Beyond the Lectionary Text: Titus 1
by Chelsey Harmon
Paul tells Titus that his job is to continue the work they began while Paul was with him in Crete: organizing the believers with elders/overseers to guide their growth and protect their development. Reading through the qualifications, one thing becomes abundantly clear: living the faith with integrity is vital for everyone’s well-being.
But why do the qualifications for leadership start with familial relationships? In that time and place, men were first and foremost stewards of their homes. If they could not live out their faith by serving, upholding, loving, and encouraging those whom God had given them, then how could they do this for people who weren’t their flesh and blood responsibility? The home is the place where the faith can be most often expressed through action; if they failed to express it there, how could they do so elsewhere? If glorifying God in their small household was difficult, then leading the household of faith in the task would be impossible.
The virtues needed to foster a healthy home environment are all skills that the Holy Spirit uses to keep the church healthy/sound. When it is difficult to quickly make a laundry list of your faults or the damage you’ve done to those around you, you could be described as blameless, which means you are trustworthy and safe. Being married only once (or to one wife) is a clear indicator that you know what it means to be faithful and committed to someone/thing other than yourself. Having children who have come to faith shows that you can nurture and teach about God and the faith.
Anyone who grew up in a home with an alcoholic, someone with anger issues, or a strict disciplinarian who controlled everyone and everything to keep their image in the community intact (the sin of pride), knows all too well why Paul lists the vices he does. Such personalities do not make it safe for anyone; there is no flourishing in such an environment. The holes in the walls, struck by drunken or angry fists, even when covertly covered by well-placed pieces of furniture, still remind those who live within them that they are not safe. A church cannot be God’s sanctuary if the dangerous are given free reign.
This rich text on an important subject only gains depth in wisdom when one considers the nuance of the words that Paul chooses to use. A few of them are extremely pivotal and timely for the church today.
Translation Choice 1
I find it unfortunate that most of our modern translations use the word “violent” to translate πλήκτης. The definition in BDAG is “pugnacious person, bully.” Disqualifying bullies from church leadership is truly a word for the church today. Over the last 5 years or so, there has been a resurgence in awareness and what seems to be a deeper commitment to addressing bullying in multiple facets of society; the church, made up of sinners, is not immune. In fact, in the spring of 2015, Thom Rainer ran a set of blog posts identifying church bullies’ modus operandi and then provided ideas on how to deal with them. Though he does not cite Titus 1 or any of the pastoral epistles, Rainer’s points echo the ones Paul makes.
Most church bullies, for instance, wouldn’t say they are bullies but instead think of themselves as heroes working on saving the church. It’s clear from Paul’s description in Titus 1 and subsequent chapters that those causing problems in Crete proclaimed a different standard of morality and belief than the one passed down to them by the apostles. The rebel rousers held up their teachings as the way to salvation (their way of saving the church). Rainer also describes church bullies as people who have “self-serving agendas” and are able to use “their intense personalities to get their own way.” Among other things, Paul describes those who ought to be kept from roles of influence as being “greedy for gain,” “arrogant” and “rebellious”—all traits of someone with their own agenda, unable to submit to authority or the community. In fact, the entire list of vices that mark someone as unsuitable for leadership could be described as self-gratifying and intense personality traits.
Furthermore, the prescription for church bullies follows Paul’s ideal laid out in the pastoral epistles in the sections on elders/overseers. Rainer says that churches can’t let bullies use church polity (structure) to their advantage and leaders need to be willing to exercise church discipline. The only way that this can happen is if care is taken to put spiritually qualified people into leadership positions. Hence the care Paul takes in making his list of qualities. What better kind of person to face a bully who says whatever they want, than one who knows, trusts, and stands on the firm foundation of the gospel? What better kind of person to face a bully who seeks their own gain, than one who is self-controlled and blameless (i.e. not easily provoked)? What better kind of person to face a bully who causes disharmony, than one who is hospitable but devout to God above all else?
In a time where allowing space for all voices is heralded, do we need to better qualify what God intends for respecting diversity in our unity? Do we need to examine whether we’re avoiding uncomfortable conflicts at the cost of the safety of the community? As Jesus showed when he cleared the temple, certain activities and ways of being do not belong in God’s house, and God calls his church to be holy.
Translation Choice 2
Dealing with this kind of person might have seemed like an uphill battle then as much as it is now, especially given the setting. Paul quotes the 6th century BC religious figure from the city of Crete, Epimenides, when he writes, “’Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.’ That testimony is true. For this reason you must rebuke them sharply…” (v 12-13) History has it that there weren’t many wild animals in and around Crete, so the people took on the role, becoming a den for robbers and pirates. Just before Paul demands they be rebuked sharply, Paul says they are to be “silenced.” The verb ἐπιστομίζω carries with it a sense of putting something on/in the mouth, such as a muzzle or bridle. So it’s not just a matter of keeping them quiet in order to keep them from doing more harm, it’s also a matter of teaching and training them in the right ways—taming, controlling, even harnessing them. Hence the emphasis on having elders and overseers not only well-versed in the matters of faith and doctrine but also able to communicate, defend, and teach it to others in the community. Teaching is the way to train on proper practice.
Translation Choice 3
A third key image that gets lost in our most of our modern translations is the depiction of the doctrine/faith Paul wants to see taught and lived. Twice Paul uses the word ὑγιαίνω. One definition is to figuratively “be sound, free from error” but another definition is to literally “be healthy.” The teaching of the apostles that is meant to guide the church closer to Jesus is not only sound, it is also healthy: the church is not only an organization, it is an organism that grows on the sure foundation of Jesus by the work of the Holy Spirit. The goal of quieting the bullies and teaching them the truth is that they will become healthy in the faith. It’s good for the community, and it’s good for the individual.
All of these matters are well and good, important for shaping the community and guiding its leaders on how to conduct themselves as such. But what’s the good news? We look at the opening of Paul’s letter to Titus to find the source. With great pastoral wisdom, Paul is not afraid to tell others to imitate him as he follows the way of Christ because he knows the secret to honouring God, both personally and communally: his house is built on the sure foundation of Jesus.
Paul is writing as a servant of God, entrusted with the gospel message, meant to go out and transform lives and communities. He trusts that his message and the instructions he is providing come from “God, who never lies” and who revealed himself in due time in Jesus. What he proclaims is the same things we read in Scripture, it holds the same weight for us. It is God’s message and reputation that is at stake in how the elders and the community as a whole live out the doctrines in which we believe; but it is also the work of God through the Holy Spirit that enables us to do the work, just like Paul. Jesus is the firm foundation of the house, the Holy Spirit is the one that builds up the community of faith and uses the people of God to steward, or care for it. The renovation doesn’t follow our plans or designs, but God’s. God has not left us defenseless, but has provided us with what we need to live safely as his household of faith—a household whose way of living and speaking points beyond each individual member to proclaim the truth of God and create space for others to experience his lovingkindness. And some of us, those of us whom God has made gentle with people but firm in the truth, has convicted to seek the welfare of others and not just themselves, who are out for God’s gain and not their own honour, God specifically calls to lead, teach, protect and guide the community in all godliness and truth.
Later on Paul writes these words to summarize the good news he encourages the leaders of the community to live: “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another…” in other words, none of us our totally blameless and innocent… “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us… according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour.” (3.3-6) May the Spirit of God continue to renew the church today.