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 impacted the Ephesian church. 

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 right to be concerned that their behavior contributes to an “adulterated Gospel” (heterodidaskalein), sending mixed messages to outsiders that will impedes his goal (God’s goal) of evangelizing the nations. 

This is not the only misrepresentations 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 understand the true Gospel message nor 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 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 once again offers what appears to be a hymn that expresses 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) 

POLEMICAL or PASTORAL?

Each of the above verses — in my estimation – is an audacious stand against the religious, cultural environment that embraces ancient beliefs and practices of many gods. These statements are indicative that something is amiss in regard to the faith, otherwise, why remind Timothy of this.

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 was to be no mingling of cultic practices with Paul’s gospel in the first century churches. There is also to 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 heterodidaskaleinof 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 neatly tucked into the pews we fill every Sunday. Ah, but 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 linewithin 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 – well, it’s no wonder we are blinded to what Paul is doing. 

MONOTHEISM VS. POLYTHEISM

In this letter we find a pattern for believers in the Body of Christ to follow that enables every generation to better understand how to live and engage with others in a pluralistic and polytheistic culture. 

We are eons removed from the polytheistic world of Asia Minor in the Mediterranean with its prolific temples and foreign religious practices, thus making it difficult for us to imagine this world far removed from our own. We are also unacquainted with ancient mythological stories that shaped the cities and the minds of the peoples of the New Testament world where Paul evangelized. 

But, Paul was living and working smack-dab in the middle of that culture. He was tackling 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 the believing, diaspora-Jews who have ignorantly blended their faith with the polytheistic culture or a type of pre-Gnosticism, or whether he is addressing Gentile converts who carry cultic or foreign elements into their faith is not clear.

Regardless – there appears to be a blasphemous rejection of the One True God— deliberately by some who first received the Gospel (Alexander & Hymenaeus), and an unwitting blasphemy by others (men & women) by their focus on myths, ascetism, marriage, wealth, etc., that contributes to the contamination of the Gospel message (1 Tim 4:1-5). 

THE REMEDY: MATURE AS A TRUE DISCIPLE

Early in the letter we discover that two blasphemers are removed from the community in order that they might learn (paideō) not to blaspheme. Blasphemy is a serious concern for Paul. Paul extends to these men and women the same mercy he received from God back in the days when he was violent, ignorant, and blasphemous (1:13), back before he accepted the truth of the Gospel. 

Paul expects . . .

  • Believing servants are to behave so other will not blaspheme (1Tim 6:1).
  • Leaders to be above reproach (1 Tim 3:2-7).
  • Older and younger widows alike are to be above reproach (1Tim 5:7- 14).
  • Timothy is also reminded to be an example (1Tim 4:12).

Yet 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, is used here and is related to the word used for disciple, mathētēs– the true learner, the genuine believer – who internalizes the gospel message and lives it out in true worship in daily life.  

If those in the Ephesian church are truly 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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