Titus 3.1 is a favourite one of rulers, as they could direct their clergy to preach on it. Rulers, such as James VI & I liked it, because it gave him the final word.
Biblical scholars see this as another sign of the late non-Pauline authorship of the letter. Whereas both the gospels and the undoubtedly genuine letters of Paul are subversive of the Roman Empire, this passage recommends obedience. Arguably, in the wake of the Jewish Rebellion of 66-70 and intermittent persecutions of Christians, this approach of subservience had much to recommend it as a strategy of survival. That said, Christianity remained in conflict with the Roman authorities off and on through to the early fourth century. Rather than see this as a binding rule, I see this as a minority strategy among several demonstrated within the Christian scriptures. As all early Christians were non-violent pacifists, armed rebellion was not an option, but non-violent resistance tended to be more common. Only when the Roman Imperial leadership itself became Christian did the passage about being obedient become a more dominant strain. For those of us within democratic nations, where loyal opposition is encouraged, this passage has a much less important meaning.
The passage does have a clear statement about how Christians are saved. It is not by any work or effort on the part of the one being saved, but by the gift of God granted through baptism and the Holy Spirit. Jesus saves through his appearance and manifestation. There is no theology of the cross in this letter – at most it says Jesus “gave himself for us” but this can be read as referring to the emptying out of the Word into human form, as in Philippians 2 – and this can be seen as another sign of non-Pauline authorship. The language of salvation here sounds more like the Gospel according to John.
Titus is a snapshot of a church a few generations after Jesus. It is getting organized with “bishops” and “priests”, and is working out its relation to the Empire. While it awaits the Second Coming, there is also a great emphasis on personal conduct. This is not unusual in new religious movements after several decades, when there is a less committed group on the margins of the community that are members by birth and association, and less by personal conversion. There is a curious mingling of an appeal to the authority Paul combined with theology that sounds like John.
Some nineteen centuries and change later, we are also sorting things out – how to relate to the local imperium, the role of the ordained in the community of faith, and how to balance personal piety with eschatological action.
Note: Tomorrow is the First Sunday in Lent, and is technically not one of the forty days in Lent. Therefore I will NOT be commenting on the second Daily Office Lectionary text, but I’ll be back on Monday for Day 5.
Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. 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. But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure.
I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone. But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.
When I send Artemas to you, or Tychicus, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. Make every effort to send Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way, and see that they lack nothing. And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.
All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith.
Grace be with all of you.