.18) is not to be trusted.

The false doctrines, myths, controversial speculations, departure, meaningless talk, and ignorance (v3-7) the epistle vilifies are Gnostic beliefs. They have no connection with “lawbreakers and rebels” listed in verses 8-10. The roster is included to equate Gnostics with types of people whose disregard for law and order generates disbelief, violence, sex crimes, and deceit.

Consequently, the text is overcrowded with five parties pursuing five agendas: ancient Gnostics corrupting Christianity; ancient pastors safeguarding Church doctrine and order; ancient believers who seek pastoral guidance for their protection; modern Christians who confine the text to its apparent meaning; and modern Christians striving to free the text from its misinterpretation. That’s a lot of people with a lot going on. If we don’t keep them straight, we risk confusing what’s about whom and how it affects us. So, before we sort out this mess, let’s meet the Gnostics, since they started it.


Jewish Gnostics are hardly Johnnies-come-lately. In fact, they pre-date Jesus, originating as an alternative sect that blends Greek mysticism and Judaic monotheism into a belief system that looks nothing like either, yet often sounds like both. They don’t gain much traction in Jewish circles, however, because what they teach blatantly contradicts Judaic principle. Gnosticism breaks everything down to two divisions: material and spiritual, with the material world being inherently evil and the spiritual world inherently good. Since humanity, nature, and the God dwelling among them are “earthly,” they’re evil. “The Divine,” angels, and their heavenly abode are good.

The Gnostics (from gnosis, or “knowledge”) have no use for faith, as that requires belief in God’s goodness. For them it’s all about what you know. Yet the dualism of their construct isn’t that hard to figure out and “easy” religions raise suspicions. Which is why they embroider their doctrine with intricacies that take years to unravel. They invent angelic hierarchies and arcane pathways said to free the soul from earthly evil. They also spend a great deal of time tracing their roots back to Eve, whom they revere for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. These departures from Judaism’s belief in One True God Who dwells in Creation, Adam’s patriarchy, and atonement for sin assign the sect negligible status in Jewish life. Then, Christianity’s explosion offers exactly what they need to raise their profile.

The Early Church’s radical inclusion of all peoples and rapid expansion across Europe provides the Gnostics a new, far more receptive audience. The Hellenistic side of their philosophy has indubitable appeal for Gentile converts steeped in polytheist mythology. At the same time, Gnostic mastery of Jewish Scripture gives them an edge over less adept pastors, teachers, and leaders. With cunningly selective use of prophetic texts, they mount an alternative portrait of Jesus that solves hotly contested doctrines (at the time) like the Virgin Birth, Jesus’s divinity, and Christ’s bodily resurrection. None of this matters, they say, as Jesus was never human. Like Greco-Roman gods, He was a divine entity capable of imitating human form without physically assuming it. This, of course, destroys core doctrines of Jesus’s supreme sacrifice—a physical atonement that fulfills the Law and Prophets—and the Risen Christ’s defeat of mortal death. Many Gentile converts not yet trained to understand the Incarnation’s far-reaching implications fall easy prey to Gnosticism’s know-it-alls.

Outside of Grace

By mid-second century, Gnostics infiltrate European churches, landing positions as teachers, deacons, and lay-leaders. First Timothy’s writer fires off his/her letter as a salvo that first debunks the Gnostics and urges ministers to assert their pastoral authority: “Command certain people not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith.” (v3-4) The writer states the overriding purpose for the command: love, which has no part in religious controversy. Finally, he/she reminds readers arguing against Gnosticism invariably leads to defending Judaic Law, which merely counters one cumbersome belief system with another.

To emphasize this point, the writer slips into “Paul mode,” echoing the Apostle’s great freedom-from-Law theme and paraphrasing earlier letters now in wide circulation. “We know the Law is good if properly used,” the writer stresses. “But remember: the Law isn’t made for those redeemed by grace, whose lives are governed by faith and Christ’s commands.” The Law is given for those outside of grace, we’re told. The writer runs down four groups of “lawbreakers and rebels,” citing examples of each with a fifth default category “for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.” His/her choices are interesting, to say the least.

Extremely Specific

Before delineating the groups, what leaps out at us is the absence of idolatry—a veritable fixture of similar lists in Paul’s authentic letters. That changes the context dramatically, redefining 1 Timothy’s infractions as conscious choices rather than religious error. The reason this distinction is critical to the original readers’ (and our) understanding is basic. If the writer pronounces these harmful pursuits as “sin”—i.e., spiritual failure due to human frailty—she/he concedes the Gnostic position that humanity, its religion, and Creator are by nature evil. Isolating unhealthy practices as “lawlessness” permits the writer to categorize types of behavior that consciously don’t witness “God’s work—which is by faith.” In other words, they mirror the Gnostics’ refusal to believe, trusting only what they know. But knowledge without faith leads to pride, corruption, controversy, hatred, and violence. It defies Christ’s gospel, of which love is the goal.

The four categories demonstrate opposition to mindsets the writer insists are vital to the love-goal: a pure heart, good conscience, and sincere faith. Group One (“the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious”) portrays disbelief. Groups Two and Four—violence (“those who kill their fathers or mothers… murderers”) and deceit (“liars and perjurers”)—exemplify impure hearts, or evil intentions. Group Three’s sex offenders (“sexually immoral,” “those practicing homosexuality,” and “slave traders”) represent corrupt consciences. Once again, imprecise translation encourages us to generalize Group Three’s examples, when the original language is extremely specific.

“Sexually immoral,” put elsewhere as “adulterers” or “fornicators,” is a loose translation of pornois (masculine, plural) from the root “to sell off”—ergo, common male prostitutes we call hustlers or rent boys. (The same root gives us “pornography,” for-sale erotica featuring paid models and performers.) “Homosexuality” resurrects Paul’s coinage for male patrons of male temple prostitutes in 1 Corinthians 6.9 (arsenokoitais; see the previous post for details.) While both texts take aim at male prostitutes and their clientele, 1 Timothy’s removal of “idolatry” from its list and use of a term adaptable to men or women confirms the writer intentionally expands Paul’s scope from sex rites to sex commerce. “Slave traders” (andrapodistais; “kidnappers”) misses the connection to flesh merchants who abduct and enslave people as prostitutes.

The Goal and the Test

First Timothy 1.10 ends up confirming our suspicions the text is not a blanket indictment of LGBT believers. Precisely read and interpreted, it reviles the sex trade—not same-sex orientation—as unconscionable behavior that, like disbelief, violence, and deceit, defies Christ’s command to love. This is precisely why the writer turns to these types to neutralize the Gnostic invasion. The sect’s know-it-all pretense promotes myths, controversy, and meaningless talk that foment division, disorder, prejudice, and hatred. It doesn’t merely corrupt Christ’s gospel of love; it destroys it.

Love is the goal and the test. As Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 13.2: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” Believers who leverage so-called superior knowledge to promote hateful doctrines match 1 Timothy’s description: “They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” Beliefs they advance do not advance God’s work—which is by faith. They fall short of the goal. They need our compassion and prayers.

When we open 1 Timothy we’re startled to find its objective is not to condemn believers, regardless of orientation. It commands us to resist those who leverage so-called superior knowledge to promote hateful doctrines. Love is the goal.

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