Timothy: timid or tough?

Recently, in our staff meetings, we discussed John Stott’s excellent book The Living Church: Convictions of the lifelong pastor. I say ‘excellent’ despite Stott’s fondness for citing former Church of England Archbishops—not all of whom were uniformly reliable guides to the truth. I must admit that Stott’s love of ‘balance’ reminded a colleague of the old joke

Q. Why did the Anglican cross the road?
A. To get to the middle! (*Groan*)

But it is, truly, an excellent book. Stott is strong on the basics of ministry. He corrected us a few times. This book is especially helpful to quote when you want to get traditional Christians thinking in biblical and gospel-focused ways about ministry—for example,

  • Don’t separate Word and Spirit
  • Get out into the community
  • Value expository preaching
  • Be willing for your pastors to correct error.

And there’s plenty more that’s quotable. I also love how he almost always anchors the points he makes in the text of Scripture.

So it’s unfortunate that I am picking on Stott’s comments about Timothy because many others have said the same thing as him. Nevertheless, it annoys me when people speak of timid Timothy! Here’s what Stott said as he rightly appeals to us to find a new generation of Timothys:

[Timothy] was still comparatively young when Paul wrote him his first letter. Probably by now he was in his thirties, but he was still inexperienced for the heavy responsibilities which were being laid upon him. He was also temperamentally shy, for Paul needed to tell the Corinthians to put him at his ease when he visited them (1 Corinthians 16:10). Then thirdly he had a recurrent gastric problem, for which Paul prescribed a little alcoholic medicine.

So this was Timothy—young, shy and frail.

(The Living Church, InterVarsity Press, Nottingham, 2007, p. 154.)

As I said, Stott is not the only one. 2 Timothy 1:7 is the standard verse from which people derive ‘timid Timothy’: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline” (NIV). Commenting on this verse, the excellent older Tyndale commentary of Donald Guthrie states, “It may be his besetting sin was timidity, and this was Paul’s tactful way to deal with it” (The Pastoral Epistles, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, InterVarsity Press, Leicester, 1957, p. 126).

I can cop (just) the comments about frailty or sickness, although we don’t know how ongoing or serious his frequent stomach illnesses were. But at least that’s definite direct info we are given. My problem is that the text never says Timothy was timid! It’s reading too much into the comment from 2 Timothy 1:7.

From what Paul says of the situation, I think any normal person would be afraid. Paul is suffering for the gospel “to the point of being chained like a criminal” (2 Tim 2:9 NIV; cf. 1:8). Everyone in Asia has deserted him (2 Tim 1:15). Even allowing for a little hyperbole, it’s obviously highly risky to be associated with him and the gospel he preaches! In fact, Timothy has seen this firsthand; he knows “what kinds of things happened to [Paul] in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions [he] endured” (2 Tim 3:11 NIV).

Remind yourselves of Acts 13-14: jealous and abusive speech greeted Paul’s gospel preaching in Psidian Antioch, which was followed by persecution and expulsion (Acts 13:45, 50). In Iconium, there was a plot to mistreat and stone Paul (Acts 14:5). In Lystra, he was actually stoned to the point where people thought he was dead (Acts 14:19).

Lystra is where Timothy lived and was picked up by Paul on his return visit (Acts 16:1-3). Timothy witnessed these persecutions. And back in 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul says this sort of thing will happen to everyone who wants to live a godly life!

I don’t think a Christian leader has to be timid to be a little nervous in these circumstances. Most people I know would need plenty of encouragement in those situations to keep preaching the gospel and to stand firmly with those at the pointy end of the stick!

If we are reading the commands Timothy is given as some sort of decisive background for personality typing, then why don’t we accuse him of being argumentative? We’d be on even more solid ground. After all, Paul warns against quarrelsomeness in 2 Timothy 2:14, 23-24. And he urges Timothy to “gently instruct” (2:25 NIV) those who oppose and to rebuke and correct “with great patience” (4:2 NIV).

However, we should no more assume that aggression was Timothy’s particular personality problem than timidity. Instead, they were both temptations he was likely to face under the pressures of responding to false teaching, on one hand, and persecution, on the other.

George Knight III’s excellent technical NIGTC Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles is closer when it says,

Timothy’s timidity (and thus his need for encouragement) may have stemmed from a realistic appraisal of a difficult situation, from a natural propensity, or from both. (Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1999, p. 371).

As for me, I think Timothy was probably a normal man asked to do the toughest job in the world: preaching under fire.

11 thoughts on “Timothy: timid or tough?

  1. Amen!

    It’s yet another silly example of reconstructing a whole background to the little clues of the text. Everything has to have a specific reason. Why can’t it be a general reason?

  2. An important clarification question (having not read the book):

    Does JS actually quote 2 Tim 1.7 in his argument re Timothy’s timidity?

  3. And, for what it’s worth, if we’re using the “the word just isn’t there” critique, I have to point out that the quote you supply from Stott doesn’t actually use the word “timid”. “Shy”, yes, but “timid”, no. Some would say (like the person I just asked working next to me) that there is a difference.

  4. Fair point Sandy.  Preaching under fire is not something that we have to do regularly in Australia.  (More like preaching to the diminishing…)

    Another character who gets an unnecessary bad wrap and nickname in the New Testament is Thomas – Doubting Thomas.  Thomas of course, doubted that Jesus had risen until he touched Jesus’ hands, but we forget that he was perhaps Jesus’ most loyal follower.  He was in absolute mourning for the loss of his leader and friend and couldn’t believe that turnaround of events.  He was one of the only disciples willing to lay his life down for Jesus when they were to travel to Samaria… and additionally, when Thomas is ‘doubting’ and all the disciples are looking on awkwardly, we forget that the other disciples had already seen Jesus!  They had no need to doubt!

    Thomas is one of my heroes throughout the gospels… one of Jesus most loyal followers! 

    Maybe Tom and Tim are hanging out in heaven, commiserating about their seemingly unfair nicknames… together.

  5. Thanks Sandy

    The Living Church certainly is a good read!

    it would seem that Timothy was tough not only in the circumstances in which the Lord led him,
    but he was also commendably tough in the circumcision required of him for sake of serving Jews with the gospel.
    definitely not for wimps!

  6. …and he was circumcised for the gospel. nothing timid about that. I would’ve reconsidered my calling.

    Having said that, I do think Timothy’s inclination was timidity rather than argumentativeness:

    1. The exhortation given about the “spirit of power..” etc, is at the begining of the letter and sounds like a very pointed and particular charge for Timothy’s sake. And it’s in the context of Paul remembering Timothy’s tears (v.4). 

    2. The exhortation to avoid quarrels, on the other hand, is given in the context of explicit third person references to people who were quarrelling and instructions to Timothy to give them due warning.

    I think the most natural read is that Timothy is prone to shrink back -as would most people (I agree with you there)- in the midst of trouble makers and so is being told to take courage and act, but don’t get sucked in.

  7. Nice point Josh (about Thomas). I’ve often wondered why he wasn’t in the room with the others when Jesus appeared the first time.

    John says that they were gathered together with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews” (20:19). Was Thomas the kind of guy who didn’t really care what others thought of him? Perhaps he would have said: “Well you nervous nellies can huddle in a room with the doors locked if you want, but I’ll be blowed if I’ll hide away like a criminal.” And continued with his daily business.

    And then when they tell him of Jesus’ appearance, he says, “Right! Pull the other one; it’s got bells on it.”

    Then again, maybe I’m just constructing an elaborate back story on minimal evidence!


  8. Thanks for the feedback.

    Martin asks

    Does JS actually quote 2 Tim 1.7 in his argument re Timothy’s timidity?


    I have to point out that the quote you supply from Stott doesn’t actually use the word “timid”. “Shy”, yes, but “timid”, no. Some would say (like the person I just asked working next to me) that there is a difference.

    Fair question and comment, Martin!

    Answer, not in the book I referenced, but certainly in Stott’s BST commentary The Message of 2 Timothy

    In his introduction, Stott says

    Timothy was timid by temperament. He seems to have been naturally shy. If he had lived in our generation, I think we would have described him as an ‘introvert’. He evidently shrank from difficult tasks… (pp.19-20)

    Stott then cites the admonitions in 1 Cor 16:10-11 and 2 Tim 1:7, 8; 2:1, 3; 3:12; 4:5 as the evidence for this.

    When commenting on 2 Tim 1:7, Stott says

    We have already considered the problems of youth, ill health and temperament with which timid Timothy had to battle. He appears to have been very shy and sensitive creature, to whom responsibility was an onerous burden. (p30, my emphasis)

    I think Paul’s exhortations to him might be evidence that Timothy “shrank from difficult tasks” but not in any decisive way about his personality type. I repeat it would be normal especially in light of such vigorous opposition to find these tasks difficult and to be tempted to procrastinate or soft-pedal or otherwise avoid them.

    In fact, even that Paul had to give these exhortations still does not prove that Timothy’s track record was to shrink from these tasks but may spring more from Paul’s observation from the known failures of other fine leaders previously (e.g. Peter and even Barnabas) which pre-date his recruitment of Timothy.

    Maybe there is a distinction to be drawn between shyness and timidity; although the fuller quotes from Stott appear to show him using them in strongly overlapping ways.

    Maybe it would be better to distinguish between timidity as a temperament and timidity as a response to difficult circumstances. I am sure extroverts can be timid about the gospel in the face of opposition. I am sure normally confident people can be timid in the face of opposition.

    But Stott and others seem to be making the personality conclusions rather than the situational and attitudinal conclusions, which the evidence does not allow to be drawn so confidently.

  9. Hi Sandy

    I kind of agree: little evidence leading to too-certain conclusions. But I also have in mind 1 Cor 16:11 and 1 Tim 4:12. What was it about ‘despising’ Timothy (same word in ESV but not in the Greek)? Whatever it was, 1 Tim 4 links it to ‘youth’. Of course, that’s first century youthfulness, not 21st century.

    In other words, there may be a little bit more substance to the timid Tim idea.

    Sorry we didn’t get catch up at church on Sunday, by the way …

  10. Agree with Shane and Stu that the circumcision thing is courageous commitment!

    Stu, I agree that the exhortation in 2 Tim 1:6-8 is pointed. I just don’t think we can be so confident this gives us enough evidence to say that Timothy’s “besetting sin was timidity” (Guthrie) or to characterise him as “very shy” or an “introvert” or as “timid Timothy” (Stott) on the context of a personality assessment.

    Also remembering Timothy’s tears do not tell us he was timid. Perhaps the two strongest men in the New Testament – Jesus and Paul – are the only other two men of NT times who are explicitly said to shed tears. They speak of strong emotions (Jesus facing the prospect of the cross; Paul warning against false teaching), but not necessarily of timidity in personality.

    I think your point about the warning against quarreling is helpful in that it reminds us that 2:14ff shows that others were falling into this trap. Nevertheless, others were also falling into the ‘shame about the gospel’ trap too, as chapter one indicates, and Timothy is directly and personally warned not to be argumentative in 2 Tim 2:23-26 and to rebuke with great patience in 4:2.

    It appears – by context – that argumentativeness may be part of the complex of the “evil desires of youth” and as a young man, Timothy had to avoid them.

    My point is that in neither case should we read from the exhortations – both to be bold and to be gentle – decisive evidence of Timothy’s personality type or traits.

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