Self-Controlled (1 Timothy 3:2)

The man of God is to exercise a steady-minded self-control that results in right living. Σώφρων is one member of an important word family that occurs ten times in the Pastorals out of a total of 16 times in the NT.[1] It has no English equivalent sufficient to convey the full range of meaning of this word family.[2]

A survey of NT occurrences provides a helpful starting place for understanding the use of σώφρων here. When Paul stood before Festus and Agrippa (Acts 26), Festus declared that Paul had gone mad. But Paul counters οὐ μαίνομαι—he is not out of his mind, and the words he speaks are not due to insanity; they are ἀληθείας καὶ σωφροσύνης ῥήματα—words of σωφροσύνη and truth. In this passage, then, σωφροσύνη provides a sharp contrast to insanity and denotes clear and accurate thinking. In Mark 5:15 and Luke 8:35, the gospel writers use a participle form of the verb σωφρονέω to describe the previously demon-possessed man. Mark’s wording is particularly striking: “They came to Jesus and observed [θεωρέω] the man who had been demon-possessed sitting down, clothed and in his right mind [σωφρονέω], the very man who had had the ‘legion’; and they became frightened.” The people of the area observed a radical change in this man; evidently, there was an inward change with externally observable effects. In 2 Corinthians 5:13 Paul says “For if we are beside ourselves [or perhaps ‘out of our minds,’ ἐξίστημι], it is for God; if we are of sound mind [σωφρονέω], it is for you.” Here ἐξίστημι and σωφρονέω are directly contrasted.[3] In light of the approaching “end of all things” Peter commands believers to “be sober” (σωφρονέω, 1 Pet. 4:7).[4] This occurrence may not provide much help for coming to understand the meaning of the verb, but it does stand as a call for Christians to develop the quality of “soberness” in anticipation of an imminent eschaton. In Romans 12:3, Paul instructs that the believer is “not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think”—rather he is to think “so as to have sound judgment” (φρονεῖν εἰς τὸ σωφρονεῖν). Here there is a process of right thinking, not driven by personal pride but by truth, that makes it possible for the believer to σωφρονεῖν. In this passage, σωφρονεῖν is not strictly equated with φρονεῖν; rather σωφρονεῖν is made possible by φρονεῖν.

Σωφροσύνη can refer to soundness of mind or sanity.[5] But σωφροσύνη can mean much more than mere sanity. It can also refer to prudence, or a wise and clear-thinking analysis leading to the right course of action in the face of circumstances that, if mishandled, could turn out badly. Strabo (writing in the first century AD) speaks of a woman named “Pythodoris, a woman who is wise [γυνὴ σώφρων] and qualified to preside over affairs of state.”[6] Similar is Josephus’ description (σῶφρον καὶ συνετόν) of the wise woman of Abel who saved her city from destruction”[7]; or his account of Ananus, who “was a very prudent man [ἀνὴρ σωφρονέστατος], and had perhaps saved the city if he could have escaped the hands of those who plotted against him”;[8] or his explanation of Boaz’s instructions to Ruth which were designed to protect them both from accusations.[9]

Sometimes σωφροσύνη refers to restraint based on reason or principle. In these contexts, it is appropriate to translate the word as moderation.[10] Regularly the need for restraint of the passions is in view; a σώφρων person acts based on what he knows rather than how he feels, enabling him to take the right course of action. Many texts show this idea of mastery over the passions. One legitimate translation for the noun in many contexts is “chastity” and the word was often used with this specific meaning with reference to women in particular. Writing several centuries before the birth of Christ, Plato placed the following words into the mouth of his character Agathon: εἶναι γὰρ ὁμολογεῖται σωφροσύνη τὸ κρατεῖν ἡδονῶν καὶ ἐπιθυμιῶν (“for it is commonly agreed to that σωφροσύνη means to have the mastery over pleasures and passions”).[11] A person demonstrates σωφροσύνη when he acts on what he knows, resulting in choices that evidence his self-control. This connection between knowledge and behavior is further illustrated in a passage from Isocrates:

If we should be minded to look into the natures, powers, and uses of human relations, we would find that those which do not partake of these qualities are the causes of great evils, whereas those which are attended by temperance [σωφροσύνη] and justice are greatly beneficial to the life of man.[12]

Here σωφροσύνη is seen in relation to its effects on the behavior of those who possess it. Another passage from Isocrates places stress on the behavioral side of σωφροσύνη:

The Athenians of that day were not watched over by many preceptors during their boyhood only to be allowed to do what they liked when they attained to manhood; on the contrary, they were subjected to greater supervision in the very prime of their vigor than when they were boys. For our forefathers placed such strong emphasis upon sobriety [σωφροσύνη] that they put the supervision of decorum in charge of the Council of the Areopagus—a body which was composed exclusively of men who were of noble birth and had exemplified in their lives exceptional virtue and sobriety [σωφροσύνη], and which, therefore, naturally excelled all the other councils of Hellas.[13]

Since they felt the importance of σωφροσύνη, the ancient Athenians placed the decorum of young men at the charge of the Areopagus Council. Furthermore, this counsel was composed of those who had demonstrated through their living the virtue of σωφροσύνη. Aristotle (b. fourth century BC) provides an example in which soundness of mind, prudence, and a mastery of the passions that results in self-controlled behavior all coalesce:

In an irrational being the appetite for pleasure is insatiable and undiscriminating, and the innate tendency is fostered by active gratification; indeed, if such gratification be great and intense it actually overpowers the reason [καὶ τὸν λογισμὸν ἐκκρούουσιν]. Hence our indulgences should be moderate and few, and never opposed to principle—this is what we mean by ‘well-disciplined’ and ‘chastened’—; and the appetitive part of us should be ruled by principle, just as a boy should live in obedience to his tutor. Hence in the temperate man [τοῦ σώφρονος] the appetitive element must be in harmony with principle. For the aim of both Temperance and principle is that which is noble; and the temperate man desires [καὶ ἐπιθυμεῖ ὁ σώφρων] the right thing in the right way at the right time, which is what principle [λόγος] ordains.[14]

Onasander’s first-century work provides a particularly compelling example of an ancient source praising this quality in leaders holding crucial positions: “The general must be temperate [σώφρων] in order that he may not be so distracted by the pleasures [ἡδονή] of the body as to neglect the consideration of matters of the highest importance.”[15]

These classical examples that highlight self-control, though not all contemporary with Paul, illustrate a meaning that retained stability over time. In her magisterial work Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature, Helen North speaks of “sophrosyne interpreted as control of the appetites” as “the connotation that was most popular throughout the Greek world in the first century”[16] and argues that “to Paul sophrosyne usually signifies self-control and mastery of the appetites.”[17]

To sum it up: In many contexts, σωφροσύνη communicates an inner rule of wisdom resulting in self-control that enables right action, even in difficult or tempting circumstances. It often especially refers to an individual’s ability to rise above the passions to act in the best way possible in any given situation and as a way of life.[18] In the Pastorals, the word family is particularly prominent and fits the epistles’ emphasis on the Christian responsibility to further God’s saving purposes by maintaining a good testimony before the world. Although σωφροσύνη is required of all Christians, it is especially critical that Christian leaders be self-controlled (σώφρων) to an exemplary degree—that in this area they show themselves blameless.

[1] NT references outside the Pastorals: Mark 5:15, Luke 8:35, Acts 26:25, Romans 12:3, 2 Corinthians 5:13, 1 Peter 4:7.

[2] Spicq says the words in this family are “strictly speaking, untranslatable.” TLNT, 359. While “untranslatable” probably overstates the case, it is difficult to translate members of this word family with simple word-to-word correspondence.

[3] Σωφρονέω here may be the opposite of being out of one’s mind (ἐξίστημι can have this meaning and perhaps Paul is addressing the impressions or accusations of critics); but in this context, ἐξίστημι may refer to having personal ecstatic experiences (see cognate ἔκστασις used in this way in Acts 10:10; 11:5; and 22:17). For a helpful overview of different perspectives on 2 Corinthians 5:13, see David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, vol. 29 of The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 274–277.

[4] EDNT argues that “this attitude refers to the separation from human desires (cf. 1 Pet 1:13f.; 2:11; 4:2ff.) while focusing on God’s coming world” and rightly notes that “this is not a criticism of ‘eschatological frenzy’ (contra Luck 1102; Spicq 867f.).” EDNT, 330.

[5] EDNT 330. See also Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.1.16, where σωφροσύνη is contrasted with μανία.

[6] Strabo, Geography 12.3.29.

[7] Antiquities of the Jews 7:289.

[8] Wars of the Jews 4:151.

[9] Antiquities of the Jews 5:330.

[10] See for instance Ant. 5:285.

[11] Symposium 196.

[12] Isocrates, 3.30. Isocrates lived several centuries before the birth of Christ.

[13] Isoc., 7.37.

[14] Nicomachean Ethics 3.12.7–9.

[15] Strategikos 1.2.

[16] (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966), 312.

[17] Ibid., 317.

[18] Marshall says of σωφροσύνη in the Pastorals that “it communicates in readily understandable terms the idea of ‘a suitable restraint in every respect’, a self-control which leads to behaviour appropriate to the situation, and is to be seen as a positive virtue as the Christian faces the realities of life in the world.” A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, 184.