Speaking the very words of God----The Pastoral letters


Prepared by Slin for Chatham Presbyterian Church March 6 and 13 ,2011

In considering the quality of Christian discourse, the pastoral Letters focus much more explicitly on the role of the teacher within the community than do Colossians, Ephesians, or I Peter.

In I Timothy the overriding literary convention of the letter is the purported author Paul’s address to Timothy who serves as a” teacher “ of the communities under his care and an example and instructor to others who teach within the community (I Tim. 1:1-3). There is a pervasive concern with false teaching and with those who oppose the truth.

“Paul ”urges Timothy to counsel teachers not to be embroiled in “myths and endless genealogies”(1:4) or to engage in “meaningless talk…without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make assertions”(1:6-7). Rather the Christian instruction should be “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1: 5). The author returns to this theme at the conclusion of the letter.

Those whose teaching is not in accord with the words of Jesus Christ and godliness crave “controversy and disputes,” from which come “envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling” (6:4). Leaders and members of the community (3:3) should not be “angry” or “quarrelsome “(2”8), nor should the episkopos or leader be “bullies.” Deacons, likewise, are not to be “double-tongued,” or make deceitful speech.

Timothy himself should set an example in “speech” as well as in other aspects of his conduct (4:12). He should not speak “harshly” or in an overbearing manner to his elders but “in all purity as if speaking to a father or as younger men to their brothers”(5:1). As a “man of God “ he should exemplify “godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness” (6: 11).

Similarly in 2 Timothy, the author exhorts Timothy to remind teachers to “avoid wrangling over words (2:14 cf. 1 Tim. 6: 3-4) which does no good and leads to catastrophe for the listeners. Idle spreads “like gangrene”(2:17). All “stupid” and “senseless” talk is to be avoided because it only breeds quarrels (4:1). The true Christian teacher, by contrast, is “kindly to everyone,” “patient,” “correcting opponents with "gentleness”--- the latter emphasizing the quality of gentleness even in dealing with those are in opposition.

In somewhat sharper tones, the letter to Titus warns of the need to silence “rebellious people” who are “idle talkers” and “deceivers “ who belong to the “circumcision” group (Titus 1:10). Titus is to urge “younger men” to be models of good works and exemplify sound teaching (2:6-8). In a final exhortation (3:1-8) that gathers several of the virtues deemed characteristic of Christian speech, the author exhorts the whole community to be “ready for every good work” (3:1), which is demonstrated by not speaking evil of anyone (3:2 cf. Gal.3:8), avoiding quarrels (3:2;cf. James 4:2 ;1 Tim. 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:24), being gracious (3:2; 1 Tim.3:3; James 3:17; 1 Peter 2:18), and showing gentleness (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:12; 2 Tim. 2:25; James 1:21; 3:13; 1 peter 3:15) to every person.

The foundation and character of Christian speech

A) The fundamental basis for the quality of Christian speech is found in the very being of the Christian that has been transformed by his or her renewed life in Christ. Christians who have been “recreated” or “renewed“ by God are no longer to live as they may have in their previous way of life.

  1. They are no longer in friendship with the world but now are to exemplify friendship with God. (James)

  2. They have been “reborn” and can no longer live the life they once lived when they were Pagans but now must live a new life in Christ (1 Peter).

  3. Similarly, Ephesians speaks of the Christian’s “new life” that is no longer compatible with the corrupt and immoral ways of their former life.

  4. Colossians reminds the Christian that they are to put their minds on the things “that are above” and no longer on the “things that are below” or of this earth.

One of the characteristic expressions of this new way of living or transformed life is the manner of one’s speech, first and foremost with other Christians, but also with those outside the community. Throughout these exhortations we are examining is the underlying assumption that speech expresses the inner being of the human person. Jesus taught that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” (Matt. 15:18 ) is a fundamental anthropological and theological principle that underlies much of the New Testament teaching about speech.

Thus proper speech takes on a profoundly serious quality in this brand of New Testament reflection. The character of one’s speech must ultimately reflect the character of one’s being before God. Or quite simply, as the Letter of I Peter puts it, “whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God” (4:11).

B) Christian speech, reflective of Christian life itself, is aimed at building up the community and is therefore loving and forgiving rather than confrontational and destructive. It must be truthful and honest. Certain manners of human speech that are destructive of community relationships are typically avoided: unbridled expressions of anger, slander, quarrels, abusive or obscene speech, useless or idle speech, lying and deceptive speech. Even when it is necessary to be corrective, the Christian is urged to do so with “gentleness” and “compassion.” Proper relationships within the community must be maintained by thoughtful and respectful speech; thus leaders should not speak in an overbearing manner; speaking with one’s elders should been respectful and considerate. Stating within the biblical tradition of prophetic speech and accustomed to polemical forms of debate within the wider Greco-Roman and Jewish cultural contexts of the time, these authors did not hesitate to criticize opponents or to vigorously correct those they had judged to have gone astray. The same could be said about Jesus’ own sayings reflected in the gospel traditions of his encounters with his opponents. Despite this, however the overall thrust of those texts where these New Testament authors give explicit counsel about the use of speech places the emphasis on moderation and constructive forms of discourse.

C) Throughout most of these texts there is particular concern with the role of the teacher. The traditional biblical conviction about the power of the word stems ultimately from the power of God’s own word that created the world and has the power to both sustain and destroy human life. This conviction is amplified and even intensified in the Christian tradition, which associated its own fundamental message with the proclamation of the word of God reaching perhaps its ultimate expression in Johannine tradition which identifies Jesus as the eternal and incarnate Word of God.

All of this gives an added dimension to the role of the teacher within the Christian community. The teacher represented a culturally respected profession in ancient world, whose central activity was that of informed and influential speech. Such a perspective also is expressed in the advice that Paul gives to Timothy and Titus, urging them to teach in the proper manner and warning the community about the false and deceitful teachers who use their influence in destructive manner.

While there is no denying the violence that has been a result of religious conflicts, one can also find strong traditions of moderation and the need for reconciliation and mutual respect within religious traditions. While the early Christians were no strangers to conflict, both among factions within their communities and with opposing forces outside the communities; nevertheless, the exhortations of normative literature was to use speech that was tolerant, respectful, compassionate, and forgiving. The Christians were, in fact, urged to speak like the God revealed through Jesus Christ.