This post is part of a series of challenges commonly made against shared, plural pastoral leadership. It’s a follow-up to my post Why we don’t have a senior pastor.
In the New Testament, we find what are often referred to as “the pastoral epistles.” These letters do, in fact, cover a number of issues that are particularly pastoral in nature. Two of these letters were written from Paul to Timothy, and the third was written from Paul to Titus. Does that mean these two leaders were pastors? It’s not hard to find books or articles that refer to Timothy as “the pastor” of the church in Ephesus. And since all would agree that Paul instructed him to exercise leadership of the elders of the Ephesian church, wouldn’t that make him a kind of senior pastor? We need to look more closely at the ministry roles of these two men.
Timothy’s name comes up frequently in accounts of Paul’s ministry or in his letters to the churches. Timothy was obviously an integral part of the ministry work of Paul (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22). In Romans 16:21, Paul refers to him as “my fellow worker.” While most would agree that Timothy wasn’t an Apostle of Jesus Christ in the same sense that Paul was, many references show that he shared in Paul’s apostolic ministry. In
2 Corinthians 5:20, he and Paul are both referred to as “Christ’s ambassadors.” In
1 Thessalonians 2:6, Paul refers to himself, Silas and Timothy as apostles of Christ. In
1 Corinthians 16:10, Paul says that Timothy was “doing the Lord’s work, just as I am.”
What is even more significant is that Paul shared his writing credit with Timothy no less than six times and wrote two epistles directly to him. This is an amazing public recognition of the fact that Timothy shared in Paul’s ministry. Only two other men were acknowledged in this manner: Silas (twice) and Sosthenes (once).
1 Corinthians 16:5-12 is an interesting portion of Scripture that shows the way Paul and those who worked with him were frequently on the move. Timothy was often left for a time in one place or sent ahead to another (Acts 17:14-15; 18:5; 19:22; 1 Corinthians 4:17; Philippians 2:19-24; 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 6). The places where Timothy ministered were consistently places where Paul had just been or to which he was on the way. This going ahead or staying behind was a distinctive characteristic of Timothy’s ministry.
So, when Paul sent Timothy ahead, or left him behind, what exactly was Timothy to do?
I Corinthians 4:17 says that he was sent to Corinth to remind the people there of Paul’s ways and teachings. 1 Thessalonians 3:2 tells us that Timothy was sent to Thessalonica to strengthen and encourage them in their faith. So why was Timothy left in Ephesus? According to 1 Timothy 1:3 it was to “stop those whose teaching is contrary to the truth.” He wasn’t left to pastor the church; he was left to correct problems with the church’s pastors. And according to 1 Timothy 3:14, Paul was intending to be there soon himself.
There is no solid reason to assume that Timothy was still in Ephesus when Paul wrote
2 Timothy. The wording in 2 Timothy 1:18 and 4:12 seem to indicate that he was in some location other than Ephesus. Wherever he was, he was preparing to leave (2 Timothy 4:21). Of course, we almost expect this kind of temporary stay when we see the itinerant nature of his ministry throughout much of the New Testament. Although he was probably in a different location, the purpose of his ministry as expressed in 2 Timothy compares well with what we saw in 1 Timothy. The things that Paul had taught Timothy, Timothy was to “teach . . . to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.” Timothy faithfully shared in this apostolic ministry of training church leaders who would be able to carry on the local work. There’s nothing in the New Testament indicating that Timothy had a regular pastoral role in a local church.
We actually have less reason to assume a pastoral role for Titus. In Titus 1:5, Paul gives Titus very clear instructions: “I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you.” Since Titus was sent to towns all over Crete, this is obviously not describing the role of a senior pastor. Just as we saw with Timothy, Titus was sent to further and complete the apostolic work of Paul.
The only reason people assume a senior pastor role for these men is that they appointed and/or worked with the elders of various churches. But we’ve seen that this was actually a primary aspect of their work as Paul’s apostolic delegates.
The only other defense for the idea that Timothy—or Paul for that matter—was a church pastor is the length of time that he stayed in place. For either one, this was usually a matter of months or even weeks, occasionally longer for Paul (his three-year stay in Ephesus being the exception rather than the rule). This fits an itinerant, apostolic ministry of planting and strengthening churches much better than it does that of a senior pastor.
Timothy was highly valued by Paul, a great blessing to those to whom he ministered, and a wonderful example to us. However there is no scriptural support for the claim that Timothy was the pastor of the church of Ephesus, or that he or Titus were pastors of any other congregation.
Elders and pastoral leadership series:
Challenge 3: What about Timothy and Titus? [see above]