Why Does Timothy Get Such a Bad Rap?
The other morning I attended a Men's Bible Study on 1 Timothy, and it wasn't long before poor Timothy was being maligned as "timid." One man in the group said that Paul was like a "bull," while Timothy was not so naturally bold. Another man described Timothy as a "mama's boy," and someone else mentioned his "nervous stomach." Meanwhile, I was sitting there thinking, "Wasn't this the guy Paul asked to remain in Ephesus some time after Paul got run out of town? How timid could Timothy really be?"
This is not the first time I've heard Timothy described in such unflattering terms, and it bothers me that he seems to get such a bad rap. While it is certainly possible that Timothy was naturally reserved and cautious, I find it just as likely that he was facing an extremely challenging situation that might call for the kind of encouragement Paul offered in his letters—even if Timothy's natural temperament was to say, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" After all, I imagine even David Farrugut needed a word of encouragement now and then!
I'm not suggesting that Timothy was one who found it easy to rush in where angels fear to tread, but neither am I convinced that he was naturally timid just because Paul wrote to encourage him to be bold. I'm not convinced he was a "mama's boy" just because his mother and grandmother were his main spiritual influences. And frankly, I don't understand how we can conclude Timothy had a nervous stomach just because Paul urged him to drink a little wine for his stomach.
On the one hand, I was impressed that the men in this Bible study were approaching the text of 1 Timothy with some knowledge of the letter's intended audience. They (or the preachers they had heard these things from) had picked up some details about Timothy and pieced them together into a picture of the man, which of course is good exegetical practice. The problem comes when we jump to conclusions without considering alternative possibilities or the wider historical context.
A few years ago, Dr. J did a podcast episode explaining how to study a person from the Bible. In it, he describes the three logical steps of identification, investigation, and evaluation. Where most people fall down in this kind of study is that they fail to do enough investigation and so ignore much of the available evidence. Or they may gather enough evidence, but then fail to evaluate it properly. Dr. J does a great job of showing how to gather and evaluate the available evidence.
The letters to Timothy mention his mother and grandmother along with the aforementioned stomach condition, and contain numerous exhortations to boldness and perseverance. Those limited details could be evidence of a timid man who needed to be brought out of his shell, but those facts need to be interpreted in the light of the other things we know about Timothy. For example, we know from Acts 16:1-5 that Timothy had a Jewish mother and Greek father, and that after meeting Timothy, Paul wanted him to accompany him on his missionary journeys. We also know that Paul had Timothy circumcised so that he would have credibility with the Jews in the region. Against the view that Timothy was a "mama's boy", the fact that he was uncircumcised as an adult shows that his father had enough influence in his life to make sure he was raised as a Greek. And the fact that Timothy was willing to be circumcised as an adult for the sake of his ministry shows that he had some measure of courage and willingness to endure hardship.
Another factor that needs to be considered is the situation in Ephesus when Paul asked Timothy to remain there. While it is not altogether certain when 1 Timothy was written, it was probably written some time after Paul left Ephesus in the wake of the riot started by Demetrius (Acts 19:23–41). Whether Paul instructed Timothy to remain at Ephesus shortly after the riot, or years afterward, it is likely that Ephesus remained a challenging place to serve as pastor. Thus, Paul's exhortations to boldness and perseverance need not be seen as prompted by Timothy's timidity, but by the challenges Paul knew Timothy was facing.
While it may be true that Timothy was naturally timid, we ought to be cautious not to stereotype Biblical figures until we have done a thorough investigation and careful evaluation of the evidence. Otherwise, we might be tempted to read the pastoral epistles and think, "That exhortation isn't for me. That's for timid guys like Timothy." It may just be that it's intended for anyone faced with a challenging ministry situation!
What about you? Do you ever cringe over how certain Biblical figures get stereotyped? If you were going to investigate Timothy or some other Biblical figure, what Accordance resources would you turn to for information?