The Role of Timothy and Titus: Apostolic Representatives, Not Pastors

The Role of Timothy and Titus: Apostolic Representatives, Not Pastors

I sometimes hear respected Bible teachers refer to Timothy as the pastor of the church in Ephesus. One of my favorite expositors also refers to Titus as the pastor on the island of Crete. But were Timothy and Titus really pastors?1“Elders,” “pastors,” and “overseers” are used interchangeably in the New Testament to refer to the same group of men in a local church (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-3; Titus 1:5, 7). Throughout this article, I will use these terms (both singular and plural forms) synonymously.

Pastor Titus?

Titus is never mentioned in Acts, but his name is found often in Paul’s letters.2Second Corinthians 2:13; 7:6, 13, 14; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18 (twice); Galatians 2:1, 3; Second Timothy 4:10; Titus 1:4. After Paul was released from his first Roman imprisonment (at the end of Acts, around A.D. 62), he ministered with Titus on the mountainous island of Crete. What Paul wrote after he departed from the island clarifies Titus’ role: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Once Paul left Crete, there was still work to do in multiple churches around the island. Paul told Titus to “appoint elders in every town” (i.e., the churches in each town) to finish establishing those congregations. Titus was not staying in one church like a pastor does, but he was going from church to church as the apostle Paul’s “man on the ground” doing ministry similar to what certain men assisting a missionary might do today. Titus was not a pastor appointing pastors, he was an apostolic representative appointing elders.3For one New Testament scholar who uses the phrase “apostolic representative” for Timothy and Titus, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “Overseeing and Serving the Church in the Pastoral and General Epistles,” in Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond, ed. B. L. Merkle and T. R. Schreiner (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014), 90. He served under the Apostle Paul’s leadership. If he ever was a pastor, there is no biblical record of him fulfilling such a role.

Pastor Timothy?

We first meet Timothy in Acts 16. The Apostle Paul was on his second missionary journey, and Timothy “was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium” (Acts 16:2). Consequently, “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek” (16:3) This began a ministry partnership that spanned nearly two decades, until Paul’s death. During that time, Timothy served under the direction of Paul. The Apostle Paul was the missionary, and Timothy was a “worker,” “helper,” or “assistant” to the missionary who could be trusted to represent him.4We use the term “missionary” today instead of “apostle.” “Missionary” is the Latin way (from “missio”) to say “apostle.” It is sometimes suggested that a careful distinction should be made between what might be considered “Apostles” with a capital “A” — men who had seen the resurrected Christ and were trained and sent by him (Acts 1:21-22) — and “apostles” with a lower case “a” who were sent out to proclaim the gospel and to establish churches but who didn’t fall into the category of capital “A” apostles. Barnabas, for example, was an “apostle,” but not an “Apostle” (see Acts 13:1-3; 14:4, 14). There are no Apostles today (capital “A”), but there are apostles (lower case “a”) if we mean specifically men who are missionaries—those who evangelize the lost and start and strengthen churches (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). There are also “missionary workers” or “missionary helpers” today, meaning those who serve under the direction of a missionary. These workers/helpers may be male or female (for female illustrations of this, see, for example, Priscilla [Romans 16:3] and Euodia and Syntyche [Philippians 4:2-3]). They are technically not missionaries, but they assist the missionary and are often worthy of full financial support in order to serve on the missions team. Some male missionary workers will assist the missionary by teaching and appointing elders in his stead.

Timothy did minister in Ephesus without Paul for several years while Paul was still alive. But even then, he was not pastoring; he was representing the Apostle Paul under his careful guidance, helping the church in Ephesus and other churches throughout the region as Paul’s assistant. Three arguments make this case.

First, there were already elders in the church in Ephesus, so if Paul was concerned about only that church, he would have addressed the letter to all of the elders, not just one. The church in Ephesus had a team of elders at least five years before the writing of First Timothy (cf. Acts 20:17), and the church had been in existence at least ten years prior to this letter. Paul previously met with the Ephesian elders in Miletus in order to instruct and encourage them (20:17-38). It makes little sense, then, to think that Paul, several years later, would only address “pastor” Timothy regarding the church in Ephesus. Even if Timothy were one of the elders in Ephesus, it seems more reasonable to think Paul would have written to all of them.

Second, the language Paul used in addressing Timothy proves that he was serving in a role under the immediate authority of the Apostle. For example, in First Timothy 1:3, Paul commanded Timothy, “[R]emain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine.” In Second Timothy, he urged, “Do your best to come to me soon. . . . Get Mark and bring him with you. . . . When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (4:9, 11, 13). This is similar to the directional language he used with Titus (cf. Titus 1:5). Paul wrote as if Timothy had no say in the matter.5Paul was often directing and sending out men and women under his charge (cf. Acts 19:22; Ephesians 6:21-22; Titus 3:12; etc.). According to Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 248, Acts and Paul’s letters mention thirty-eight such workers under Paul’s leadership (approximately 18% were women). Some of these workers remained local, some traveled with and/or for Paul, and some were extensively involved with Paul’s ministry (such as Timothy, Titus, and Silas).

Even when Paul mentioned that he hoped to “come…soon” to Timothy, he noted, “[B]ut I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (First Timothy 3:14-15). Paul wished to come and teach about conduct in the church, but if he was not able to get to Ephesus, he sent this letter to his assistant, Timothy, so that he could bring these truths to the churches. Timothy was functioning as Paul’s representative, filling in for him in his absence.

Third, it was wise for Timothy to stay in Ephesus as a base of operations in order to minister to the various churches throughout the area. By the time Paul wrote Ephesians (several years after his long stay in Ephesus), there were multiple churches in existence throughout the Roman province of Asia. This is a reasonable deduction considering what happened during Paul’s three year ministry in that city. Early in his tenure there, while preaching the gospel in the synagogue, he faced opposition. Because of this hostility, he “withdrew from them and took the disciples with him, reasoning daily in the hall of Tyrannus” (19:9). The result? “This continued for two years, so that all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks” (19:10). Paul’s students took the gospel to the surrounding regions outside of Ephesus and, without a doubt, churches were born throughout the region. Even the letter of Ephesians itself points to this because Paul, in that correspondence, does not mention any personal names of the recipients. It seems that this letter was meant to be read by more than just the church in Ephesus.6This is even more likely if “in Ephesus” is not included in Ephesians 1:1 (a debated textual variant), which would point to a “circular” use of this letter. For the precedent of Paul expecting a letter to go beyond the immediate recipients, see Colossians 4:16.

As the years passed, needs multiplied, and the presence of false teachers increased. The churches in Ephesus and throughout Asia needed help. Timothy, Paul’s dependable partner in the advance of the gospel, was God’s provision. Ephesus, a resourceful port city of approximately 200,000 people,7Schnabel, 109. was the obvious “ministry headquarters.” Paul Trebelico, professor of theology, explains the city’s strategic place on the map.

Ephesus was . . . a key centre for land transportation. As well as having good land routes to the north and the south, two great highways led from Ephesus to the east. Firstly, the ancient Persian Royal Road, the koine hodos, the common highway, was a very important overland route which went from Ephesus up the Maeander Valley to Tralles, Nysa, Antiocheia and onwards to the river Euphrates and beyond. Secondly, from Ephesus one could travel to Sardis and then on the ancient Persian Royal Road which went to Susa; this became the primary means of linking Ephesus with the province of Galatia. Thus the two great trade-routes from the Euphrates both ended at Ephesus. Local trade from the Maeander Valley and the interior of Asia Minor also came to Ephesus. Given this strategic location it is not surprising that Ephesus was chosen as the capital of the Roman province of Asia by Augustus . . .

Another indication of the strategic location and importance of Ephesus within the province of Asia is given by the fact that a college of tabellarii (messengers or couriers) was based in the city. . . . Ephesus, as the base for the college of tabellarii, was the center of the Romans’ communications network for Asia and courier routes would have radiated to Ephesus from all the administrative centers of the province.8The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 17-8.

Timothy was not in Ephesus to pastor the church. He was in that city because it was the obvious location for an apostolic representative to more easily minister to multiple churches in Asia.

Since Timothy and Titus Were Not Pastors . . .

What difference will it make if Timothy and Titus were not pastors, but apostolic representatives? Here is just one implication: If these men were apostolic representatives, then First and Second Timothy and Titus should be essential material for missionaries and their assistants.

Since Paul is the author of these letters, we are given magnificent insight into the “heart of the apostle.” The missionary par excellence has spoken at length to two of his trustworthy workers regarding gospel ministry. These letters, then, should be clarifying and highly motivating for missionaries today. When discussing the letter to Titus with students in an Ethiopian Bible School, a man training for missionary work exclaimed at the end of our study, “This is our letter!” He didn’t mean to say there was nothing in Titus for other Christians; he was just understanding that he and his fellow missionaries-to-be should know that, of all of the letters in the New Testament, this one (as well as First and Second Timothy) has essential information for their kingdom-advancing ministry.

Along with missionaries, men who function as assistants of missionaries (primarily by teaching and appointing elders on behalf of a missionary) should master these letters. They are like “missionary helper manuals.” Again, this does not mean that there is no useful information in these letters for pastors and church members. They contain essential information for local church practice, including pastoral qualifications and responsibilities (cf. First Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-16). But the intended audience for this information was apostolic representatives in the city of Ephesus and on the island of Crete—men who were functioning like certain assistants to missionaries should today.

A Concluding Challenge If you are convinced Timothy and Titus were not pastors, but some of the first missionary helpers, here is an idea: commit to reading through First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus (thirteen chapters in all) over the next day or two. Listen to the missionary Paul’s heart as he writes to his trusted representatives. Unlike the typical designation of “Pastoral Epistles,” think of them as “Missionary Epistles,”9I first heard this designation for these three letters from Jim Elliff, president of Christian Communicators Worldwide. and see how that alters your perception of the first century missionary situation and how these letters should be applied.


1. “Elders,” “pastors,” and “overseers” are used interchangeably in the New Testament to refer to the same group of men in a local church (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:1-3; Titus 1:5, 7). Throughout this article, I will use these terms (both singular and plural forms) synonymously.

2. Second Corinthians 2:13; 7:6, 13, 14; 8:6, 16, 23; 12:18 (twice); Galatians 2:1, 3; Second Timothy 4:10; Titus 1:4.

3. For one New Testament scholar who uses the phrase “apostolic representative” for Timothy and Titus, see Thomas R. Schreiner, “Overseeing and Serving the Church in the Pastoral and General Epistles,” in Shepherding God’s Flock: Biblical Leadership in the New Testament and Beyond, ed. B. L. Merkle and T. R. Schreiner (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2014), 90.

4. We use the term “missionary” today instead of “apostle.” “Missionary” is the Latin way (from “missio”) to say “apostle.” It is sometimes suggested that a careful distinction should be made between what might be considered “Apostles” with a capital “A” — men who had seen the resurrected Christ and were trained and sent by him (Acts 1:21-22) — and “apostles” with a lower case “a” who were sent out to proclaim the gospel and to establish churches but who didn’t fall into the category of capital “A” apostles. Barnabas, for example, was an “apostle,” but not an “Apostle” (see Acts 13:1-3; 14:4, 14). There are no Apostles today (capital “A”), but there are apostles (lower case “a”) if we mean specifically men who are missionaries—those who evangelize the lost and start and strengthen churches (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). There are also “missionary workers” or “missionary helpers” today, meaning those who serve under the direction of a missionary. These workers/helpers may be male or female (for female illustrations of this, see, for example, Priscilla [Romans 16:3] and Euodia and Syntyche [Philippians 4:2-3]). They are technically not missionaries, but they assist the missionary and are often worthy of full financial support in order to serve on the missions team. Some male missionary workers will assist the missionary by teaching and appointing elders in his stead.

5. Paul was often directing and sending out men and women under his charge (cf. Acts 19:22; Ephesians 6:21-22; Titus 3:12; etc.). According to Eckhard J. Schnabel, Paul the Missionary: Realities, Strategies and Methods (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 248, Acts and Paul’s letters mention thirty-eight such workers under Paul’s leadership (approximately 18% were women). Some of these workers remained local, some traveled with and/or for Paul, and some were extensively involved with Paul’s ministry (such as Timothy, Titus, and Silas).

6. This is even more likely if “in Ephesus” is not included in Ephesians 1:1 (a debated textual variant), which would point to a “circular” use of this letter. For the precedent of Paul expecting a letter to go beyond the immediate recipients, see Colossians 4:16.

7. Schnabel, 109.

8. The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2008), 17-8.

9. I first heard this designation for these three letters from Jim Elliff, president of Christian Communicators Worldwide.