What is profound about the letter to Titus, is also what is profound about the first letter to Timothy. Namely, Paul, who was hundreds of miles away, had diagnosed the crisis of the church on the island of Crete, just like he did with the church in Ephesus.
Here is his diagnosis:
For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth. To the pure, all things are pure,but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. (Titus 1:10-16; NIV84)
But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (3:9-11)
So, let’s break it down:
- There were people who were emphasizing extreme religious behavior (i.e., “those of the circumcision group”).
- Their teaching on extreme religious acceptance was “ruining whole households.”
- They were making a profit from their teaching (“dishonest gain”).
- Some were emphasizing “foolish controversies.” Again, some people were addicted to drama.
- There were “genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law.”
- There were divisive people.
Religion is an addiction. Again, Paul was in chains because he preached a religion-free message. He, of all people, knew how difficult it was to break the human psyche from religious addiction.
It’s a simple, but intoxicating, addiction. It’s much easier to spend all of your time in small matters, propriety matters, church-attendance matters, than it is to live a radical, grace-filled, minimalist lifestyle.
Religion makes you think you are intelligent. Grace makes you see you are indebted.
No wonder people keep enforcing various religions ideals in churches today. Paul, himself, wrote in 1 Corinthians 8 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Religion makes you feel better. Love and grace make others feel better.
But here, in this small letter to Titus, Paul makes, to me, his most startling case against religious teaching: it ruins households. It divides and imprisons families. If it does this, then it is no wonder that church attendance, in America, has been declining for the past twenty years.
And, again, I’ve written this before (or, rather, Paul has taught this before), but families do not want one more thing that they are required to do. They are required to work. Required to go to school. They do not want to be, or feel, required to worship with a church.
They want to want to.
I’m afraid we are all guilty of this. Our allegiance to our particular tribe of church usually makes us enforce and force our allegiances on others. We take everything we know about “our church,” instead of our God, and use it to labor families even further.
But wait. How do we make this relevant today? No one teaches the Jewish law in Protestant churches.
No. But, for the most part, we teach other things. They sound like this:
- “You must be more involved.”
- “You must attend bible class regularly.”
- “You must give ten percent of your income.”
- “You must wear certain clothing if you attend a worship gathering, or lead a worship gathering, or distribute communion trays.”
And the list can continue. The danger in teaching religion, and not grace, is that religion makes you emphasize hell a whole lot more than is necessary. Grace is liberating. Religion is imprisonment.
If you read anything in Paul’s letters to these churches in crisis, read this. See this.
To rescue the church on the island of Crete, Titus was to find himself an inner circle of men, whom he greatly trusted, but who also had to be taught, who then, in turn, could steer the church in the right direction.
The most overlooked thing about these so-called elder/shepherd passages is that these men were probably not where they needed to be, or they did not already inherently possess these qualifications. If so, a simple instruction to Titus, to “find good men,” would have been enough. Instead, Paul spent a great amount of time telling Titus (and Timothy) to find men who were men of integrity. Evidently, Titus had to either 1) teach men to be this way, or 2) actually find them.
The latter would have been difficult, if these false teachers had created so much controversy. It would have been a struggle to actually find men who were already qualified this way.
This letter to Titus is an inner-circle book. It’s a dream-team book. It’s Titus, finding and teaching men he could trust.
(But why men and not women? Well, the answer that Paul “said so” may be simple enough. But Titus, for all intents and purposes, was a single man. Could it be that a single man, choosing women to help steer the church, would have produced an other extreme scandal among the believers?)
By the way, Paul made no requirements on the Cretan church for deacons. Just overseers. That’s somewhat interesting, but not worth a commentary here.
Anyway, this letter finds me, again, with Paul, at the end of his life, very, very, very upset at religious teaching.
If religious teaching infected grace-filled churches, his entire life would have been lived in vain.
If you try to manipulate church behaviors with five-year plans or intense bible class attendance … or if you emphasize allegiance to your particular church tribe to non-believers… or if you rarely talk about grace, and mainly talk about your awesome programs — if you do any of those things, then you, too, have disregarded the life and influence and death of Paul, and have forsaken then message of grace for the sin of religion.
As we close this letter, and thus close the final words of Paul recorded in our New Testament, we should see a man whose heart was set free by the message of grace. He walked away from overbearing religious zeal, to become enraptured by grace. If anyone has a testimony, it is this man.
And I, for one, am thankful for his life.