The Worst of Times?
It was among the worst of times. Paul wrote his letter to Titus around 65AD, when Nero was emperor—a ruler who, along with predecessors like Caligula, would make former President Trump and current President Biden look like choir boys. These emperors took evil to depths rarely seen in human history. As for Nero, he had his mother and two wives murdered to secure his throne. He is also believed to have started (intentionally) a massive fire in Rome which he then blamed on Christians, which then led to significant persecution of the Church.
Those were the times. And Crete was the place. Paul wrote to Titus to tell him how to pastor believers on that Mediterranean island; people who had been converted from bondage to all manner of lust, malice, envy, and hatred (Tit. 3:3). These disciples were called to live faithfully in a culture infamous for its moral bankruptcy. Cretans were known as inveterate liars who were enslaved to evil (malicious) beastly behavior, and to lazy self-indulgence (Tit. 1:12). If not the worst of times, these were certainly very bad times, and a very hard place—every bit as bad and hard, as ours.
By Way of Reminder
In this context Paul tells Titus to remind his flock of several important Christian virtues: “Remind them,” Paul writes, “to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1; ESV). These apostolic reminders establish an inflexible standard for Christian conduct in a corrupt and degraded culture, ruled by corrupt and degraded leaders.
This is a word for our times that leaves little if any room for debate. We can discuss various extenuating circumstances that might affect how we do these things. But we should not debate that we should do these things—and that we should do them even when politics are corrupt, morals are compromised, and justice and rights are denied.
Notice that these believers needed to be reminded of these things. Presumably, that is because they are quickly forgotten. When corruption surrounds, virtue is easily neglected and compromise is easily excused. But Paul (i.e.-the Lord Jesus, through Paul) insists that we not forget what a Christian witness in a watching world looks like. We need regular moral and relational re-boots to connect us once again to God’s timeless standard. To that end Paul issues seven reminders.
Seven Timely Reminders
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities.
We might not like it, but Christians are to have a submissive and supportive posture, no matter who’s in charge. This is a readiness to follow by living under the authority of the God-appointed rulers of our day (see Rom. 13:1ff), whoever those rulers are, and no matter how corrupt they may be. Believers should not be rebellious or defiant. The spirit of America that loathes authority runs counter to biblical law. We are to honor and be grateful for authority (1 Tim. 2:1ff), and respect and submit to it.
Remind them to be obedient.
Christians are to obey civil authority. We are to comply with the laws of the land and the dictates of its rulers, unless we are being commanded to sin, or to be silent about Jesus, his truth, and his Law. There is a time and place for civil disobedience, but according to Scripture we’d better make sure that it’s actually about obeying God when we disobey government (Acts 5:29). A humble quiet and respectful spirit that says to authority “I want to submit and obey but I regret that I cannot because you are asking me to sin against my Savior, which my conscience will not permit me to do” is very different from the fiercely American spirit that has turned “I don’t want anyone to tell me what to do” into a national creed.
Remind them to be ready for every good work.
In the New Testament, the “good works” phrase speaks of what is either morally or “socially” good. It refers to being good and doing good; to being a good person and to doing good works. Paul here commands us to be ready—to be always poised and prepared—to do every good work that we have opportunity to do. Is there a good work that you can do for your neighbors, for your leaders, for your enemies, for your political (and even moral/spiritual) adversaries? Then be ready and willing to do it. Let us not be known for our opinions or politics or angry and belligerent words, but for our kind, generous, charitable, and benevolent deeds.
Remind them to speak evil of no one.
It is one thing to offer prophetic words to rulers, calling them with humble tears to repentance. It is quite another thing to bad-mouth others, spreading unfounded and/or unneeded slander, alleging all kinds of unproven (or even proven) evil against politicians and opposing political points of view. We can disagree with others without attacking or seeking to destroy them. There is a way—and too few of us have found or followed it—in which to speak of the evil in others without speaking evil of others.
Let the wise pause and consider. Humble Christians will learn how to address evil in our world without doing evil to others in the process. They will seek honesty without animosity, truth without tirades, reason without rancor, engagement without malice, a voice without vitriol, substance without slander, truth-telling without name-calling, vindication without vindictiveness. They will do all they can to avoid destroying others’ reputations or good name, while speaking the truth in love.
Remind them to avoid quarreling.
Christians aren’t supposed to quarrel—even if they disagree about important things (see Rom. 14:1-19). And according to Paul in our Titus 3 text, we shouldn’t quarrel with unbelievers either. The word he uses means that we are not to be fighters. We are not to be physically or verbally pugnacious. We are not to raise a fist or a threat or a quarrel or an insult or a reckless unfounded accusation or an “in your face” contentiousness over our differences. If we must disagree, we must do so peaceably and with respect
Remind them to be gentle.
This New Testament word for gentleness speaks of quiet strength even under fire; a spirit that does not return evil for evil or insult for insult. It is the strength of quiet passivity while under attack; the grace not to fight back or counter-attack; to receive mistreatment without retaliation. It is the quiet strength that Jesus showed when mistreated, and that early Christians revealed when thrown to Roman emperors’ raging lions, or burned as human torches in Nero’s garden.
Remind them to show perfect courtesy toward all people.
Here is another New Testament word for gentleness; one that may be a bit more active than the former. “Show perfect [all] courtesy” translates a word that connects to gentleness, but with an additional nuance of active politeness and propriety. It hints at practiced courtesy, consideration, and care.
Christians who show all courtesy will be gracious (Col. 4:5-6). They will live quietly and properly toward outsiders (1 Thess. 4:11-12). They will always show respect (1 Peter 3:15). They will greet (i.e.-welcome), love, pray for, bless, and do good to, their enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). They will season their words with grace and truth (Col. 4:6). And they will mind their own business (1 Thess. 4:11-12; 2 Thess. 3:10-11).
There is simply a right way to treat people who are made in the image of God. Of all people, we Christians should be the most gracious, the most kind, the most respectful, the most welcoming, the most attentive, the most courteous of all; and that, to all—no matter how close the friend, or fierce the enemy.
Inevitably, readers will propose their exceptions to Paul’s rules. Exceptions to the rule are easy to come by for those determined to find them. However, Paul anticipates such efforts to sidestep by using explicitly absolute and universal words. He says, “Speak evil of no one” (i.e.-not even one). “Show perfect (i.e.-all, complete, perfect) courtesy”–and do this to “all people“. When such words are used, we’d best be careful not to look for loopholes.
But even if exceptions were to exist, the spirit of these commands remains. Not that Paul is saying that we should disengage and simply be nice people who never speak up or pursue justice or advocate for the vulnerable among us (remember the example of Jesus, the prophets, John the Baptist, Paul—who did all of these). But he is saying that there is a way to be even in the heat of engagement.
Considering all of this I wonder: Could we possibly be getting any of this more wrong than we are? Judging from Christian behavior on all sides in our recent political and cultural upheaval, very few of us are even near the mark. Hence this brotherly reminder. There is a better way than the one we have traveled thus far. The question is whether or not we will take it. And there are few questions of greater importance. After all, the world is watching our witness—and what it sees will either adorn the gospel (Tit. 2:10), and draw many people to Christ, or else besmirch it, and drive them all away.