The Next Faithful Step
Godliness with Contentment
In 1 Timothy 6:6, the letter’s author (whom I will call “Paul” for the sake of simplicity) commends “godliness with contentment” to Timothy. What is implied by this phrase?
“Godliness” (in Greek, eusebia) is a recurring word in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus). It is a word found often in non-Christian Greek writings of the same time, designating what we might call religion in general. This fact, and the observation that this word in not used in the earlier writings of Paul, raise interesting questions. An earlier generation of scholars assumed that this word, borrowed from the culture, and less specific than Paul’s familiar vocabulary of “faith,” “praise,” or “worship,” indicated that the Church had arrived at a stage where it was willing to blend in to society. More recently it has been appreciated that the “godliness” of the Pastorals has plenty of particularly Christian content; rather the use of the term may indicate a growing cultural sophistication of the communities, without a dilution of Christianity.1 So whereas older commentators saw read here a desire, very unlike Paul’s, to achieve “a ‘respectability’ that stifles necessary criticism and unavoidable controversy,” more recently scholars see the use of “godliness” as indicating that “it was not yet a case of winning respectability, but of gaining basic respect.”2
This “godliness” has a number of clear dimensions in the Pastorals. In its first appearance in 1 Timothy 2:2, we are commended to “lead a quiet and peaceable life with all godliness and dignity.” The pairing of “godliness” with “dignity” points to an outward dimension, a public demeanor that Christians ought to cultivate. We can probably hear resonance of the word for “dignity” in the Latin equivalent; gravitas has made its appearance in recent politics, as some have questioned whether some presidential candidates have sufficient gravitas for the office. Dignity in this sense points to a public profile of respect in the larger society. In 1 Timothy it is clearly a dignity that itself borrows from godliness: Christian dignity testifies to the dignity of the Christian’s God. It is certainly no mere accommodation to the culture; in fact, clashes with the culture must be anticipated. 2 Timothy 3:12 warns that “all who want to live a godly (eusebôs) life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The sober dignity of the community may forestall unnecessary misunderstandings, and may well attract new followers to its embrace. But Christian “godliness” is finally at odds with the “godliness” of the Roman and Hellenistic context, so that outbreaks of persecution must also be expected.
This is largely because “godliness,” far from being a watered-down word for general religion, has definite theological content in these letters. That is clear in 1 Timothy 3:16, which presents as “the mystery of godliness” a lyrical confession or hymn incorporating several irreducibly Christian ideas: “He was revealed in the flesh, vindicated in the spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.” Jerome Quinn has noted that this is less a doctrinal formulation than a sample of theologically-loaded worship.3 Here we see “godliness” as informed and enriched by both mind and heart as the community gathers in celebration of the lordship of Jesus. If godliness entails outward demeanor and testimony, its anchor is in the vibrant shared experience of the worshiping people of God.
Our phrase in 1 Timothy 6:6, “godliness with contentment,” brings home the challenge of a deeply committed personal spirituality. “Contentment” (autarkeia) is again a virtue familiar from contemporary Hellenistic writings where simplicity is regarded as a perfect partner to a reasoned philosophical life. It is a readiness to be satisfied as basic human needs are met, without yearning for unnecessary luxuries. The Pauline references take this too in a particularly Christian direction. In Philippians 4:11 Paul writes of being “content in whatever circumstances I am,” attributing this not to philosophical determination, but to “him who strengthens me” (v. 13). Contentment derives from an awareness of, and trust in, Christ’s lordship. Similarly, the result of cultivating this contentment is different for Paul than the philosophers’ desire to achieve a contemplative life. For Paul the opportunity is to turn from a grasping insecurity to a fresh freedom for ministry, a freedom for the needs of others: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all contentment in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.” “What differentiated Pauline self-sufficiency and inner freedom was that it was not an end in itself but a freeing for apostolic service to God, to God’s people, and to all men.”4 So while “contentment” is also a word that speaks into the culture, it finally resists it, and reinterprets it. It is an aspect of Christian eusebia after all.
We return then to our original question: What does is meant when we are commended to cultivate “godliness with contentment?” First, Christianity ought to take heed to its public presence. One’s reputation is not entirely under one’s own control, but a true and transparent dignity goes a long way toward forestalling misunderstandings. Evangelicalism in North America, for instance, is finding its political feet in recent decades; our study commends to us not only that we engage as citizens, but also commends thinking seriously about how we engage as citizens, knowing that the essentially frantic or peaceful state of our heart will be observable to all.
Second, we need to process “the concern regarding the dangers of wealth and of the attitudes of mind and habits of a life that acquisition and possession of wealth encourage.”5 Christian attitudes toward material security and abundance need to be impacted and shaped by the powerful call to live in contentment.
Third, Dunn sees a lesson for us in “the readiness of the writer to draw on ideals that were common to other philosophies and religions”6 while avoiding depreciation of the central tenets of Christianity. A public presence of Christianity, commended by mature confidence and faith in the provision of God, may well find opportunity to attract the admiration of fellow-citizens, but will also discover active ways of commending itself assertively to its neighbors in insight and sympathy.