God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. —2 Timothy 1:7
Today we commemorate three men who accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys and shared in his hardships and sufferings for the sake of the gospel. Silas, also called Silvanus, was first sent with Barnabas by the elders of the Jerusalem church to join Paul in Antioch. After Paul and Barnabas’ falling out over Paul refusing to let a young disciple named Mark accompany them on a missionary tour because he deserted them on an earlier trip, Barnabas sailed for Cyprus with Mark, whilst Paul took Silas throughout Achaia (Greece) and Asia Minor. They were imprisoned at Philippi, where they were delivered from their incarceration by an earthquake.
At Lystra, the two were joined by Timothy, who was Jewish through his mother, but whose father was a Greek pagan. Despite having often excoriated those who insisted that Gentile converts to the Way of Jesus must be circumcised (“cutters” he called them), Paul circumcised Timothy “because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (Acts 16:3b).
Titus does not appear in the Acts of the Apostles, but Paul identified him as a traveling companion several times in his letters to the churches. Paul put Timothy in charge of the church in Ephesus, and Titus of the church in Crete. Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy, three letters attributed to Paul, are known collectively as the Pastoral Epistles, because they comprise instructions for pastoring a community of believers.
I’m not going to pick apart these letters here; in particular, I’m not going to attempt justifying or contextualizing those verses in the two letters to Timothy that strike the modern ear as patriarchal, misogynist, and homophobic. What I do wish to do is compare the approach Paul takes to mentoring young clergy with the approach that aspirants to Holy Orders so often encounter in the modern institutional church.
Consider how Paul outlined the qualifications for the diaconate,
Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not indulging in much wine, not greedy for money; they must hold fast to the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them first be tested; then, if they prove themselves blameless, let them serve as deacons. —1 Timothy 3:8-10
Now compare that with a retired priest’s description of the “attitude of gatekeeping to affirm the ‘right sort’ of candidate and block the ‘wrong sort’ from access to what was seen as a privileged position and career. As one memorable personality in my ordaining diocese announced to all of us aspirants: ‘Our job is to protect the church from all of you.’ I think the result all too often was to give a hall pass to people who gratified unexamined cultural bias and to treat those truly inspired with innovative gifts as a destabilizing threat.”
This attitude hearkens back to the world of Anthony Trollope’s novels, when Anglican clergy were expected to be “gentlemen” in the full classist, Victorian flowering of the word. And the attitude is far from dead today.
Of course, Paul took it for granted ordained clergy would be men, but to use that as a prima facie pretext for dismissing his advice would be to fall into the “presentist fallacy,” in which we subject the thought and words of people in the past to the standards of the present. The important distinction, I believe, between Paul’s pastoral letters and the Commissions on Ministry of today is the former’s pastoral tone, concern for the faithful, and emphasis on effectiveness in leadership. So when I relate how a female seminarian told me her first supervising priest refused to spend more than five minutes discussing her vocation with her because he disapproved of the ordination of women, it’s these distinctions that are front and center for me, and not what made Paul tell Timothy that he forbade women to teach or exercise authority in the church. Attitudes about what constitutes supportive encouragement vs. disdain and dismissiveness are, or should be, more durable than attitudes about gender.
In a December entry to his blog Resting Christian Face, Joshua Paul Smith recounts his harrowing encounters with those to whose guidance he had entrusted the discernment of his vocation to the priesthood. And yet, by the standard set forth for bishops in 1 Timothy, Smith’s seven years in the ordination process seem to have been exemplary.
The saying is sure: whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task. Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way. —1 Timothy 3:1-4
After finally walking away from a process that brutalized and belittled him, Joshua Paul Smith tries to make sense of why he stuck with it so long.
Community belongs to those who show up. This is why, as I tell my New Testament students, so many early Christian writers place a heavy emphasis on sacred persistence as a means of attaining salvation. The painful process of interpersonal conflict and reconciliation is the refining fire by which grace is made tangible in Christian communities; it is a witness to the ongoing presence of the Risen Lord among us. If we all threw up our hands and stomped off every time we got our feelings hurt, very quickly we would find ourselves bitter and entirely alone… the truth is that I just don’t have the time or the enthusiasm to keep working with an institution that refuses to trust my skills and experience enough to treat me like a competent coworker for the Gospel.
May God lead us from an attitude of gatekeeping to an attitude of concern for the faithful and those who feel called to serve them in Christ’s name—from a spirit of cowardice that holds “destabilizing threats” at arm’s length, to a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline that welcomes the “good trouble” Jesus calls us to get ourselves into.
Author’s Note: Full disclosure, I was ejected from “the Process” during my pastoral internship year.