This is the third of the so-called “pastoral epistles” – letters written in the name of Paul to early spiritual leaders in the emerging Jesus community. Titus was a Gentile co-worker of Paul’s mentioned in Galatians chapter 2, and in Second Corinthians.
Like the other Pastoral Letters… the letter to Titus insists on sound doctrine, combats false teaching, revels in traditional hymns and ideas, and expresses a strong interest in making converts. Repeatedly, this letter emphasizes a concern for the unsaved and sees the good work of believers as a part of God’s redemptive plan for the entire world. (New Interpreter’s Study Bible)
This document represents Paul writing to Titus, whom he has left on Crete to organize new churches in the Pauline mission. This situation fits neither the chronology inferred from the undisputed Pauline letters nor that of Acts (which never mentions Titus or a mission to Crete). In order to fit this situation into the life of Paul as we otherwise know it, one must postulate that Paul was released from his “first” Roman imprisonment… and established churches on Crete. It is more likely that Titus, like 1-2 Timothy, was written in Paul’s name by a disciple of the second or third Christian generation, and that the situation projected by the letter belongs to the literary world projected by the letter rather than to the actual life of Paul. (People’s New Testament Commentary)
Titus 1:1-4: This greeting provides the longest explanation of Paul’s apostleship in the New Testament. It is the writers attempt to distinguish the Christian faith as taught by Paul from other versions of that faith. The entire letter “sets forth the apostolic faith in opposition to the seductive false teachings that threatened the church in the postapostolic period” (People’s New Testament Commentary). In the apostolic faith, truth and godliness are linked together. Truth is not merely abstract teaching, but transformative teaching. The term “faith” in the Pastoral Letters has come to mean “teachings” more than “trust.” It is helpful to see “faith” in both ways, with the element of “trust” being the more essential. Christian faith is a deep trust in the God of Jesus Christ about whom Christian faith teaches. There are those who want to place the content of certain teaching in the center of Christian faith, so that being Christian is to think or believe certain doctrines. They would gain some footing in the Pastoral Letters. I would argue that at the center of Christian faith is a trust relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ, and that the content of Christian teaching has a certain elasticity to it. Of course, it is much easier to explore the elasticity of Christian teaching when your very existence is not under threat, as it was when the Pastoral Letter were being written.
Titus 1:5-16: Titus was left in Crete, in the narrative of this letter, to put some things in order in the Christian communities there. Among the things he should do included appointing leaders – elders and bishops (though the distinction between them is not clear here). Spiritual leaders must be hospitable, lovers of goodness, prudent, upright, devout, self-controlled. They must also be firmly grounded of the trustworthy word of the gospel. One must be able to preach it and to question those who teach differently.
Competing teachings rear their ugly head again. The teaching that is identified as askew here has something to do with circumcision. This is not meant as a condemnation of Jewish people, but a concern for Christian teachers who have an undue fascination with the Jewish Scriptures and traditions. That they were probably Gentile is reflected in verse 14 where “their prophet” is referenced prior to citing a Greek proverb. Their teaching is disturbing whole families in the community, and their teaching seemed primarily for the purpose of making money. The author is not above using gross stereotypes against these “false teachers.” It obviously worked – have you ever heard “cretan” used as a compliment?
These false teachers taught a certain asceticism, a certain denigration of bodily life based on their unique interpretation of the Jewish Scriptures. To counter their teaching, the author writes, “to the pure all things are pure.” He then characterizes these teachers as corrupt. “They profess to know God, but they deny God by their actions.” “They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” This is very strong language and should not be encouraged in our day and time (given the history of abuse of power in the name of the Christian faith), but look at the focus of the criticism – not so much the content of their teaching, but the lives produced by that teaching. This teaching is not transformative teaching, teaching that moves persons toward good works. It is always a little difficult to interpret a passage when you just get one side of the argument, but the focus on the life lived is clear. Whatever the content of the teaching of these false teachers, even if one might accommodate certain elements of what they had to say into the broad elasticity of Christian teaching, the lives produced by that teaching were deficient according to the writer.
Titus 2:1-10: In this section the Pastor adapts the traditional form of the household code in order to present instructions to various groups in the Christian household, the church…. While in the Pastor’s context he believed it was appropriate that only authorized men serve in teaching roles, every Christian of whatever status in any social situation can serve as a teacher of the faith by the way he or she reflects the faith in daily life. (People’s New Testament Commentary).
In contrast to the false teachers, Titus is to “teach what is consistent with sound doctrine.” Christians would agree on the principle, but might disagree about the content of such doctrine. Again, a certain elasticity seems consistent with the New Testament and Christian tradition. Where one goes beyond that elasticity is a matter for on-going discussion within the church.
Different categories of people are given some particular instructions. The language of the instructions reflects some of the social norms of the time, and we might want to rephrase these instructions in certain instances. Many of the injunctions should be observed by all people. One message the author tries to convey that remains important is that our faith is to be lived out in the whole of our lives, including our family life and the life of the community of faith. It was not just the teachings of the false teachers that was troublesome, but the way of life promoted by such teachings. Christian faith retains credibility by the kind of life it produces in its followers. The author is concerned that the Christian faith not be discredited. As followers of the Jesus way, we, too, want to present a credible way of life to others. Again, we would use some very different language to describe this way of life from some of the language used here.
Titus 2:11-15: The way of life described is rooted in the grace of God – a grace intended for all. As people touched by this grace, Christians are to live lives that are “self-controlled, upright and godly.” Such lives are lived in hope. The complete fulfillment of God’s dream for the world will come, and we should live now in ways that reflect that dream. “Our great God and Savior” was a phrase used of Caesar. Here it is used of Jesus as the Christ. “Redeem” meant to pay the cost of a prisoner’s release or a captive’s freedom. It is another image for how God’s grace in Jesus Christ works in human lives. We are free from stifling patterns of life, and set free for a new kind of life, one that is “energetic in goodness” (The Message).
Titus 3:1-11: The Christian faith is to be lived not only in family and church relationships, but also in relationships to the wider society. Part of the writer’s understanding of what it meant to be ready for every good work was to be subject to the ruling authorities. In modern democracies we might translate this into the language of citizenship. As citizens of a democracy, one of our central tasks is to shape the government that provides the structures and laws under which we live. Beyond relationship with authorities, the writer encourages an open and gentle attitude toward all others. “God’s people should be bighearted and courteous” (The Message).
The writer reminds the readers that they once lived another way, but all that changed “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared.” What a striking phrase. It is not that we were good ahead of time, but that God’s grace and love freed us in new ways to be God’s good and gracious people. This new life is marked by baptism and is a life lived by the renewing power of God’s Spirit. This Spirit has been lavishly poured into our lives. This writer makes good use of water imagery, connecting baptism and the pouring out of God’s Spirit. We are heirs of God’s dream for the world, a people of hope.
Life lived in a new way because of God’s grace and in the power of the Spirit is to be insisted upon. Believers in God are to devote themselves to good works. On the other hand, they ought to avoid certain controversies – about genealogies or the law. The false teachers which seemed to be a threat to this community had tied their teachings to some obscure points in the Jewish Scriptures. The writer finds energy expended on such matters to be unprofitable. There seems to be a limit to how long those who cause trouble can remain a part of the community. Great care should be taken in trying to apply these verses. The history of the church is littered with examples of people sent out of the community who were later exonerated.
Titus 3:12-15: The letter ends as do other New Testament letters. The theme of good works is present once again, as it has been throughout the letter. “Grace be with you all.”