Setting Things Straight (ii)
The Application :
10 For there are many who are out of control, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those advocating (Jewish) circumcision.
The future of the Christian witness on Crete was at stake here. And it was not only at Crete; the entire Christian community was under threat from the “circumcision party”. The impact of erroneous teaching cannot be simply located in the “church”; it has an invasive character in the entire fabric of our lives. Sometimes when we read the book of Acts we are not sure exactly how it was between for instance Peter and Paul; it seems as if the church was “on the verge” of supporting and encouraging people who were missing the Gospel entirely. There are times when it seems as if the leaders (Peter, Paul) are themselves on the verge of taking a next step that would lead to disaster.
The structure of the social life of the people of God was under attack and that is why Paul later on writes specifically about the everyday offices in which Christian people are to work out their salvation. There is no hint that the people of God – “God’s elect” – have to order their lives exclusively along familial, ethnic and tribal lines. But this, in effect was what the circumcision party, was on about. The circumcision party held to a divisive teaching which would re-orient the Christian way entirely.
The sound doctrine which clearly refuted this ideology of ethnic superiority was to be taught so that insiders and fringe members, Jews and gentiles, Cretans and foreigners, were left with no doubt. It was not simply the outsiders who had come under the influence of this teaching. Jesus had warned his disciples that the enemies of the flock would come from within their midst as much as from outside; Paul here stresses the extensiveness of the problem they faced then and which we face now.
11 Whose talk must be stopped, since they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to – and for the sake of dishonest gain (from dodgy deals).
An elder must be able to stand up and be counted in this context – it is no minor matter. When Christian households are threatened the life of the people of God in all dimensions is under attack. The issue is God or mammon. And the dishonest gain is not only in terms of possessions, houses or goods. It can be a dishonest gain if you assume public office for yourself when you are not qualified for it, or you keep others out of such office because they are qualified for it and you are not. You’ve allowed your own selfish ambition to become the rule. This, says Paul, has devastating effects and it can ruin entire households. We should learn to expect and recognise the kind of deviousness that twists the Gospel for its own purposes; but that tendency is also in our own hearts, in our own circles. We need to learn to resist it. Deceit has to be nipped in the bud, cut off at the roots. Deceivers have to be silenced. It is part of the awesome task of the people of God to participate fully in this, by having our own act cleaned up and by standing for the truth. But what was the teaching that had to be silenced?
12 And one of their own prophets has (passed judgement on them when he) said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” 13 This testimony is true. In these terms, therefore, you should sharply rebuke them sharply, so that they will be healthy in the faith.
The group to which Paul was referring were requiring circumcision for all, or at least to be ruled by the circumcised males. Those who were circumcised were to have the established and privileged positions among the people of God – a class structure was developing within the company of the faithful – it was tying faith in Christ to a social life-style in which a particular ethnic background had privileges not shared by the rest of the Church. This is the dishonest gain which the circumcision party sought. Not that the uncircumcised would be cast out – they would be needed to swell the numbers – but the Gospel was transformed according to an ideology in which faith in the coming of the Christ had been compromised. And women are thereby second-class by definition. Another principle for their life together was being suggested.
Here is an ethnic superiority that is being launched by exploiting a presumed ethnic inferiority. This undermined the truth in a radical way, supplanting faith in Jesus Christ by mythical ethnic and gender stereotypes. Living by such stereotypes is out, says Paul. Why? Because the major lines of division among the people of God are not ethnic or gender lines of demarcation; they are the lines drawn by faith, truth and godliness.
So are Cretans truly always liars, evil, lazy? Is that the one stereotype that fits? Is that what Paul is endorsing here? If he is saying it is true, it seems to me, because Cretans are just like the rest of us – Jews, Gentiles, bond and free, male and female. And you don’t overcome lying, brutality and laziness simply by having a rite performed upon your body in order to confirm your hopes that you are one of the in-crowd, rather than one of the others, aligned with the superior rather than the inferior class of person. In other words, the Cretans who were being folled by this teaching, were in danger of simply confirming a traditional rendition of their character.
That is why such teachers of falsehood need to be taught a lesson. Maybe they will turn away from their errors and believe the truth – but the rebuke needs to be a sharp one. Not a hateful one; not a combative one; recall the standards expected of a bishop –
must be above reproach, neither full of himself, nor prone to fly into a rage, addicted to wine, spoiling for a fight, nor involved in dishonest gain (in dodgy deals).
The refutation has to be a godly refutation and must derive from the bishop’s adherence to the truth. The bishop’s trustworthiness (v.8) must derive from the trustworthiness of the Gospel itself, and because of this, the aim of the refutation is clear. Those taught
… are to no longer pay any attention to Jewish myths and the considered advice of men who reject the truth.
The avoidance of such erroneous myths pertaining to Jewish ethnic spiritual superiority is actually a qualification for those who are taking on leadership of the flock. Paul is totally opposed to grafting any “ethnic stereotypes” onto the Gospel, and does not resile from referring to the followers of Jesus Christ, all of them together as a body, as God’s elect. They are God’s because they have been born of God by His Spirit – “born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or will, but born of God”.
Paul’s teaching should cause us in the Church of Jesus Christ in Australia at the end of the 20th century (or more accurately the beginning of the 21st – see Paul’s future perspective v.2!) to seriously reconsider the way we view the knowledge that is required of Christian leaders – our learning, scholarship and professional expertise. We are not going to combat the erroneous myths of ethnicity, gender, religion and ideology only by appointing wise elders in our Churches. That has to be done. But you will note that Paul is concerned in this letter with how the Christians were living in Crete; the concern for right teaching is geared to the Christian life – we hear very little about the internal organisation of what we today call church-life. But even though we are not on Crete, and our society is more complex, the battle is basically the same. Combating those who refuse the Gospel and who foment all manner of erroneous teaching based upon ethnic, gender and class myths requires much application and a great increase in our devotion to the truth. What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ in the professional areas of our complex life where doctrines opposed to His Rule lead many up the garden path?
Such refutation can not be done in a Christian way without knowledge of the truth; refuting erroneous doctrines in health and welfare, in medicine and nursing, in law and politics, in art, music and literature, in sport and recreation, let alone in the home where we gather around the box. It requires trustworthy office-bearers in these spheres of society to oversee the work of developing a Christian mind in which we all need to share. And it is not simply a matter of combating errors as if the “truth” will automatically “pop up” as soon as all the errors are unmasked. Often it is said that the most effective line of defense is through counter-attack and we need well elaborated scientific thinking in all these areas so that nurses, doctors, politicians, farmers, lawyers, teachers can do their work as Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants and present positive Christian perspectives. They are the ones who in this society are also “in office” and they need the support of us all. But just as the people in the desert under Moses believed that they could counter-attack when God was actually forbidding it, so we should not think that we can “attack” these areas without adequate training in the knowledge of the every-day problems in these areas. If we go on the counter-attack without knowledge, as many as prone to do, we are in danger of being routed like the children of Israel were of old.
Paul’s teaching as conveyed to Titus refutes the notion that just because one is in a position of power it does not mean capability or competence. Just because you have the power does not mean that you know what you are doing. Paul puts paid to that idea. In fact if you assume that you are capable and competent when you do not have the right knowledge and understanding, you run the risk of developing myths as destructive as the ones described here. Paul calls upon us to beware! After all the circumcision party thought that they had a thing or two to teach because of what had been done to them. Could we not say that they thought that because they were adhering to an ethnic re-interpretation of God’s purposes then people had to listen to them? They assumed they had the inside running. In the same way many are the calls within the Church for us to pay heed to the latest theological re-interpretation of the Gospel. Whilst this might safeguard the privileged position of a theologian or two for another season – sales go up – it does not actually provide the understanding and insight which the many Christian professionals in our midst require as they seek to serve their LORD and Master. Whilst theology might have its own peculiar scientific task we must learn to resist all theologically-generated myths that turn our attention away from what God in Christ has done for us. We must also learn to discern who is trying to manipulate the pure teaching of Jesus Christ for their own personal advantage.
Today, in Australia, we do not tend to have to battle with the “Jewish myths” that Paul perceived to be whiteanting the Christian church on Crete. But today we have many “myths”, of ethnic, gender and religious color, which try to get our attention. They have been specifically designed to wrest control – not by sound teaching – but through pressure tactics and making people feel guilty is that they adopt a subordinate posture, inducing them to see themselves as “outsiders” who need to get on the inside. How are they to do that? Probably by going to some course, accepting the leadership of some teacher. Usually there is a cost involved in money terms. These tendencies can also be seen in public life; they are rife in the Church of Jesus Christ, when also self-interested parties seek their own selfish gain. Who will deny that they exist in the churches, in your church? We are all not immune to this.
We should not become complacent. Paul knew that Jesus Christ is the LORD of all Cretans, even of those who refuse to follow His Law and who instead try to live according to the pious stereotypes. And He is certainly the LORD of Grace whose Kingly Rule is not diminished because we don’t come from the “right” family, or a family without the right kind of blood, or were born overseas, or were born male or female, Jew or gentile, insider or outsider, bond or free, or were born an Evangelical, or a Roman Catholic, or do not have the right qualifications, have not gone to the right school etc. etc.
It is the Kingly Rule of Jesus Christ which makes Paul so concerned in v.11 where he sees the havoc which false teaching born of self-interest wrecks upon Christian and God-fearing households. It is wrecking havoc among believers; why? Because they are trapped into a scheme in which they supposedly can no longer boldly approach their Heavenly Father; they are being taught to hesitate; they can no longer boldly confess that God, the father of Jesus Christ is the Lord of their household, their study, their work. Why? Because presumably they didn’t allow a knife to be wielded upon them in the right way! They are rendered not good enough! What a travesty! There are comparable schemes afoot in our midst today; for instance, those who do not study theology, for instance, are encouraged to feel that their studies are a second-rate contribution to the kingdom of God until they have enrolled in a course in theology. And Paul goes on the attack :
15 To the consecrated all things are consecrated, but for those who are compromised and unfaithful nothing is consecrated; their thinking and perspective are (also) corrupted.
He sums up their problem – guilt makes men go from bad to worse; those who judge themselves too severely and conclude that they are unclean for Jesus’ blood to restore them will live by a spiritual dynamic which they are only too happy to foist upon others. But, Paul implies, those who know themselves to have been cleaned by Divine operation, have a knowledge of the truth and are led to godliness. They are sinful enough; the blood of Christ is enough for that. They do not have to become more sinful in order to become more sanctified by blackening their own ethnicity; by putting themselves into a subordinate position before an ideal image they concoct out of their own minds they are actually opposing the truth. Recall that Paul’s comments imply that this mythological picture of Cretan society was fomented by a Cretan who had committed himself to the circumcision party! We do not know for sure but the teaching of Titus is clearly to refute such ungodly “repentance”. Note what Paul is saying: the circumcision party say one thing, and Paul turns it around and says that it is precisely this teaching which is a case of lying, evil brutality and deceitful in its quest for dishonest gain. The circumcision party is well and truly bucketed:
16 They may lay claim to know God, but by their actions they deny Him. They are abhorant, obstinate (in their unbelief) and unfit for engagement in every good work.
They have missed the boat completely. Try and join the Gospel with mythology – even piously framed stereotypes of what it means to be a pure breed either in ethnic terms or gender terms or ritual terms – and you end up headed down the path to destruction.
That is what Paul was writing about in the first chapter. In the second chapter we have an outline of what this non-ethnically circumscribed way of life means for people of all ages, for all the different kinds of office bearers in households, for husbands and wives, for fathers and mothers, for children.
Paul’s letter assumes that the entire company of God’s people are on the march. This is the social setting of sanctification.
And then the final part of the letter concerns knowing who we are and acting accordingly in this present age. Jesus Christ rules. He frees us from the slavery of sin and Paul is keen to remind Titus that even slaves become participants in the Grace of Jesus Christ and they too are part of the company whose reason for existence is to live lives of thankfulness.
LET US PRAY
Almighty God and Loving Heavenly Father :
Out of your love and mercy for the world you sent Jesus Christ into this life of ours for our redemption. We thank you that you have called us to daily service as stewards of your Kingdom. We are aware that things continually need setting straight in our own lives, in all the responsibilities you have given us – in our households, in our marriages and families, in our churches, in our communities, in our schools, at our workplaces, in fact in all the activities we find ourselves. We know we have no grounds for pride since we so very expert at fudging the issues, and so we need strengthening and comfort of your Word to take courage and stand for the truth. Lead us away from error. Unite us from our hearts in the truth as a community of faith, happily taking our lead from Your Son Jesus Christ, that in all our words and works we might find our thankfulness increased and our love deepened. AMEN