A Church in Trouble

The church in the city of Ephesus was in trouble.

Even though today’s reading covers only the first three chapters of 1 Timothy, I want to include a few passages from the latter chapters of this letter, and 2 Timothy, to show you this crisis. (By the way, of all of my posts this summer, this is the longest, primarily because I’ve included many passages here.)

Here was what troubled Paul the most:

False doctrines, consumed with myths and endless genealogies:

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith. (1 Timothy 1:3, 4; NIV84)

Propriety and attire during worship gatherings:

I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. (2:8, 9)

No rigid leadership to help “right the course”:

Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. (3:1)

Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. (3:8)

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:2; NIV84)

Demonic teaching:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. (4:1-7)

Disrespect of the elderly, younger men and women, family, and widows:

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.

Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. (5:1-4)

If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (5:8)

Disregard for the gospel:

If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. (6:3-5)

A teaching that the final resurrection had already taken place:

Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. (2 Timothy 2:16-18)

Weak-willed women in Ephesus were especially receptive to these false teachings:

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth. (2 Timothy 3:6, 7)

I think we’ve missed the forest, because of the trees, because this letter has been so scrutinized for Paul’s writings on leadership and his perspective on women.

What we’ve missed, though, is the troubling reputation this church had. In just a few short chapters, Paul encouraged Timothy to see what he saw, and to hear what he heard.

It’s also no surprise, then, that we find such rigid instructions, by Paul, to this church.

Because of this serious crisis, the entire church, and it’s purpose and function, was under attack. It had essentially no hope of offering any sort of rescuing message to the entire city, while it was being seduced by teaching that was demonic and harmful.

The men of the church in Ephesus were susceptible to this false teaching. They were praying, in public, even though everyone seemed to know they were engaged in public disputes and arguments (1 Timothy 2:8). That was no longer acceptable.

The women of the church in Ephesus were susceptible to this false teaching. They wore clothing, to a public worship gathering, that was immodest, and, according to some scholars, probably very similar to the attire worn by prostitutes (1 Timothy 2:9, 10). That was no longer acceptable.

There was no one to guard the teaching in Ephesus, hence Paul’s very rigid instructions about overseers in Ephesus (2 Timothy 2:2), and 1 Timothy is the first time, in the New Testament, we find any such qualifications. They were, essentially, a very detailed and very public image of these overseers.

But this isn’t the first time we find overseers in the New Testament. Paul and Barnabas appointed some in Acts 14:23, in the first church plants in Lystra, Iconium, Derbe, and Pisidian Antioch. And according to what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy, his own appointees would have been disqualified.

In those cities, in Acts 14:23, the elders that he and Barnabas appointed would have been recent converts, some as recently as a few months, if you follow the timeline of this first missionary journey. Yet in 1 Timothy 3, in the city of Ephesus, overseers could not be recent converts (3:6). Which I find very interesting.

But there were other strict guidelines Paul encouraged Timothy to enforce regarding overseers. They were so strict, in fact, that they excluded single men, married men who had no children, married men with only one child, and married men who were fathers of disobedient children.

Moreover, the requirements for deacons seem to be more strict than the requirements for elders. In 1 Timothy 3:10, they had to be tested, and had to pass that test. Paul required no such rigorous test for those becoming overseers.

(It’s also interesting to note, too, that the only person specifically called a “deacon” in the entire bible is a woman, not a man — Phoebe, in Romans 16.)

The prohibition against women, too, is startling, in 1 Timothy 2.

Not only do we have Romans 16, and the various women who served, and led, in various churches in the Roman empire, and not only do we have Galatians 3:26-29, which declared everyone, both male and female, as legitimate sons and heirs of Abraham’s promise, and the declaration that there is no distinction among people before the throne of God, we read in 1 Timothy 2 that women were to no longer teach in public. Evidently they were teaching, and teaching the wrong things.

It sounds very similar to what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 14.

Back to 1 Timothy, though, could Paul’s restriction (1 Timothy 2:9 — “I do not permit …”) have something to do with the women’s reputation, and their propensity of dressing in very immodest and promiscuous ways, which he addressed a few sentences prior? Could it be because they were most susceptible to this false teaching (2 Timothy 3:6, 7)? Could it be that they were teaching this sort of false teaching?

It’s interesting to note that in Titus, a letter written at the same time as 1 and 2 Timothy, Paul encouraged women to teach. Titus 2:3 encouraged them to be faithful, so they could “teach what is good.” He even encouraged them to teach the younger women, perhaps because of the crisis in Ephesus regarding the women there.

It’s easy to get lost in these particulars. So let’s pull back, and see the real issue here. Paul had a serious concern about the church in Ephesus.

The easiest thing to glean from this letter is a proper evaluation of our own churches.

  • What are the crisis points?
  • What areas are contributing to spiritual deficits?
  • And, going to the Word of God, and relying on the guidance of God’s spirit, how do we start reconstructing a place where people can connect with God, instead of connecting to a group of people heavily influenced by the evil in our culture?

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