Polytheism in Ephesus: A Model for Engaging with a Pluralistic Culture

STILL A LACK OF CONSENSUS

Biblical scholars have yet to agree on what actually took place in the church at Ephesus that motivated Paul to write his first letter to Timothy. What issues or false teachings did Paul address? Since Paul did not state the problem clearly many speculate about the trouble in Ephesus. 

In this post, I go out on a limb and offer another reading. Please realize that I acknowledge that this reading is also speculation on my part and is merely a beginning with so much more to explore. 

AN ADULTERATED GOSPEL

In 1 Timothy, I propose Paul is striving against a syncretism of sorts that has infiltrated and negatively impacts the Gospel message. 

I give one example:

When wealthy, believing women – continue to dress and wear hair styles that fuse genuine faith with the Artemsion cultic practices (this could be any other cultic group in Ephesus) – Paul is rightly concerned that their behavior contributes to an “adulterated Gospel” (heterodidaskalein), that sends mixed messages to outsiders and impedes his goal (God’s goal) of evangelizing the nations. 

This is not the only misrepresentation of the Gospel in 1 Timothy, but it easily illustrates the way the Gospel message – taught by Paul – becomes weakened when some do not fully comprehend the true Gospel message nor understand its purpose. 

ONE GOD OR MANY GODS?

Paul’s declaration that “there is one God & one mediator” should not be overlooked or minimized (1 Tim 2:5). Rather, this very declaration is what I suggest prompts his rationale for men and women to correct their behaviour and to bring it in alignment with a healthy expression of Christ’s teaching.

Multiple times Paul writes about the faith which demands allegiance to One God, Jesus Christ while living in the midst of a polytheistic society.

Throughout the letter Paul emphasizes this –  

  • “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim 1:15).
  • “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Tim 1:17)
  • “This is right in the sight of God our Savior who desires everyone to be saved.” (1 Tim 2: 3-4)
  • “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human who gave himself a ransom for all.” (1 Tim 2:5-6a)
  • “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great.” (1 Tim 3:16).
  • “We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people.” (1 Tim 4:10b).
  • “In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, Christ Jesus, who in his testimony …” (1 Tim 6:13).

Near the end of the letter Paul offers what appears to be a hymn that expresses more fully his views– 

  • “The blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion.” (1 Tim 6:15-16) 

IS 1 TIMOTHY POLEMICAL OR PASTORAL?

This is an interesting question and one worth pursuing.

In my estimation the above verses, strategically placed throughout the letter call for an audacious response: to stand against the religious, cultural environment where the majority embrace ancient beliefs and practices of many gods. In my mind, the author’s statements are indicative that something is amiss in regard to the content and practice of the faith – otherwise, what need is there to remind Timothy of something he knew well?

Paul does not explicitly say – ‘There is One God, therefore you all must stop serving other gods’ – but the message is clear. Paul’s gospel stands in direct opposition to serving and worshiping anything or anyone other than the one true God, Creator of the Universe from whom the Messiah, Jesus Christ came. Paul expects Timothy to hold fast to this position and to teach others to accept this as well.

I find Paul’s letter to Timothy to be particularly polarizing and quite apropos for our current generation. There must be no mingling of cultic practices with Paul’s gospel in the first century churches.

There must be no mingling of politics and nationalism nor any amalgamation of polytheism and pluralism into our 21stcentury faith.

We either worship the One True God or we don’t!

This is currently challenging for Christians in the United States. We pride ourselves on being the ‘One Nation Under God.’ What god are we talking about? Where should we draw the line? Have we inadvertently contributed to a type of adulterated gospel – teaching a 21st century heterodidaskalein of sorts? If so, what can we do about it? How can we correct this?

Maybe it is easier to continue reading 1 Timothy as a pastoral letter. Our faith and religious practices are then neatly tucked into the pews we fill every Sunday.

I believe Paul is doing and expecting so much more!

We will continue to miss this if we continue to read 1 Timothy as the tame letter serving up advice to lead pastors and elders of how to train their parishioners to behave properly and to stay in line within the church service that meets in the building every Sunday. 

Add to this the fixation of the last few decades on whether women should or should not be leaders, teachers, or preachers in the church – one of the several uses of 1 Timothy – well, it’s no wonder we are blinded to what Paul is doing. 

MONOTHEISM VS. POLYTHEISM

In this letter we find a pattern for first-century believers in the Body of Christ to follow. This enables Christ-followers of every century thereafter to ponder how to co-exist and engage with others in a pluralistic and polytheistic culture. 

Granted, we in the West are eons removed from the polytheistic world of Asia Minor in the Mediterranean filled with prolific temples and foreign religious practices. It is nearly impossible for many who worship freely in the United States to appreciate the difficulties of navigating a polytheistic culture. Many are unacquainted with ancient mythological stories that shaped society and the minds of the peoples of the New Testament world where Paul evangelized. 

But Paul lived and worked smack-dab in the middle of that culture. I believe he tackled an ongoing battle between monotheism (thus his emphasis on One God, One Mediator) and the infiltration of polytheism and syncretism into the Ephesian church. 

Whether Paul is addressing believing, diaspora-Jews who ignorantly blended their faith with the polytheistic culture, or Gentile converts who implement cultic and foreign elements into their faith, or if the concern is more of a pre-Gnosticism is not clear from the letter.

Regardless – there appears to be two types of blasphemy: a deliberate blasphemous rejection of the One True God – by those who first received the Gospel (Alexander & Hymenaeus), and an unwitting blasphemy by others (men & women) by their unhealthy focus on myths, ascetism, marriage, wealth. Both contribute to the contamination of the Gospel message (1 Tim 4:1-5). 

THE REMEDY FOR BLASPHEMY

Early in the letter we discover two blasphemers – Alexander and Hymenaeus – are removed from the community in order that they might learn (paideō) not to blaspheme. Blasphemy is a serious concern for Paul that must be remedied because the Gospel depends upon it.

Yet, he extended mercy – the same mercy he received from God in his violent, ignorant, and blasphemous days before accepting the truth of the Gospel (1:13) – to the men and women in Ephesus who, like himself ignorantly blaspheme.

Paul’s strategy offers a remedy for blasphemy . . .

  • Leaders are to be above reproach (1 Tim 3:2-7).
  • Timothy as well, is to be an example (1Tim 4:12).
  • Old and young widows are to be above reproach (1Tim 5:7- 14).
  • Believers are to behave so other will not blaspheme (1Tim 6:1).

Paul makes allowances for others – especially some ‘unlearned’ women – to remain in the gathering in order that they too can learn. Why? Paul’s goal is that all would come to apprehend the truth of the genuine Gospel.

The verb, manthanō, used in 1 Tim 2:11, is related to the noun used for a disciple, mathētēs– the true learner, the genuine believer – who not only internalizes the gospel message but lives it out in true worship on a daily basis.  

If those in the Ephesian church are unaware they are guilty of syncretism – of mixing foreign ideas into the gospel message – as I propose, the remedy is this:

They are to learn, to become genuine disciples, so they may attain a full knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4) that will allow for the gospel message to be a witness to the One True God while they continue to live among those in a polytheistic culture.

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