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.