In recent days, weeks, and months, the question of the church’s role in society has been asked and pondered over and over again. Ours is a day when duly elected officials ignore the limitations of their offices to enforce their personal will upon the people they are supposed to represent. We have seen county, state, and national policy being made by ignoring any and all facts and motivated by feelings. We have seen churches being shut down, pastors imprisoned, and believers threatened by fines and/or incarceration for choosing to obey Christ rather than Caesar. What is the Christian civic duty in such a godless world?
By asking that question now only indicates that few have thought this question through before. We should realize that the world in which we live has not suddenly become godless but has been in complete rebellion against her Creator since Genesis 3. Men have not suddenly become opposed to the gospel but have always been born in sin, predisposed to hate God (Rom. 1:18-32). In other words, the reality that we, as the elect redeemed, are sons of light in a dark world is not a recent occurrence. Therefore, we must reconsider the question. Perhaps we should not ask, “how should Christians function in the world now?” but rather, “how should Christians function in the world, period?”
The text before us cannot be read outside the context of Paul’s argument. He has been instructing Titus to complete what is lacking among the Cretan churches (1:5). The first item that was lacking was biblical leadership (1:5-16). The second item that must be addressed is biblical membership (2:1-15). The third item that Paul will address is biblical citizenship (3:1-7). The churches in Crete must understand how a biblical church is formed, how a biblical church must function internally, and how a biblical church must function externally.
We must acknowledge a few things regarding these verses. First, these verses are in the context of a reminder. Titus is commanded to remind them of these things. The assumption is that Paul and Titus had already gone over much of this material in more detail before Paul ever left the island of Crete. Second, these verses are compact statements. There is not a single conjunction in these two verses and yet there is much exhortation. With these two things in mind, it would be foolish for us to consider these verses as exhaustive instruction. In these verses, Paul gives two general principles to guide godly living in the context of a godless world.
Humble Citizens (v. 1)
“Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed.”
This imperative command for Titus to remind the Cretans drives the whole of these two verses. We must not make the mistake in thinking that Titus has somehow neglected his duty. The present tense imperative carries the nuance of continue to remind or keep on reminding. There is no reason to think that Titus has ceased to speak, exhort, and reprove. Paul is here exhorting Titus to keep doing what he has been doing all along.
Exhortation: Humble Submission – The exhortation here is not hard to understand. This is about as straightforward as a text of Scripture gets. Paul delivers this information is such a tightly packed staccato fashion so that Titus will understand the necessity of it. In order to appreciate the way Titus would have read this, let’s take a look at the way this phrase appears in the Greek.
The objects of the action (rulers and authorities) are not surrounded by the actions (to be subject and to be obedient). Rather, the two nouns are immediately followed by the two actions without any joining conjunction or interruption. A wooden and rigid translation would look something like this: rulers authorities to be subject to obey (ἀρχαῖς ἐξουσίαις ὑποτάσσεσθαι, πειθαρχεῖν). This double asyndeton (a construction not “bound together” with the use of a conjunction) is used for emphasis as it delivers information in such a rapid-fire manner. But it is also a linguistic device that can bring clarity.
The term rulers (ἀρχή) literally means beginning but can be used to indicate an individual or group of individuals who stand at the head or the beginning. One of the ways we know that this indicates rulers is because it is paired with authorities (έξουσία). The term authorities helps to clarify what Paul means when he says rulers or beginning. Likewise, Paul clarifies what he means when he reminds Titus to teach the Cretans to be subject or submissive (ὑποτάσσεσθαι) by immediately following this infinitive with πειθαρχεῖν or to obey.
It’s interesting that Paul felt the need to clarify submissiveness because he has already used this term twice in this short letter. Younger women must be taught by the older women to submit (ὑποτασσομένας) to their own husbands (2:5) just as slaves must be exhorted to be subject (ὑποτάσσεσθαί) to their own masters (2:9). It is within man’s nature to rebel at each and every turn. This submission is more than passively refraining from open rebellion. It demands an active obedience. But it’s the reason or purpose for this exhortation that should really catch our eye.
Purpose: To be a Blessing – The final clause begins with the preposition πρὸς which indicates purpose. Here we see why Paul is reminding the Cretans to be submissive and obedient to ruling authorities: so that they will be ready for every good work.
The theme of good works has already been well established in this letter (1:16; 2:7, 14) and we will see it pop up again in 3:8, 14. That’s six total occurrences in the span of 46 verses (that’s an average of once every seven verses or so). But with this constant reminder for the Cretans to be engaged in good works we’ve seen Paul go back and forth between the Greek terms ἀγαθός (good – objectively beneficial, useful) and καλός (good – intrinsically wonderful, beautiful). Here Paul uses the term ἀγαθός rather than καλός.
When speaking of the false teachers who must be avoided, Paul said that they were unable to perform even the most basic useful and beneficial (ἀγαθός) works (1:16). When exhorting Titus to be an example (2:7) and explaining to the Christian Cretans the motivation behind their godly living (2:14), Paul says that they must live their lives doing works that are intrinsically wonderful and beautiful (καλός); works that mirror God’s very good (καλά λίαν) creation (Gen. 1:31).
It is doubtful that pagan rulers will make the connection between the objectively beneficial lifestyle of the Christian community and the coming re-creation which they model (thus the reason to preach the gospel in accompaniment with our lives). But they will certainly see these good works and be forced to give credit (or glory) to their God who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16). The purpose of being good, humble, and submissive citizens is to give the gospel of Jesus Christ credibility. Being ready to do good works assumes that we are actively seeking ways to benefit society at large. But these good works are defined by God, not arbitrary virtue signals that we subjectively attach goodness to.
Humble Neighbors (v. 2)
“to malign no one, to be uncontentious, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.”
With the open-ended no one (μηδένα), Paul has moved from the narrow focus of governing authorities to a more general view of society at large.
Exhortation: Humble Interactions – The NASB translates the Greek βλασφημέω as malign. This is a rather tame way of translating a verb that means to revile or to defame. When used of God this term is always translated as blaspheme, for to blaspheme God is to defame Him. The new Legacy Standard Bible translates this term as slander. Under no circumstance should any Christian defame, revile, or slander another human being. Yes, it’s that simple.
The next two terms go together and define what the Cretans are to be among their neighbors. When the NASB was updated from the 1977 version to the 1995 update, they changed uncontentious to peaceable. The Greek ἄμαχος simple means not a brawler/fighter and so either English term is perfectly acceptable. The second term gentle (ἐπιεικής) is difficult to fit into any one English term. It indicates one who is not insistent upon his own way or rights. It reflects a character who is ready to yield to others or is tolerant of others. It is no wonder that both of these terms are used by Paul to describe the moral qualifications of an elder (1 Tim. 3:3). In short, Christians must be those who get along with their neighbors and are not known as troublemakers.
Purpose: To be an Example – With the participle showing (ἐνδεικνυμένους) we find another connection back to slaves in 2:10. Just as slaves are to reveal/demonstrate all faith to be good (ἀγαθός - beneficial), all Christians in Crete are to show/demonstrate/reveal gentleness or consideration. The Greek term πραΰτητα translated consideration (NASB) or gentleness (LSB) is akin to πραϋπαθίαν in 1 Tim. 6:11. It reflects an attitude of meekness or humility that is not overly impressed with oneself. The Cretan Christians must demonstrate this humble meekness for all men.
Again. we see the purposes preposition πρὸς pointing us toward the objective. The reason for this reminder is to display true and genuine humility before a watching world. Christians must not only be humble and submissive citizens but must also be humble and considerate neighbors. Our lives must accurately reflect the gospel that we preach.
Now is the time that we must see this text for what it is: a general principle and not exhaustive instruction. Taking a simplistic approach to these verses is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.
What this text says – In general, Christians must be good citizens who submit to the ruling authorities that God has ordained (Rom. 13:1). They are placed for the specific purpose of punishing evil doers and protecting the righteous (Rom. 13:4). To rebel against these ruling authorities is to rebel against the God who ordained them (Rom. 13:2).
Likewise, we are to not be conformed to this wicked and perverse generation but be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). We are to be salt and light so that men might see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:16).
In short, this passage is a reminder to the Cretan Christians to willingly pay their taxes, obey the law, be gracious and peaceable with our neighbors, and actively seek what benefits others. When the government orders something that will benefit our fellow men, Christians should be first in line to obey. When our neighbors require a model of benevolence and humility, Christians should stand out as the obvious example to follow. But all of this is only a precursor, a platform, and a preliminary to the preach the gospel (Titus 3:3-7). But we’ll get there next time.
What this text does NOT say – This text does not demand that Jesus abdicate His throne and rightful place as head of the church (Col. 1:18) to the governing authorities. If Paul intention was simply to tell Christians to do what the government says without thought or question, then we would not need our Bibles. There would be no reason to hear, read, and understand what God has said, because we have the almighty governing authorities. This text, and others like it, do not bind the Christian’s hands in a restrictive manner but rather provide him a reason for existence as a being who will live forever and yet resides in a temporal world.
Just as the younger women are not called to submit to any and every man but only to their own husbands (2:5) and slaves are to be submissive to their own masters (2:9), there are also limits on the submission civil governments can expect of their subjects, even their Christian subjects. Their God-given role is to punish evil and protect the righteous. Therefore, as those who are made righteous by Christ, we will submit to them…until they stop protecting righteousness and seek to destroy it.
Believe it or not, the government is not God. The government does not have total authority over people. There are some things that the government simply cannot do, regardless of the political structure one finds themselves. The challenge for the Christian is not who to obey, but how to obey God. Noncompliance is not the same as rebellion. Here’s an excellent example of what I’m trying to convey.
This is a text that describes the general disposition of Christians toward the God-hating, Christ-rejecting, Satan-worshiping world. We are to submit to authorities and benefit our neighbors because we are modeling the re-birth to a world that awaits re-creation.
The irony of ironies is how the mainstream evangelical world has gotten this text 180 degrees backwards. As a whole, evangelicals applaud those who break the law through riots, lighting our cities on fire, and loot from their fellow men. Some have even gone so far as to close their churches in order to march in solidarity with these rebels. This attitude of rebellion is exactly what the apostle condemns. These evangelical leaders should repent of their sin and resign their posts immediately.
On the other hand, those who recognize that Christ is the only Lord, Master, King, and Head of His church are painted as sinful rebels who must repent. Those who are brave enough to keep their churches open and call the faithful to gather in worship of the triune God are condemned as factious men. When such men are confronted, fined, and imprisoned by the ruling authorities, the evangelical mafia shrug, smile, and scoff saying, “he should not have disobeyed the government.” The cowards who hide behind texts like Titus 3:1-2, Romans 13:1-7, and 1 Peter 2:13-17 are in fact in violation of those very texts behind which they seek shelter.
The church is called to be humble and submissive, but not cowardly. There is no dilemma between choosing to obey the government and choosing to obey our Lord Jesus. May His church repent of such simplistic argumentation to defend their disobedience. May we be gracious and forgiving as our brothers and sisters repent of their rebellion. And may we forever forsake a rebellious and slanderous attitude. Soli Deo Gloria!