Earlier, I posted an article arguing that the universal atonement passages in the Pastorals reflected a polemic against the fallen church leaders who held a soteriological elitism. I'm glad to see that there is strong support for this view from the recent commentaries. I must have picked up this analysis from Gordon Fee almost 20 years ago, but didn't perceive his views in light of the Calvinist-Arminian debate until about 2003. Fee's reconstruction of the situation in Ephesus has won the day. I have culled a list of pertinent quotes from these commentaries.
These are the commentaries which argue that Paul's universal passages in the Pastorals are polemical to a soteriological elitism, in order of emphasis of this issue:
New International Commentary of the New Testament: The Letters to Timothy and Titus (2006) by Phillip Towner.
Word Biblical Commentary: Pastoral Epistles (2000) by William D. Mounce.
New International Bible Commentary: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus (1984, 1988) by Gordon Fee.
International Critical Commentary: Pastoral Epistles (1999) by I. Howard Marshall.
New American Commentary: 1,2 Timothy Titus (1992) by Thomas D. Lea (Titus by Griffin).
Towner 163: "But the real concern [regarding the command to pray for all people and for government leaders], as close attention to the argument will show, is for the prayer that supports the church's universal mission to the world. That is, Paul urges Timothy to instruct the Ephesian church to reengage in an activity it had apparently been neglecting—prayer in support of Paul's own mandate to take the gospel to the whole world."
Towner 164: "Both the overall structure of the argument and the controlling thematic use of the term 'all' determine the soteriological-missiological thrust of the prayer enjoined in vv. 1-2."
Towner 164: See the diagram-outline
Towner 165: "Probably the speculative views of the false teachers or the general atmosphere surrounding the approach to the faith they promoted fostered either some sort of elitism or indifference to those outside the church."
Towner 167: "As noted, the term 'all' is intentionally universal in thrust (cf. vv. 2, 4, 6; 4:10), and probably calculated to counter a tendency toward insular thinking in the Ephesian church brought on by an elitist outlook or theology.
Towner 167: Other Pauline universal passages: Rom 15:11; 1 Cor 9:22; 2 Cor 5:19; cf. Acts 1:8
Towner 178 fn38: Against universalism, see 1 Tim 1:17; 3:16; 4:10; cf. 2 Tim 1:5
Towner 178 fn 42: "From the human side, the action is described with the verb 'to come to' (Gk ἐλθεῖν; 2:4; 2 Tim 3:7; in 1 Tim 4:3 the verbal form of the formula is equivalent); from God's side the action is described in terms of a gift: "to grant them repentance to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim 2:25).
Towner 180: "In Paul's missiology, the formula 'God is one' yields the logical corollary, 'therefore all have access to his salvation, both Jews and Gentiles.' It corrects Jewish or Judaizing exclusivist tendencies. The formula functions similarly here, supplying theological proof for the statement that God wills to save all people."
Towner 181: "'One God' implies universal access to salvation, and this implication is transferred via the concept of 'singularity' to the mediator; that is, 'one mediator' implies equally that all have access to what he mediates…. Paul anchors universal access to God's salvation in the one act of redemption and the one message about it."
Towner 183: He ties the saying that Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all people to the Son of Man saying in Mark 10:45 which says "for many." "Paul's usual preference to apply the work of Christ to 'us'(Gal 1:4 Eph 5:2; Titus 2:14) is shifted to 'all.' While this shift might be regarded as a clarification of the Marcan tradition's 'many,' we should rather think that Paul's widening of the scope from his more typical 'us' to 'all' is determined by the universal thrust of the passage."
Towner 143: "Although implicit in each occurrence of the formula, the expansion 'that deserves full acceptance' emphasizes the need for hearer to make an appropriate rational response to embrace and esteem what is said and to act accordingly."
Johnson 196: "Especially those who believe" corresponds to Gal 6:10.
Implication: then we must at least pray for all people that they be saved…. Or, merely, let's pray for all kinds of people that they be saved.
Marshall 420: "The use of πᾶς here and its repetition in vv. 2, 4 and 6 is thematic, establishing a universal emphasis which is probably polemical…. This universalistic thrust is most probably a corrective response to an exclusive elitist understanding of salvation connected with the false teaching."
Mounce 76: "Paul cites a creed perhaps solely because it asserts that Christ is a 'ransom for all.' Yet the creed implies in another way that the Ephesian church should pray for all people: there is (only) one God and (only) one mediator. If people are not offered Christian salvation, then there is no other God and no other mediator to save them, and all people are the proper objects of prayer."
Mounce 76: "It would appear that Paul's opponents are teaching an exclusive gospel that offers salvation only to a select few, and this exclusivism is made clear by their practice of praying for only certain people."
Mounce 78: "Therefore, the primary emphasis of v 1 lies on the statement "on behalf of all people" and not on prayer in general. Any theology that limits the scope of prayers for salvation is deficient."
Mounce 87: "Vv 3-4 contain the first of three reasons that the Ephesian church should pray for the salvation of all people and not just for a select few; it is pleasing to God because it in line with his basic desire that all people be saved."
See Marshall's "Universal Grace" in Pinnock.
Fee 64: "The appellation God our Savior…emphasizes that God is the originator of the saving event…and that Paul and the church have already experienced it. But neither our salvation, nor that of an elitist few, satisfies God, for God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. The point of the text is clear: The gospel, by its very nature, as Paul will argue in verses 5-6, is universal in its scope, and any narrowing of that scope by a truncated theology or by 'novelties' that appeal to the intellectual curiosities of the few is not the gospel of Christ."
Fee 64: "And to say that God wants…all people to be saved, implies neither that all (meaning everybody) will be saved (against 3:6; 4:2; or 4:10, e.g.) nor that God's will is somehow frustrated since all, indeed, are not saved. The concern is simply with the universal scope of the gospel over against some form of heretical exclusivism or narrowness."
Fee 66: "God's desire for all to be saved is evidenced in the creed itself with its statement that Christ's death was for all people. The gospel, therefore, potentially provides salvation for all people, because Christ's atoning self-sacrifice was 'in behalf of' all people. Effectually, of course, it ends up being 'especially [for] those who believe (4:10).