The Theology of the Letters of Timothy and Titus: The Church
While sustaining a close relationship with Old Testament Israel as the chosen people of God, there is a sense in which the church is a New Testament phenomenon. Properly understood, the church began at Pentecost (Acts 2) shortly after Jesus’ ascension and exaltation with God the Father, in keeping with Old Testament eschatological promises (Joel 2-3). The critical connection point between those two entities (Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church), of course, is Jesus the Messiah, who as the new Israel is the head of the church and himself the vine of the branches, his new messianic community.
The Church as the Body of Christ
In the New Testament, the church is often depicted as the body of Christ, with Christ serving as the church’s head and ultimate authority. Paul the apostle repeatedly develops this metaphor at great length to show that believers are members of Christ’s body and individually related to each other as joint members of that body (e.g., Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4-5). Within this framework, believers are each given spiritual gifts which they are called to exercise to the benefit of the entire body in tandem with other believers, all of whom are united in love in the bond of the Holy Spirit.
The Church as God’s Household
The “body” metaphor is both evocative and capturing a profound reality in the way the church is designed to work for the glory of God and the good of his people. And yet, it is not the only metaphor applied to the church in the New Testament—or even Paul’s writings, for that matter. In Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus, as a matter of fact, the apostle develops another, complementary metaphor to describe another angle of the operation of God’s people in the church: the household.
Both in the Jewish and the Greco-Roman world of Paul’s day, households were (1) under the authority of the head of the household, the father (paterfamilias); and (2) extended households, comprised not only of the nuclear family of a father, mother, and children, but also including grandparents (especially widows), household servants, and others. In addition, households were (3) major centers of learning and instruction and places where covenant fidelity was practiced and modeled to the next generation.
While the word “household” is not extremely common in the letters to Timothy and Titus, the household concept undergirds Paul’s entire presentation of the church and is everywhere presupposed. In addition, there are explicit passages where the apostle articulates the conception of the church as God’s household. The most notable among these is 1 Timothy 3:14–15: “I write these things to you, hoping to come to you soon. But if I should be delayed, I have written so that you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”
Later in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, he instructs his apostolic delegate on how to deal with various groups in the church, again conceiving of the church in terms of an ancient household: “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters with all purity” (1 Timothy 5:1-2). Paul proceeds to provide instructions on providing for members of the extended household, namely widows (vv. 3-16) and elders (vv. 17-25). It can therefore be argued that 1 Timothy in its entirety is conceived as a household code.
While 2 Timothy is an intensely personal letter written later shortly before Paul’s martyrdom, we find a similar household orientation in the letter to Titus, particularly in chapter 2. Similar to 1 Timothy, Paul moves from older men to older and younger women, and then to younger men, followed by instructions concerning household servants, presenting household instructions in form of a chiasm (ABB’A’; Titus 2:2-10). We have therefore demonstrated that both 1 Timothy and Titus exhibit a sustained emphasis on the church as God’s household, supplementing Paul’s depiction of the church elsewhere as Christ’s body.
Relevance of the “Household Motif” for the Church Today
What can we learn from Paul’s teaching on the church in his letters to Timothy and Titus? I believe there are several important lessons to learn. First, we learn something important about the nature of the office of pastor or elder in the church. As heads of God’s household, pastors and elders are to meet the needs of the diverse members of the church. They are to protect them from spiritual harm; they are to nurture them spiritually with sound teaching and physically as every member has need. What matters is not merely doctrinal orthodoxy but also loving care.
Second, in analogy with the natural household, the church is designed to follow clear lines of authority. In both Jewish and Greco-Roman ancient households, the man was the head of the household. This, in turn, is in keeping with the pattern of male leadership in Scripture, as my wife and I have shown in our book God’s Design for Man & Woman. That said, the head of household is responsible and accountable to provide for the members of his household, to nurture them physically and spiritually, and to protect them from all harm.
Conclusion: A God of Order
God is a God of order. In a household, both ancient and modern, rightly conceived, everyone has a distinctive role and set of responsibilities. There are clear lines of authority. And while fathers—or in the case of the church, qualified male elders—are in positions of ultimate authority, the Bible conceives of their role primarily in terms of stewardship. For God is the ultimate Sovereign and Ruler; pastors and elders are merely caretakers and managers of what God has entrusted to them as a sacred stewardship, and they will be held accountable one day for the way in which they shepherded the flock of God.
Note: For a thorough discussion of the “household of God” motif in the letters to Timothy and Titus, see Andreas J. Köstenberger, Commentary on 1-2 Timothy & Titus (BTCP; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2017), 446-82.