Beware of missing the forest for the trees in Titus 21
While Paul certainly has particular instructions for older men, older women, young men, young women, slaves, and masters, the overall thrust of the chapter is equally important.
Let’s take a closer look at Paul’s instructions to walk away with a balanced understanding of the chapter—and in the process, learn a few simple steps we can apply to our Bible study, whatever the passage.
Use a Bible dictionary for background knowledge
Paul precedes his instruction to Titus by saying, “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true” (1:12–13)2. What prophet would describe his own people so harshly? To understand the situation that Paul is addressing, we need to consult a resource like The Anchor-Yale Bible Dictionary. In the article on “Titus,” we learn that Paul is quoting Cretan poet Epimenides. Paul uses the “prophet’s” words in a time of crisis. “This is why I left you in Crete,” Paul tells Titus, “so that you might put what remained into order” (1:5).
Given the immoral nature of the predominant culture, we see that Paul is establishing a contrast between those who follow various Cretan teachings, based on “Jewish myths and commands of people who turn away from truth,” and those whose behavior is based on sound teaching (1:14). Paul states that some Cretans “profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work” (1:16).
At the beginning of his letter, Paul urges his co-laborer to appoint elders for the churches in Crete so that they may “give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (1:5–9). He reaffirms this in Titus 2:1: “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” He goes on to describe behavior based on sound doctrine and offers instructions for groups of older men and women, younger men and women, and slaves (2:2–10). Titus himself is warned to guard his own manner of living, serving as an example of one who does good and who teaches with integrity, sobriety, and gracious speech (2:7–8).
Find common themes by consulting a commentary
If we focus too much on the roles Paul addresses, we might miss his point altogether. Rather than prescribing conduct based on people’s place in society, Paul is concerned with the conduct of all who profess the name of Jesus. Paul does not make comparisons, nor does he set one group against another. While his instructions for each group differ, their overall tenor is quite similar.
Consulting The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Timothy and Titus, we learn that Paul repeatedly encourages all groups to practice self-control. He often uses the phrase “so that” to emphasize the crux of his admonitions: The visible character and conduct of believers affects how others—presumably those who are not yet believers—perceive “sound doctrine.” Thus, conduct and character that “accord with sound doctrine” have the power to commend or “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10).
Look at the surrounding text
Paul’s concerns are also reflected in the behavior described in Titus 2:1–10. Titus 2:11 begins with “For,” indicating that this passage likely continues Paul’s line of thought and provides the justification for his previous instruction. Paul goes on to describe the effects of the grace of God, which brings “salvation for all people” (2:11). Titus is to instruct the community to live in a way that commends the message of salvation to everyone.
Paul’s lesson doesn’t remain locked in the first century, nor is it confined to Crete. As the modern Church, we should consider the character we exhibit through our words, our works, and even our habits of thought. Our behavior is important not because of how others will see us, but because it shapes how others see “the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10).