Titus 3:1-15—Submission, Salvation, and Ethics

“We cannot help but notice that all the above names are men. No women are mentioned in any leadership capacity. In contrast, Paul’s letters to Rome, Corinth, Philippi and Colossae all mention women leaders. Paul greets nine women out of 29 names in Romans 16.”

Minoan Palace Zakros Crete Landscape
Ruins of the Minoan Palace Zakros in Crete

Studies in 1, 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 22 (Titus 3:1-15)

by Reta Halteman Finger

As I read through Titus 3:1-15, much of it sounds like the first two chapters, except for the theology in 3:4-7. The author’s reminder about being subject to rulers and authorities (3:1) is consistent with his previous stress on order and hierarchy in both church and household (1:5-9; 2:2-10). Be obedient to whoever is in authority over you. At the same time, he includes moral teaching about gentleness and courtesy, including speaking evil of no one (3:2).

But the rest of the paragraph contains theology that sounds much like Paul’s undisputed letters. We should be courteous to everyone because we once were the same as they, as bad as anyone else (cf. Romans 1:29-2:3). “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, God saved us not by any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to God’s mercy…” (Titus 3:4-5a). Compare that with Romans 3:24, 28; 4:2-5; 11:6; Galatians 2:16, 21.

Comparing the pastoral author of Titus with the Apostle Paul

If we know the undisputed Pauline letters well enough, we can see both the similarity between them and the letter to Titus, as well as two important differences. First, the author of Titus calls God “our Savior,” a term Paul does not use, nor does he say, “God saved us.” Rather, as Jouette Bassler’s commentary points out, Paul uses the terms “justification” and “justified,” which means our sins are no longer counted against us. But for Paul, salvation is in the future (p. 207). It will occur because of this first step—justification. “Now that we have been justified by his blood, we will be saved from the wrath of God….” (Romans 5:9-10).

Bassler highlights a second theological aspect in this passage. Despite the author’s strong emphasis throughout this letter on believers doing good works and being obedient, he does appreciate Paul’s message of grace apart from works (vv. 4-5a). But he does not call it “grace”! Instead, he substitutes the terms “goodness and loving kindness” (v. 4), which are meant to be equivalent.

Why does the pastoral author make this substitution? The word “grace” in the undisputed letters of Paul, says Bassler, “is almost exclusively reserved to define God’s act of saving mercy” (p. 207). However, contemporary Roman and Jewish writers often used “goodness and loving kindness” (as in Titus 3:4) to describe the actions of humans. Our author uses these terms—which can define both divine and human action—to make a moral application. In other words, he compares God’s “grace” to the “goodness and loving kindness” humans should show to each other. Note these emphases in Titus 3:1-2: “be ready for every good work”—and “so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works” (3:8b).

Arguing with an opponent

But the author is also intensely aware of opponents in this passage (3:9-10), either within the church as a whole, or in the Jewish community on Crete. Besides being gentle and courteous to everyone, believers should avoid quarreling and controversies (vv. 2, 9). In fact, after the second time you get into a heated discussion that turns into an argument, give up! “Have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions” (v. 10). As we are reminded from time to time, “Don’t try to argue; you know your opponents will never change their minds!” This harsh tone sounds like 1:13, except that here in 3:10 there is no longer any hope that the “sharp rebuke” mentioned in 1:13 will make opponents “sound in the faith.”

Continuing male leadership

The letter concludes with final instructions to “Titus.” He should come to Nicopolis to see “Paul,” and Artemas or Tychicus will come to take his place on Crete. “Send Zenas and Apollos on their way” means to provide them with necessities as they leave—part of the “good works” referred to earlier. Tychicus is from Asia Minor; see Acts 20:4, as well as references in some of the other disputed letters of Paul. Apollos is a prominent missionary mentioned in Acts and 1 Corinthians, but Artemas and Zenas are unknown.

We cannot help but notice that all the above names are men. No women are mentioned in any leadership capacity. In contrast, Paul’s letters to Rome, Corinth, Philippi and Colossae all mention women leaders. Paul greets nine women out of 29 names in Romans 16. It is true that, when a movement is young and still being formed, all willing adherents are accepted and given tasks of leadership. Later, cultural traditions tend to reassert themselves, such as hierarchy and male domination.

If Paul wrote 1 Timothy and Titus, not only has his vocabulary changed in important ways, but also his views of women. These changes in vocabulary, attitudes, and practice shown in the letter to Titus can be explained if a later church leader was writing in Paul’s name and claiming Paul’s authority, a practice not unusual in that time and place. What do you think?

Questions for discussion and reflection

  1. If you were living in an autocracy with an emperor, would you counsel submission and obedience to rulers?
  2. What clues can you find in Titus 3:1 and 8b that clarify what these “good works” might be? How might they relate to the submission, self-control, and household order described in chapter two?
  3. What are the implications for Christian feminists depending on whether or not the Apostle Paul himself wrote 1 Timothy and Titus?

Sources used:

Bassler, Jouette. 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996

Huizenga, Annette Bourland. 1-2 Timothy, Titus. Wisdom Commentaries. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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