Paul’s first letter to Timothy is full of goodness. Terms for ‘good’ appear 25 times in the letter.
That should lead us to expect that 1 Timothy would bring us delight, joy, peace, and satisfaction in God’s goodness. But when we come to read or teach this letter, there’s often a measure of anxious apprehension. That’s because to our modern ears, some of the things Paul writes in 1 Timothy, especially about human relationships, sound naïve, harsh, or just plain bad.
In this short article, I want to help us to grasp the fundamental goodness of 1 Timothy. I want to help us to better know and share that delight, joy, peace, and satisfaction in God’s word and his world that resounds throughout the letter. Seeing this goodness in 1 Timothy can be challenging, as we grapple with our own and our modern world’s assumptions about what is truly good. But I’m convinced it’s worth the challenge.
What’s the problem in 1 Timothy?
Paul writes this letter to his ministry apprentice and colleague Timothy, who is in Ephesus. There are certain people among the Christians in Ephesus who are teaching in a way that is seriously out of line with Paul’s true gospel-teaching (1:3; cf. 2:7; 6:3). Paul writes to equip Timothy – and through him the Christian community and its leaders – not only to deal with these false teachers, but also to live and teach rightly himself in line with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What was the nature of the ‘different teaching’ (heterodidaskalein, 1:3) that Timothy had to deal with?
Is it just about denying core doctrines?
To answer this question, we could start by looking to see whether we can identify any core doctrines that the false teachers were denying. For example, we could ask: were the false teachers preaching a different view of God? Were they taking a different view of Jesus? Of salvation? Of eschatology (i.e., teaching about the end times)?
Paul certainly says some essential things about God and Jesus and salvation and eschatology in 1 Timothy. Right from the start, Paul describes ‘Christ Jesus our Lord’ directly alongside ‘God the Father’ (1:2), whom he also describes as ‘God our Saviour’ (1:1). Paul emphasises the humanity of Christ and shows why it matters for our salvation (2:5; 3:16). He emphasises that God saves sinners by grace (1:12–17). He book-ends the letter with references to our future ‘hope’ (1:1) and Jesus’ future ‘appearing’ (6:14–16). These doctrines are fundamental for what Paul says in 1 Timothy.
However, we can’t work out exactly what the false teachers were teaching just by identifying these core doctrines in 1 Timothy. After all, just because Paul affirms certain doctrines doesn’t necessarily mean the false teachers were denying them. Maybe Paul is mentioning these doctrines because the false teachers agreed with them, and Paul wants to show that they were hypocrites. How can we tell?
To truly understand what the false teachers’ problem was, we need to look more closely at what Paul explicitly says about the false teachers themselves.1
Denying the goodness of God’s word, creation, and relationships
The first significant feature of Paul’s description of the false teachers is that they have a strong focus on discussion and arguments, to the neglect of moral living in relationships with others. Paul says that the false teaching involved devotion to ‘myths and endless genealogies’ (1:4); produced ‘speculations’ (1:4) and ‘vain discussion’ (1:6); led the false teachers to think they were ‘teachers of the law’ (1:7); rejected ‘faith[fulness] and a good conscience’ (1:19) and thus ended up in blasphemy (1:20); involved ‘irreverent, silly myths’ (4:7); was taught by those who are ‘puffed up with conceit’, with an ‘unhealthy craving for controversy and quarrels about words’ (6:4); produced ‘envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction’ (6:4–5); and included ‘irreverent babble and contradictions’ while claiming to promote ‘knowledge’ (6:20).
By contrast, Paul describes true teaching arising from the gospel (1:11) as a teaching that emphasises the moral content of the law (1:9–10); undertaken by morally upright, approved, godly people (3:1–7); ‘good’ (4:6); and grounded in ‘righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, [and] gentleness’ (6:11, cf. 6:3).
The second significant feature of Paul’s description of the false teachers is that they deny or neglect God’s good, creation-based order, especially in the areas of food and family life. Paul describes the false teaching as demonic and undertaken ‘through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared’ (4:1–2), because it involved rejecting or forbidding food and marriage (4:3). In reality, however, it promoted greed (6:5). By contrast, Paul describes true teaching that arises from the gospel as promoting features of God’s created order. This true teaching is grounded in right behaviour in the ‘household’ of God (3:15); it promotes ‘stewardship’ (literally household management) (1:4); it is ‘sound’ (literally ‘healthy’) (1:10; 6:3); it affirms the goodness of creation, including marriage and food (4:4–5); and it is undertaken within an order between men and women undergirded by the order seen in the creation accounts (2:11–15).
So what can we say about the false teaching? It was interested primarily in discussion, words, and arguments. It promoted an interest in speculative spirituality and creation-denying asceticism. It either ignored the importance of moral Christian living that affirms creation, or perhaps actively opposed it. By contrast, the true teaching that counters this, and which rightly arises from the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, is interested deeply in God’s goodness, in a deep, grounded, moral sense – as it applies to God’s word, God’s created order, and relationships amongst God’s people.2
It’s important to clarify that even though Paul is very interested in moral living, he’s not being moralistic. Everything that Paul says is consistently grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, whose mediatorial death and resurrection provides forgiveness, grace, and mercy for sin (see, e.g., 1:1–2; 2:3–6; 3:14–16). We have salvation in Christ alone – we don’t achieve it through our works. Yet at the very same time, Paul insists that we come to this salvation in Christ, not by escaping the created order or denying its goodness, but through living a ‘healthy’ or ‘sound’ life in God’s good world. This affirmation of the goodness of living in God’s good world is a fundamental issue that Paul addresses in 1 Timothy.
God’s good word in God’s good world
This understanding of the problems that Paul is addressing in 1 Timothy helps us to see why he uses the word ‘good’ so often throughout the letter. Paul uses two Greek terms (with various forms and combinations) to express the concept of goodness. His most frequent term for goodness is kalos. This term has connotations of being fitting and beautiful. Another term Paul uses is agathos. This has strongly moral connotations. Even though the two words are a little different in their nuance, Paul uses them in very similar ways in 1 Timothy, and they’re both rightly translated as ‘good’. That makes sense. The idea of something being ‘good’ in the sense of morally right can’t be separated from the idea of it being ‘good’ in the sense of fitting for God’s creation and the gospel. A moral life is also fitting, beautiful, and delightful in God’s good world.
There are various things Paul calls good in 1 Timothy.
God’s good word
Firstly, God’s word is good. Paul applies the word ‘good’ to both the law and the teaching arising from the gospel.
God’s law is ‘good’ because it contains moral content that shows up our unrighteousness (1:8–10). God’s law is not just for those who believe they are ‘righteous,’ like the Pharisees Jesus encountered (cf. Matt 9:13; Luke 5:32). It’s for all of us, to show us our sin and lead us to repentance.
The gospel is also ‘good’. It brings us ‘good doctrine’, so the one who teaches it is rightly called a ‘good servant’ (4:6).
God’s good creation
Secondly, God’s creation is good. By contrast with the false teachers’ denial of marriage and food, Paul asserts:
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Tim 4:4–5)
God’s good word affirms God’s good creation. This shows that such things as marriage and food are not merely to be seen as distractions from living a spiritual life. The things of God’s creation are meant for delight, satisfaction, and enjoyment (6:17).
The good lives of believers
Good teaching must lead to and be grounded in good conduct by believers.
First and foremost, good conduct means leading a life of love. ‘Love’ in 1 Timothy is not simply a strong desire or a sentimental feeling or a random act of kindness; it is about being committed to others. Love springs from hearts that have been transformed by a ‘good conscience’ (1:5). When Paul describes Christian living in 1 Timothy, he’s talking about committed living in rightly ordered relationships in God’s creation. This includes relationships in the church as the ‘household of God’ (3:15) and in marriage and family life (e.g., 3:2–4).
Paul specifically applies the terminology of ‘goodness’ to Christian conduct within these ordered relationships. He describes ordered living under human authorities as ‘good’ and ‘pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour’ (2:3). He emphasises the importance of ‘good works’ for a range of people, including women (2:10; 5:10), elders (probably 5:25), and those who are rich (6:18–19).
A ministry grounded in goodness
Paul especially emphasises the importance of ‘goodness’ when it comes to leaders of God’s people. This can be seen in the overarching statement Paul makes about overseers:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task [literally, a good work]. (1 Tim 3:1)
The importance of goodness in 1 Timothy explains why the central characteristics of overseers and deacons include such things as the need for them to ‘manage his own household well [literally, in a good way]’ (3:4, 12); to ‘be well thought of [literally, have a good testimony] by outsiders,’ (3:7); to ‘serve well [literally, in a good way]’ (3:13) and so to gain a ‘good standing’ (3:13). Later, Paul says elders are expected to ‘rule well [literally, in a good way]’ (1 Tim 5:17).
The good fight
At both the beginning and the end of his letter, Paul charges Timothy to ‘wage the good warfare’ (1:18) and to ‘fight the good fight’ (6:12). If we don’t read these words in their context, we might assume Paul is using these phrases to call Timothy to engage in war-like tactics against the false teachers. We might assume ‘fight the good fight’ means something like ‘engage in controversies and quarrels with false teachers – for the good cause of the gospel’.
The problem with this interpretation of ‘fight the good fight’ is that it would contradict the rest of what Paul says 1 Timothy. In this letter, ‘controversy’ and ‘quarrels about words’ aren’t ‘good’ in any sense. They characterise the false teachers (6:3–4). So Paul isn’t using the phrase ‘fight the good fight’ in this letter to inspire Timothy, for example, to give the false teachers a taste of their own medicine or be just as argumentative as they were. Rather, he’s encouraging Timothy to be completely different to the false teachers in the way he lives and teaches. Timothy’s warfare and struggle isn’t against people; it’s a fight against his own natural inclination to get argumentative.
In other words, the ‘good fight’ (6:12) is the fight to pursue ‘righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness’ (6:11). The ‘good warfare’ (1:18) is a warfare whose primary weapons are ‘faith and a good conscience’ (1:19). This struggle arises from the ‘good confession’ (6:12), which in turn is grounded in Jesus’ own ‘good confession’ before Pilate as he faced death on the cross (6:13). It’s the fight to be good as we hold onto the truth and teach it.
Challenges for us
In sum, Paul’s first letter Timothy is full of goodness. It’s all about God’s good word in God’s good and ordered creation. God’s word in God’s world leads his people to good lives. It means Timothy’s ministry must fundamentally be grounded in goodness. Paul challenges him to struggle for the sake of goodness.
This letter provides many encouragements and challenges for us in our 21st century context. Here are a few.
Firstly, 1 Timothy challenges modern ideals of what ‘goodness’ means in the first place. Whether we realise it or not, our own thinking about goodness is deeply influenced by the Romantic movement. When we think about ‘goodness,’ we can easily think first and foremost in terms of inner feelings of beauty and authenticity. These are good things! But if we focus exclusively on these inner feelings, it can blind us to the broader sense of goodness that we see in 1 Timothy: the goodness of God’s word, God’s creation, and indeed, God’s good order grounded in his good creation. We need to keep seeing what is beautiful and fitting, delightful and satisfying in God’s eyes. This is especially true when it comes to elements of God’s creation that our world denies are good – including the kinds of issues that arise in 1 Timothy 2:8–15 concerning men and women in their relationships with one another.3
Secondly, 1 Timothy challenges us to see religions and ideologies that deny the goodness of God’s created world aren’t just unhelpful – they’re not good. Our own culture is deeply affected by movements that seek to deny the goodness of our physical, biological existence as men and women. Instead, these movements insist that our pursuit of authenticity and identity, and our inner feelings of gender and sexuality are what is truly ‘true’, despite biological facts. These movements insist that such feelings must not merely be tolerated, but actively and joyously celebrated. Anything less is unacceptable. But such celebration denies the goodness of God’s good creation. As we love and care for people who struggle with these feelings, we cannot deny the created reality God has made us to live in.
Thirdly, 1 Timothy challenges us to find joy in our day-to-day lives in God’s world, even when those lives do not feel especially inspiring. In the messiness and difficulties and boredom of day-to-day, on-the-ground, relational, sacrificial, love for and commitment to others, we can be tempted to flee to find meaning and satisfaction in more ‘spiritual’ things. Of course, it is right to yearn for spiritual things. But 1 Timothy shows us that spiritual truth isn’t found simply by escaping from our physical lives in this world. God’s goodness, and the beauty and satisfaction of living for him, are very often found by living obedient lives in the places God has put us in his good creation.
Finally, 1 Timothy challenges us to remember the importance of ‘goodness’ for true teaching. How can we avoid the kind of false teaching we find in 1 Timothy? We need to be committed to true teaching, that is, true doctrine (the terms mean the same thing). But being committed to true doctrine does not just mean being committed to getting the doctrines formulated correctly. In 1 Timothy, Paul reminds us that we must ‘fight’ to ensure true doctrine doesn’t just stay theoretical in our lives. True doctrine must permeate the way we live and the way we teach. The false teaching Paul mentions is a danger for all of us. It’s possible to be committed to fighting to formulate the truth correctly while not being committed to taking the same truth seriously in our lives and the lives of our hearers. If we do that, we’re like the false teachers Paul identifies in 1 Timothy. If we keep on just saying we believe certain truths about God’s goodness and arguing for these truths while consistently failing to prayerfully seek to change our lives and our relationships to match the truths, we’re not much different from the false teachers Paul mentions in 1 Timothy.
To sum up: 1 Timothy is full of goodness. It’s about God’s good word in God’s good world. It’s a joy, a delight, a wonder, and a privilege. But it’s also a challenge, a struggle, and a fight. Our constant challenge is to keep being committed to this truth, both by speaking it and by actively living it out, on the ground, in our lives in God’s good creation.
1 For further detailed study of the relevant passages and issues see Dillon T. Thornton, Hostility in the House of God: An Investigation of the Opponents in 1 and 2 Timothy (Bulletin for Biblical Research Supplement 15; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016).
2 There is another view of the false teaching in 1 Timothy that is sometimes brought up in discussions of the controversial statements in 2:11–15 about women teaching. This view is that the false teaching was a specific heresy linked to the worship of the goddess Artemis, whose temple was in Ephesus (see Acts 19:23–34). An example can be found in Linda Belleville, ‘Teaching and Usurping Authority: 1 Timothy 2:11–15,’ in Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural & Practical Perspectives, ed. Ronald W. Pierce and Cynthia Long Westfall, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 205–27. For more detail on how this view of the false teaching in 1 Timothy affects the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15, as well as an engagement with the key exegetical issues, see the video of my paper, ‘Key issues in scholarship on 1 Timothy 2:8–15’, Priscilla and Aquila Conference, 6 February 2023, paa.moore.edu.au/resources.
3 This is why the title of Claire Smith’s book Claire Smith, God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women, 2nd ed. (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2019), is so fitting.