Monday, March 26, 2012

In Defense of Timothy: Why He Is Not "Spineless"

I'm preaching through Philippians and in coming to 2.19-24 I was reminded of some of the comments that are made about Timothy.  Many have seen Paul's admonitions to Timothy like the following:
For God has not given us a power of love and discipline.  Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God  2 Timothy 1.7-8
In light of passages like the above some have said some very harsh things about Timothy.  Here is a sampling:
He appears to have been a very shy and sensitive creature, to whom responsibility was an onerous burden.  John Stott Guard the Gospel: The Message of 2 Timothy, p. 30
He was no doubt timid and fearful.  Thus Paul had to encourage him with these words (2 Tim 1:7)...There was no reason for Timothy to be timid and fearful.  Yet he was!  And throughout his life he needed encouragement to live boldly for God.  Some feel his stomach problems referred to in 1 Timothy 5:23 were the result of emotional difficulties; that is, his fearful and timid personality.  Gene Getz The Measure of a Woman, pp. 85-86
Gordon Fee, in his commentary on Philippians (NICNT, p. 263) quotes Jean-Francois Collange as speaking of Timothy's "somewhat spineless character."

I have never been impressed with these kinds of comments.  They are, at best, woefully inadequate and, at worst, wildly off-mark.  They betray a certain kind of "pyschologizing" of the text that goes beyond the evidence and off into unhelpful speculation.  By looking at a fuller range of evidence--within the text of Scripture itself--we can begin to form a more accurate portrait of Timothy.

The foundations of Timothy's relationship are found in Acts 16.1-3
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra.  And a disciple was there named, Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek, and he was well spoken of by the brethren who were in Lystra and Iconium.  Paul wanted this man to go with him; and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those parts, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.
From this point Timothy is seen to be with Paul on the second and third missionary journeys.  At times Timothy is part of a group that stays behind in certain cities to help establish the church while Paul moves on (Acts 17.14) and other times he is sent ahead while Paul stays behind (Acts 19.22).  Something of Timothy's connection to Paul is seen in the introductions of Paul's epistles.  In six of these letters Timothy is mentioned as being part of the sending of the letter.  For example, here is the beginning of 2 Corinthians (1.1): "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,.."--see also the introductions to 1-2 Thessalonians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians.  Timothy is mentioned in Romans (16.21) and 1 Corinthians (4.17; 16.10-11).  He is also the recipient of two of Paul's letters (1-2 Timothy).

Something of Timothy's abilities can be seen from the fact that Paul gave him various assignments to specific churches.  He sends Timothy to check on the churches at Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3.1-10), Corinth (1 Corinthians 4.16-17), and Philippi (Philippians 2.19-24).  Furthermore, Timothy is left in Ephesus to lead and refute false teachers (1 Timothy 1.2-4).  In light of this Gordon Fee writes:
But a person of his youthfulness who could carry out (apparently alone) the earlier missions to Thessalonica and Corinth was probably not totally lacking in courage.  1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (NIBC), p. 2
More importantly, listen to the commendation by Paul:
For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ Jesus, just as I teach everywhere in every church.  1 Corinthians 4.17
But I have no one else of kindred spirit who genuinely be concerned for your welfare.  For they all seek after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus.  But you know of his proven worth, that he served with me in the furtherance of the gospel like a child serving his father. Philippians 2.20-22
The portrait Paul paints is not of a spineless and timid person with emotional difficulties.  But what of Paul's exhortations in 2 Timothy about not being timid or ashamed of the gospel (2 Timothy 1.7-8)--don't these imply that Timothy was a shy and timid soul who found responsibility onerous?  I don't think so.  When one considers both the weight of the Word and the weight of the world these exhortations make sense.  It is a weighty thing to preach the gospel.  Consider Paul's words from 2 Corinthians 2.14-16:
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of him in every place.  For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.  And who is adequate for these things?
Paul knows that he is not adequate in and of himself for this ministry of the gospel.  He says just a few verses later that "our adequacy if from God" (2 Corinthians 3.5).  Paul knows what it is like to feel the fear and weakness of it all.  He tells the Corinthians of his cross centered preaching to them.  He forthrightly declares his weaknesses:
I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. 1 Corinthians 2.3-5
Paul admits to "fear and much trembling" and yet no one thinks of Paul as "spineless!"  Paul knows the weight of the Word.  It must be preached in the power of the Spirit.  His adequacy must come from God.

Paul also knows the weight of the world's opposition.  Again, to the Corinthian church he opens up his soul:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brethren, of our affliction which came to us in Asia, that we were burdened excessively beyond our strength, so that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead.  2 Corinthians 1.8-9
For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within.  But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus.  2 Corinthians 7.5-6
Notice the language: "affliction," "despair,", "conflicts," "fears," and "depressed."  Paul knows at a deep existential level the pain and cost involved in standing for the gospel.  He knows Timothy is slotted for such things as well.  This is why he spends the time in 1 and 2 Timothy exhorting him unto faithfulness and courage.  This will be especially needed once Timothy's father in the faith, Paul, passes from the scene (2 Timothy 4.6).  Timothy will be taking the focal point of abuse and pain.  He has seen Paul in the amidst of the suffering (2 Timothy 3.10-11) and is told that this will also be his lot in ministry (2 Timothy 3.12).  Hardship will have to be endured (2 Timothy 4.5) and the conscious choice to preach the gospel in such a hostile setting will be a conscious choice to place oneself in the path of suffering (2 Timothy 1.8; 2.3).  The exhortations are given due to the weight of the Word and the world's opposition.  They ought not to be read as indicative of massive character flaws on the part of Timothy.  Timothy is not "spineless."  He deserves to be remembered with more respect than that.