Paul’s Letters to Timothy for a New Day: A Conversation with Anthony Robinson and Robert Wall (Part 2)

Recently, we invited Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall — coauthors of the new book Called to Lead: Paul’s Letters to Timothy for a New Day — to contribute a guest post to EerdWord.

What ultimately came of that invitation was not an article, but a conversation. Today we share the second part of our conversation with them; read part one here

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Rob: It remains a striking feature of the job descriptions of the congregation’s various leaders in 1 Tim 3-5 that Paul’s emphasis is not on a résumé of pastoral experience but on defining what sort of person has the character to lead a household of believers in its journey toward God. Such a leader ought to be a teacher of faith — indeed so! — but also an exemplar of faithfulness, and both are deeply rooted in a pastoral leader’s firm embrace of the gospel.

Anthony Robinson
Anthony B. Robinson

Tony: This is one of the places where there’s a very interesting convergence between 1 and 2 Timothy and some of the best contemporary thinking about leadership. I have in mind, for example, the work of Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke, both of whom emphasize the personal integrity and self-awareness of effective leaders. Leadership, as they think of it, is a less a matter of expertise — something often given high priority in contemporary culture — and more a matter of “self-differentiation,” by which they mean the capacity to know who and whose you are, to understand your vocation and core values and to operate from those. When Paul urges Timothy, as he does in 1 Timothy 4, to pay close attention to himself and his teaching, he anticipates such contemporary thinkers and their urging that leadership is less a matter of expertise than of self-knowledge and character.

Rob: Tony, one of the principal tasks given Timothy is to safeguard “tradition,” which includes Paul’s gospel and missionary practices; and he is instructed to pass this witness on to the next generation (cf. 2 Timothy 2:2). In fact, 1 Timothy concludes with an exhortation to protect “tradition” (6:20), and 2 Timothy begins the same way (1:13-14). This practice is quite literally the lynchpin of this entire correspondence! But isn’t this a hard sell today for our future leaders, our seminary students? It sounds too much to them like traditionalism or institutionalism; it consists of all that is not hip and may even be responsible for the church’s failure to attract their own “next generation” of believers. So how should we understand Paul’s use of “tradition,” and why should it be a pivotal concern of pastoral leadership — or should it?

EerdWord: If we may add a correllary to your very good question, Rob: how should we come to terms with those aspects of the “tradition” Paul champions (including his now-controversial statements on women in church leadership, homosexuality, and other topics) that have since been largely rejected by twenty-first century Western culture? Can the idea of “tradition” here be detached and appreciated in isolation from the actual specifics of Paul’s “tradition” as articulated in 1 and 2 Timothy, or must we take them both together?

Robert W. Wall

Rob: Well, I think our beginning point must be Paul’s own conception of “tradition.” From 2 Tim 1:8-14, it would seem that the Pauline idea of a Spirit-led “tradition” consists of “healthy teaching” — the core theological beliefs of his gospel. Paul’s instructions to Timothy are consistently framed as the practical applications of his core beliefs about God. So, for example, Paul’s instructions directed at Christian women of influence in Ephesus (1 Tim 2:9-15) must be read in context as a practical application of his gospel (= tradition) set out immediately before in 2:3-7. Whilst I don’t think his per se instructions to Timothy are normative, they are scriptural. We read them as biblical case studies of how the core beliefs of Pauline apostolate are adapted to life, analogical/illustrative of similar situations we face in our own day but not prescriptive. By the way, Paul’s teaching about female membership in a Christian congregation, set out in Gal 3:28, is a very different application of the same core belief about God’s salvation that we find in 1 Tim 2:3-7. Different settings require different applications of the theological goods set out in 2:3-7, but applications that are cued by the “deep logic” of Scripture’s own case studies. We try to do some of this in our comments about 1 Timothy 2 in the book.

EerdWord: This has been a riveting discussion.  Before we end it, does either of you have any closing thoughts to share?

Rob:Too much biblical scholarship these days is detached from parish life. Even those scholars of the church, engaged in the theological education of the church’s future clergy and who to target the church when publishing their research, tend to write for one another rather than for rank-and-file saints. (Walt Brueggemann, who wrote the forward to our book, is a happy exception to this general observation.) What is needed in our mind is the work of translation, which seeks to rework the intellectual gains of today’s academy, which are often remarkable and relevant, in ways that benefit congregational leaders, both clergy and lay, at ground level.

Called to Lead
Called to Lead

In our book, Tony and I are engaged in this work of translation. Even though the scholarly study of 1-2 Timothy has suffered from neglect or from selective reading, mostly because of the elevated importance scholars tend to give to the historian’s decisions about authorship, recent studies (including several excellent commentaries on 1-2 Timothy by both Protestant and Catholic scholars) and a growing interest in theological interpretations of Scripture have rehabilitated a keen interest in these sacred texts. We happily seek to exploit this renewed interest in the so-called “Pastoral Epistles” in a way that speaks into the very real needs facing the spiritual leaders of today’s Christian congregations. Tony is a national leader in the ongoing and often vigorous conversation about congregational leadership (or lack thereof!). I have just produced a commentary on the Pastoral Epistles for Eerdmans (THNTC) using a “canonical approach” to Scripture. Together we hope to model for our readers one way of using 1- 2 Timothy that is, in Christiaan Beker’s memorable phrase, a “word on target.”

Click to order Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall’s Called to Lead: Paul’s Letters to Timothy for a New Day