(This article was first published by Jonathan Dodson’s Gospel-Centered Discipleship on August 11, 2021)
It was among the worst of times when Paul wrote to Titus around AD 65. Ruling the world during this age was Nero, an equally corrupt successor to the degenerate Caligula. By comparison to these two, every President the United States has ever had has been choir-boy-esque. Among Nero’s many inventive ways to do evil (Rom. 1:29–31), he murdered his mother and two wives to secure his throne. He is also believed to have intentionally started a massive fire in Rome which he then blamed on Christians, leading to significant persecution of the Church. Such were the times.
And Crete was the place. Some early Mediterranean converts who were recently delivered from bondage to lots of ugly sin (Tit. 3:3) had planted several local churches there under Titus’s pastoral oversight (Tit. 1:5). Theirs was a culture infamous for its moral bankruptcy. Cretans were known as inveterate liars who were enslaved to evil, beastly behavior, and lazy self-indulgence (Tit. 1:12). If not the worst of times and places, this certainly was a very bad time and a very hard place to live out the virtues of Christ, quite likely worse and harder than ours.
BY WAY OF REMINDER
So in Titus 3:1 Paul tells Titus to remind his flocks of seven important Christian virtues. Their need to be reminded implies a tendency to forget. Apparently, top-to-bottom cultural corruption creates a need for repeated conscience re-calibration. While we might not be in such ugly times now, the message Paul didn’t want the Christians in Crete to forget is one God also doesn’t want local churches today to forget.
Be submissive to rulers and authorities. The Church is to have a submissive and supportive impulse, no matter who is in charge. This is a readiness to live under the authority of God-appointed rulers (Rom. 13:1–7), 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. 2:1–2) and respect and submit to it. The anti-authority spirit so ingrained in our American identity is a denial of the law and Spirit of Christ.
Be obedient. Christians are to obey civil authority. We are to comply with the laws of the land unless we are being told 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 must make sure it’s actually about obeying God when we disobey government (Acts 4:19; 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.
Be ready for every good work. In the New Testament, the “good works” motif expresses that which is either morally or “socially” good. It refers to being good and doing good, to being a good person and to doing good deeds. Paul here commands us to be ready to do every good work for which we have the opportunity. Is there a good work that you can do for your neighbors, for your leaders, for your enemies, for your political, and even moral and spiritual, adversaries? Then be ready and willing to do it. We are not to be known for our opinions, politics, or angry and belligerent words but for our kind, generous, charitable, and benevolent deeds (Rom. 12:18–21).
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 this: 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, 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.
Avoid quarreling. Christians aren’t supposed to quarrel with each other—even if they disagree about important matters (see Rom. 14:1–19). 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.
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 resolve while facing 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 when burned as human torches in Nero’s garden.
Many Christians love to cite the fierce words of the prophets and even Jesus’s indignant denunciation of the Pharisees (Matt. 23) and turning over of the merchants’ tables as justification for their own angry outbursts. They forget that the prophets issued their warnings with tears and that Jesus lamented over the very people he denounced (Matt. 23:37).
When our tears match and manage our indignation, maybe then we will be fit to denounce. Otherwise, the gentleness of Christ is to prevail (1 Pet. 2:21–23).
Show perfect courtesy toward all people. When Paul calls us to “show perfect courtesy toward all,” he chooses a different word in the Greek for gentleness, one that may be a bit more active than the former. Beyond gentleness, the word has 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 3:17). 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. 3:11; 4:2).
There is simply a right way to treat people who are made in the image of God—even if they choose to be our religious or political enemies. 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 toward all, no matter how close the friend or fierce the foe.
BEWARE OF CREATING EXCEPTIONS
Inevitably, readers will argue their exceptions to Paul’s rules. Exceptions are easy to come by for those determined to find them. But even when exceptions allegedly exist, the spirit of these commands remains. Paul is not saying that we should disengage and simply be nice people who never speak up or pursue justice or advocate for the vulnerable among us. Jesus, the prophets, John the Baptist, and Paul all did so. But Paul is saying that there is a right way to be even in the heat of engagement.
The Christian community in this country needs a 2020–2021 do-over. There is a better way than the one we have taken. The question is whether or not we choose to 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 cast reproach on it and drive them all away.