In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Titus falls into he category of the Pastoral Epistles, which also includes 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy. They’re so-designated because they are guidance and instructions to Timothy and Titus who were the respective “pastors” for their churches. We won’t get into things like questions of authorship, audience, date, and etc. because, though not irrelevant, they are not necessarily helpful for most of us. We will assume that Paul wrote this letter to Titus, who was asked to stay on Crete in order to lead the Christian community there.
Like the letters to Timothy, Titus is a short letter. It doesn’t deal with topics in the kind of theological depth we find in Romans or 1 Corinthians. Loosely speaking, the subject matter is more practical. However, in spite of the relative brevity, this shouldn’t mean that it (or the other shorter letters) are less important.
As we’re probably aware, most of Paul’s letters are what we call ‘occasional.’ In other words, Paul writes to address a particular issue or occasion. So an important part of understanding the letter is understanding the issue that Paul is addressing. We’ll address it further as we work our way through the letter, but in short, Paul seems to be writing to a church (through Titus) that is relatively new to being a church – to being the people of God – and who are struggling with what it means to be that people set apart. Though that’s a bit of a simplification, so I hope you’ll forgive me.
So, to our passage today. From verses 1-4, we get the salutation, which is a typical feature of Paul’s letters. There’s a lot explicit and implicit in the salutation so I don’t want to pass over it – we’ll come back to it at a later time. However, I want to focus on what comes after the salutation (vv. 5-16 – the rest of chapter one). If you’re reading the NIV, you’ll notice that vv. 5-9 fall under a sub-heading and vv. 10-16 fall under another sub-heading. As far as I could tell, none of the other popular translations sub-divide the chapter one in this way. I think that’s good (not having sub-headings) because it can be mis-leading. Let’s take a look at verses 5-9.
There are a couple of things we can notice here. The term for “elder” here is presbuteron. And the term for “overseer” is episkopon. Generally speaking, there’s some disagreement as to whether the two terms are separate offices – this is how it will likely be interpreted by episcopal churches (i.e. Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox – note that some English translations translate this word “bishops”) – or whether they are simply synonyms for the same office. Now does it matter? Well it depends on what you think the passage is about.
The NIV gives us this sub-heading for these verses (“Appointing elders who love what is good”). And I’m not saying this is incorrect, per se. But how we read the sub-heading can have an impact on what we think this passage is about. Inasmuch as we think the focus of the passage is on the offices (i.e. leadership structure) of the church, it may or may not be very important whether Paul is speaking about one office, two offices, or leadership in the church generally. I’m not saying that these are unimportant questions (though I actually think they’re far less important than we sometimes think). However, I don’t really think that’s what’s going on in Titus.
Continuing on, again, the NIV has a sub-heading for the remainder of this chapter. “Rebuking those who fail to do good.” And again, I wouldn’t say this is wrong, per se, but I worry that it doesn’t help us understand the connection between the previous verses.
Looking at these verses, one thing we might notice is that Paul seems to be quite harsh towards the Cretans. He seems to be extremely critical of the people because of their failings in character. If we read just these verses, we might think that Paul’s main point is that moral uprightness is important.
What seems to be going on is that there is discord in the church due to some members leading others astray. In particular, Paul says that these members are “they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach.” The nature of that teaching isn’t entirely clear, but we do get some hints. We know that the teaching is from the “circumcision group,” it has something to do with “Jewish myths,” and “merely human commands.”
Lastly, what does is Paul’s point in talking about the rebelliousness, meaningless talk, and deception? His emphasis seems to being unlike those who engage in such behaviour.
Now, another thing to note is how the word “For” at the very beginning of this passage functions. We’ve talked before about paying attention to the “therefores” that Paul frequently employs. When we see a “Therefore,” we need to pay attention to what came before. In other words, the logical flow of a therefore passage seems to be “A therefore B.”
The “For” here seems to function kind of in the reverse. What follows is the condition for what comes before. In other words, Paul seems to be saying something along the lines of, “because people are like this, it’s really important that the church leaders [who are responsible for the bringing up of the church, the people] are not like this.”
Therefore, what do we do with this passage? Again, Paul is speaking to Titus who has been given responsibility for a relatively young church. And we need to understand this in the light of the first century, not our current context. To put it another way, this is not just a new church. It’s not a group of people who are doing what millions of other groups of people have done before them. So it’s not just people who are trying to launch a new “organization” and it’s not just people who are trying to do community in a “different” way. It’s a group of people who are among the first ever to figure out this Christ-life, this kingdom-life, stuff.
And if this Christ-life, this kingdom-life, is truly something new, then they are going to be up against challenges for which they are truly unprepared. What does it mean to live life as a kingdom-people in the midst of a world that has no idea what that means? What does it mean to live this life with a group of people who are so immersed in the not-life, who are so used to fighting for their own rights, who are so used to stepping over others, and clamouring for their own place and privilege that the kingdom-life that the apostles are talking about seems ridiculous to them?
Paul gives us some clues as to how this plays out – how it’s demonstrated.
Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith 14 and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. 15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. 16 They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.
To me, though Paul isn’t very specific here, it sounds an awful lot like what Paul has to say in his other writings. Specifically, it sounds like Paul may be referring to our tendency to rely on human wisdom and strength instead of the grace of God.
And this is what we try to remember – that it is only by the grace of God. It’s easy to miss it, but I think that Paul points to this when he talks about overseers (bishops) in verse 7. He says:
7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless…
I think the emphasis has to be, not on what the overseer and what he manages, but on the fact that it is God’s household. It’s not because the overseer manages (i.e. he has a position of leadership or prominence) that he is supposed to be blameless, faithful, and etc. But it’s because of God’s household.
And this is what we will continue to see in Paul’s letter to Titus. Because we are called, invited, to be the people of God we are called to live as the people of the kingdom of God and not as people of the kingdoms of this world. We are called to be a people set apart. We are called to be revolutionary in the way that Jesus was revolutionary.
Not like the Cretans: not as “liars, brutes, and gluttons,” but as people who live out the grace and the promise by which we have been called.
Yesterday, in our community group, we tossed out the question: “If we were to start a church from scratch; if we were to gather together a group of Christians to build and to be a community, what would our most important values be?” In the light of what Paul is talking about here, we can expand that question a little bit. In what ways would we want to be set apart? How does how we live, in the midst of a world that doesn’t seem to know Christ, demonstrate the life that we have received through Christ and the life that is available to any who would hear the call?