Apostolic Accommodation?

The social vision of Paul’s “Pastoral Epistles” seems so very conservative, so Greco-Romany bourgeois. They seem far too conservative to be genuinely Pauline, according to the consensus view among critical scholars.

That reading of the Pastorals is somewhat plausible if one skims the surface. Paul reinforces accepted male-female role distinctions, insists on respect for age, assumes that women will be occupied with raising children.

At a deeper level, though, the Pastorals accomplish something different.

Reggie Kidd argues in Wealth and Beneficence in the Pastoral Epistles: A “Bourgeois” Form of Early Christianity? (155-7) that “one of the principal concerns of 1 Timothy is to help rich Christians understand their place in the household of God and to help the church, in turn, learn how to make room for such people.” The role of the wealth, Kidd thinks, is to “devote themselves to euergesia .”

That seems to replicate Greco-Roman reciprocity relations, but Kidd adds that in the Pastorals “The assumption that wealth is an index of moral worth is dismissed out of hand” and “the notion that a wealthy person’s future can be secured through the shrewd cultivate of ‘friends’ – i.e., people obligated to return favors – is not even given a hearing.” The wealthy as much as the poor are utterly dependent on the kindness of God, united with the poor in need. Kidd notes too that eschatology disrupts the pattern of social relations: “the whole web of human reciprocity is dismantled if it indeed in the next age rather than in this one and from God himself rather than from earthly friends that the wealth can expect a return on their beneficences.”

We arrive at a similar conclusion from a consideration of how honor plays out in 1 Timothy (Kidd, 137-40). Three groups deserve honor – widows, elders, and masters of Christian slaves. The wealthy and high-born are not excluded from the church, or even from leadership, and Kidd points out that “the officer portraits in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are couched in terms most readily understandable to them.” But they are not honored simply because of wealth and social standing: “The deference paid to the rich and their semi-automatic elevation to leadership that would be the normal pattern in Hellenistic associations is being forsaken.” Paul wants the wealthy to continue to be generous, but without the assurances that they will win influence and repayments by their generosity. Their reward will come from their Father, like everyone else’s.

In these ways, 1 Timothy presents “a subtle transformation of the benefactor ideal.” I’d put it more strongly: It looks like a subtle transformation on the surface, but the gospel strikes at the roots of the system by revaluing Roman social values, by undoing the circles of reciprocity that shaped the rich Roman’s uses of wealth, by pointing to eschatological rewards. For theological reasons, Paul doesn’t have any intention of unraveling the fabric of domestic and social life; marriage, family, procreation, production and commerce, political and social life are created and so are good. But he does want to see the gospel challenge and remake perverse social structures. It won’t do, though, for him to focus on authority structures or gender relations, which are little more than rearrangements on the upper deck. That’s not where the action is. Paul knows that the deepest dynamics of Roman society lie beneath the surface.

When those deep-down dynamics are remade under the impact of the gospel, there will eventually be evident and lasting changes on the surface of social life. When, for example, men renounce Roman honor in favor of a Christian pursuit of glory, honor, and immortality (Romans 2), marriage will take a quite different form. When men learn to use wealth to enrich others rather than to bolster their own esteem or put others in their debt, economic life will be renewed.

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