The Pastoral Epistles and Pastoral Training

Paul wrote three letters in the New Testament, which the church has traditionally referred to as “Pastoral Epistles” because they were written to two colleagues of the great missionary evangelist, Timothy, and Titus. [1] The letters are filled with pastoral advice and counsel directed from an older and more experienced Christian leader to younger leaders of the next generation. The letters continue to be relevant today. They point to the need for a church-based system for identifying new leaders, training and mentoring new leaders, maintaining contact with leaders, and existing leaders taking seriously the development of a new generation of leaders for the church.

Context of Pastoral Epistles

Historically, the authorship of the epistles was considered to be Paul, though modern critical scholarship sometimes doubts this conclusion. Having studied the letters, I take the historic view that the Pastoral epistles are most likely from the pen of Paul. I am not a scholar, but the epistles seem to me to be pregnant with personal concern and love of a kind that I would not think likely in a forgery or secondary writing. Nevertheless, should the modern view be accurate, it would still bolster the case that the early church consistently trained leaders by personal example and guidance, and character and spiritual qualities were equally important as scholarship.

Eusebius records that Paul was released from prison in Rome, made a missionary journey, returned, and was imprisoned sometime thereafter. [2] These letters shed light on the events of Paul’s life after his first imprisonment in Rome (Acts 28:14-21), as First Timothy and Titus were probably written during this brief period of freedom.

Second Timothy indicates that it was written at or very near the end of Paul’s life. Paul probably wrote the letter to Timothy between A.D. 66-67 while imprisoned in Rome for the final time (2 Tim 1:2, 8). This imprisonment was more difficult than his first imprisonment in Rome. In the letter, the apostle indicates that he is under tremendous stress and believes death is imminent (4:6-8):

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim 4:6-8, NIV).

Taken as a whole, the letters reflect a man near the end of life, in prison, writing letters to trusted associates giving them instructions, and, in the case of Timothy, hoping that he will soon come and join the apostle in his labors (2 Timothy 4:9). All three of the Pastoral Epistles, in other words, reflect an aging Paul, who has planted many churches and nears the end of his labors. Timothy, in Ephesus, and Titus, in Crete, are two of those he trained and ministered with in earlier years. He remains close to them and writes them personal letters of advice. [3]

The Power of Personal Relationships

The pastoral letters are filled with personal encouragement, advice, and teaching directed to Timothy and Titus, who are now ministering in isolation from their mentor, who must communicate by letter.  Paul, for example, is aware of Timothy’s youth, a tendency to defer to elders, and timidity when challenged, and the letter is designed to encourage Timothy to be self-aware and avoid allowing these habits to injure his mission and ministry for the gospel. Paul can give the advice he gives precisely because he has a deep personal relationship with the recipient of the letter. Titus is also a “true child in the common faith” (Titus 1:4). He has been entrusted with a difficult task in Crete. Paul is especially concerned that Titus succeeds in this mission (Titus 1:5). The advice given to both is of such a character that it might have been ignored without a personal relationship and regard for the writer.

The personal exhortation is self-explanatory at the beginning of Second Timothy:

For this reason, I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love, and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace (2 Tim 1:6-9a, NIV).

Paul exhorts Timothy based on his laying on of hands and the power, love, and spirit of moral self-discipline that Timothy has observed in their private time together. Timothy traveled with the apostle and knew of his sufferings and trials for the gospel. Paul, therefore, calls Timothy not just to doctrinal purity but to the personal holiness of life after the example of Paul.

A Leader’s Life of Prayerfulness

Paul begins his first letter to Timothy with a reminder of something that Timothy must have experienced many times during their travels together: the role of prayer in the ministry of the apostle. Paul “urges first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men … that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (I Tim. 2:1). In his second letter, Paul thanks God whom he serves without ceasing he remembers Timothy in his prayers “night and day” (I Tim 1:3).

A constant theme in all the letters of Paul is his constant prayer for all the churches he serves (Romans 1:8-10; I Cor 1:4; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:3-4; Col 1:3; I Thess 1:2-3; 2 Thess 1:3). Neither Timothy nor Titus, nor any other travel companion of Paul could fail to notice that the apostles teaching and power, his endurance in ministry, and his ability to navigate complex ministry settings was deeply impacted by his life of prayer. Paul wants to be sure that Timothy remembers his example and emulates him in his ministry.

The Importance of Sound Doctrine

These blogs have often deferred on doctrine, which can be controversial, but there is no doubt that Paul is concerned that Timothy and Titus defend the Gospel and the apostolic teaching. The church of Jesus Christ has never existed without the threat of false teaching. From the beginning, some distorted the Gospel, failed to recognize its implications, or misstated it for personal gain. (Acts 8:8-24; 13:1-12; 15:1-2). Over time, misguided teaching included arguments over ideal speculations and genealogies (I Tim 6:3-4; Titus 3:9), excessive asceticism (I Tim 4:3), good and bad moral character (I Tim 3:1-9; 2 Tim 3:2-7), and last but by no means least, distorting the Gospel message (those who have strayed from the faith saying that the resurrection is already past” (I Tim 2:18).

In response to these threats, Paul reminds Timothy that he has “carefully followed my doctrine, manner of life, purpose, faith, longsuffering love, perseverance, persecutions, and afflictions” (I Tim 310-12). Notice that Paul does urge Timothy to preach the gospel faithfully to the apostolic witness as he received it from Paul but also not to forget to emulate the form of life that Paul embodied as he ministered to the Roman world:

 What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us (2 Tim 1:13-14, ESV).

The gospel is to be defended not just with arguments but with the same faith and love Timothy saw in Paul’s life and ministry.

This aspect of Paul’s teaching is essential for today’s pastors, perhaps especially among evangelical pastors. Paul clearly understands that sound doctrine is necessary, but sound doctrine without prudence, wisdom, gentleness, and love is without power. Paul’s teaching was not with words of power only but accompanied by the apparent strength of the Holy Spirit (I Cor 2:1-5). The growth of disciples under the care of a pastor depends upon the presence and conviction of the Holy Spirit.

The Character of a Church Leader

Ministry is founded on character, the attributes that make up a church leader. Throughout the entirety of the Pastoral Epistles, the issue of pastoral character and integrity is dealt with by Paul. Near the end of First Timothy, the apostle Paul urges his younger companion:

But you, Timothy, are a man of God; so run from all these evil things. Pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness. Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses. And I charge you before God, who gives life to all, and before Christ Jesus, who gave a good testimony before Pontius Pilate, that you obey this command without wavering. Then no one can find fault with you from now until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again (I Tim 6:11-14, NLT).

This particular set of verses encapsulates the insistence of Paul that Timothy be faithful to his calling (I Tim 1:18-19), not allowing anyone to ignore or disrespect him because he is young (4:12). He is to be diligent in preaching, continuing to personally follow sound doctrine (4:16) carefully admonishing the congregation with due concern for differences (5:1-12). As to moral challenges, Timothy is to “flee these things and pursue righteousness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness” (6:11). Titus also is to speak appropriate words to the congregation in Crete and not allow anyone to despise him as a leader of God’s people (Titus 2:15).


What relevance do the Pastoral Epistles have for the church today? When reading the texts, one is struck by the parallels between Paul’s context and the difficulties that Timothy and Titus faced and those pastors and church leaders face today:

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. for people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred.  They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly (2 Tim 3:1-5, NLT).

These verses are often referred to whenever pastors and church leaders gather together in our day and time. Ministry is difficult in the best of times, but when faith is disparaged, and morals are declining, ministry becomes overwhelming when there is little respect for the church or its leadership. My time in ministry spans the end of the leadership of the World War II generation, the ascendency of the Boomers, and the current emergence of a new generation. There is no question but that the level of personal and institutional dysfunction has grown. To meet this problem, the church needs pastors carefully mentored by more experienced leaders, not just in the content of the faith but also in the character and practices of Christian leadership.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Timothy’s discovery by Paul is recorded in Acts 16:1-2, and his presence is noted in both Acts and Paul’s letters. Titus was a Greek who was led to faith in Christ by Paul and thus his child of the faith (Titus 1:4). Titus eventually became a co-worker, perhaps one of those accompanying Paul and Barnabas from Antioch to Jerusalem ( Acts 15:2). At the Jerusalem Council, Titus would have been an example of a Gentile Christian who was not circumcised. Titus was living proof that the rite of circumcision was unnecessary for salvation (Galatians 2:3).

[2] Eusebius, History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, NPNF Volume 1, 2.22.

[3] All three letters are addressed to Timothy or Titus personally. Unlike the other letters of Paul, they contain no long lists of persons to be greeted by the Apostle. They are personal letters, not public letters to churches.