Cherry-Picking & Breadcrumbs: Two Ways of Reading 1 Timothy, Part 1


Ever since the early 1700s three short books in the Bible – 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus – have been classified as Pastoral Epistles (PE), with 1 Timothy relied upon as the premier church manual for churches everywhere. Is this a misclassification that obscures Paul’s message for the universal church today?

Gordon Fee, a highly regarded Bible scholar, stated that the church-manual classification “should have been questioned long ago simply on the existential ground that such diverse groups as Roman Catholics, Plymouth Brethren and Presbyterians all use the PE to support their ecclesiastical structures.” (JETS, June, 1985 article “Reflection on Church Order in the Pastoral Epistles).

I whole-heartedly agree with Fee. Have we inadvertently missed the overall purpose of the Paul’s letter by reading it primarily as a church manual to establish church order and a sound ecclesiology? If so, how should we read 1 Timothy?


Once a year, depending on church polity, the pertinent passages from 1 Tim 3:1-13 are dusted off.  Messages are prepared to cajole the congregation to select leaders based on moral integrity. Voting ballots are handed out to the empowered congregants (men & women) who select a few qualified men from among them to function as their deacons and elders for the following year or longer.

At least that is how it has been used in each of the Restoration movement Christian Churches or Churches of Christ which my husband and I have served over the years.

You may not be familiar with 1 Timothy 3. But if I asked you whether a women should serve as an elder, a deacon, a preacher or teacher in the local church, you would I think without thinking, draw upon a very short passage from 1 Timothy 2:11-13 for your answer.

You might even surprise yourself by partially quoting it: “Didn’t Paul say he doesn’t allow a woman to teach or usurp authority over a man, but to be silent? That’s what the text says, right?”

This shouldn’t surprise any of us. 1 Tim 2:11-12 tops the list as the premier Bible passage used to determine the boundaries for women in the church.

1 Timothy 2:11-12 has been repeated over and over, ingrained into our psyche, morphing into a mantra about women’s roles that is nigh unto impossible to get out of our head.


What do I mean by cherry-picking? Many of us are cherry-pickers, myself included, especially when it suits us. We pick out a verse or two here and there from a chapter in the Bible to encourage us throughout the day.

A classic example is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ.” Then there’s the over-worn verse, “Do not judge, lest you be judged!” from Matt 7:1, used to keep critics in line. Many writers and bloggers of devotional books use this method. Some devotionals are better than others. Cherry-picking for devotional purposes appears to cause little damage to our spiritual well-being.

Cherry-picking through 1 Timothy, on the other hand, frequently results in a mix-mash of interpretations – some  benign and others blatantly malicious – wreaking havoc throughout the community and the church.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I am not a fan of ‘cherry-picking.’ It leads to bad theology which often causes much pain and suffering in the lives of others.

Somehow, when reading 1 Timothy as a church manual, we allow ourselves the freedom to flip to sections in the “manual” to find formulas for church polity all the while disassociating those passages from the rest of the letter. This is a failure on our part.


But, what if Paul didn’t write this as a church manual? If this is not a ‘church manual’ would this letter to a first-century church in Ephesus even have anything relevant and meaningful to say to our twenty-first century church? If Paul had something else on his mind than church order, what might it be?

We’ve discussed two obstacles – the classification as church manual and the cherry-picking methodology –  which prevent us from seeing Paul’s passion for the church in Ephesus.

A more recent hindrance, I believe, is the ongoing dialogue of egalitarianism, complementarianism, patriarchalism, and the #MeToo movement, etc. We are not doing so well resolving this because many of our church leaders shy away from what they see to be a contentious subject. It is easier and safer to simply resort to the traditional readings.  These are truly vital issues that must be discussed and sorted within in our churches.

Yet, even though Paul is indeed all about an individual’s freedom in Christ, the letter to Timothy, in my mind at least, is not about equality in the church because 1 Timothy is not a church manual.

Nor is it about hierarchy, complementarity, or equality in marriage. Paul’s concern for Ephesus surpasses that of our individual marriages even though he addresses the matter marriage in the letter.

These issues – equality and complementarity – are relevant and important concerns for today, but by focusing only upon them we easily miss Paul’s message for Timothy.

I am convinced that the only way to get a grip on the verses in 1 Timothy 2:9-15 is to read them in light of the whole letter. By following what I describe as the “breadcrumbs” in the text—we are led to discover Paul’s heartbeat pulsing throughout the letter to Timothy and which pulsates through each of his letters.

One ‘breadcrumb’ that I discovered a few weeks ago while preparing a presentation to a group of church leaders is Paul’s use of the infinitive. There are nearly 40 infinitives scattered throughout every chapter in the letter. It is surprising where those infinitives lead us.

In Part 2, “The Case of the Infinitives,” I will address the use of infinitives, which appear to be some of the breadcrumbs left by Paul in 1 Timothy. Infinitives are notoriously difficult to transfer from the Greek into our English language, so this will only be a humble attempt on my part to explain what I believe Paul is communicating in this fascinating, yet historically frustrating, letter to Timothy.

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