We continue our series in the book of Titus. Last week, we looked at the character traits of the elders Titus was to appoint on the island of Crete. This week, we see the opposite: what the false teachers are like, from whom Titus must protect the church.
Titus 1:10-16 For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. 11 They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. 12 One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” 13 This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith 14 and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. 15 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. 16 They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.
This section opens with the reason for Paul’s requirement (v.9) that elders be able to teach what is true and refute those who oppose the truth. The reason is that there are false teachers among the house church groupings on Crete who are stirring up trouble.
The effect of the false teaching is clear enough: whole households are being led astray. (Churches were mostly based around household groupings, with the wealthier households having space to host others. So the equivalent today might be leading “whole bible study groups” astray – significant subgroupings of the church.)
The motivation is also plain, according to Paul: they do it for dishonest gain. How that actually worked, we’re not told: perhaps they were receiving accommodation and other benefits from the heads of households they had swayed; or perhaps the gain was honour and reputation. At any rate, Paul’s point is that they have their own interests at heart, in contrast with true leaders (remember v.7 – “not pursuing dishonest gain”). They’re just like the people of Crete, according to one of their own: Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.**
The content of the false teaching is less obvious. The most significant false teaching has a connection with Judaism. (Indeed, it may be all of it, if it’s translated “that is, those of the circumcision group,” rather than “especially those of the circumcision group.) We know that in Antioch and Galatia (Gal 2:11-14) they were insisting that non-Jewish converts come under the Law of Moses (symbolised by circumcision and the food laws). Is it the same issue here, more than a decade later?
The terms meaningless talk and deceptions* hint at speculative philosophy with a Jewish flavour. In verse 14, Jewish myths backs this up, possibly referring to the practice of Greek-cultured Jews (like Philo of Alexandria) retelling the stories in the Hebrew Scriptures (OT) using the language and ideas of Greek philosophy. The addition of merely human commands may then refer to the additions to the law made by generations of Jewish teachers and rabbis. All up, this would be quite a different Jewish distortion of the Gospel.
However, identifying the precise nature of the false teaching isn’t all that important, and can even distract us. Paul never really engages with the content of the false teaching, so much as how to deal with the false teachers themselves and the effects of their teaching. It models to Titus and the elders in Crete not to get drawn into endless, pointless debates, but simply to shut them out once it gets to that point. Later in the letter he tells Titus: “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them” (3:10). False teachers aren’t to be debated on their own terms, but rebuked (from Scripture), warned, and then ignored. (21st century update: and not endlessly flamed on Facebook in expansive comment threads, just quietly unfollowed or unfriended.) Christian leaders haven’t got time to spend their lives crossing swords with people who just like to argue, when there’s kingdom work to be done. (Note: we’re talking here about those who claim to be followers of Jesus but want to sidetrack us with distortions of the Gospel; we’re not talking about debate with those outside the people of God who bring legitimate questions and challenges which we ought to defend.)
In fact, it’s not so much the content of their teaching that marks them out as false teachers (although it does) but their conduct: “they claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” This stands in stark contrast with elders, who should be “blameless” in conduct (v.6) and “self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined” (v.8).
To think about
How often do we focus on issues of doctrine to assess a “false teacher” without also looking at the (possibly even more significant) issue of their behaviour?
How effective are you as a leader / your church’s leadership at refuting, warning, and then shutting down false teaching before it “disrupts whole home groups”?
How do we draw a line between false teaching and fellow believers who have different views on secondary, disputable issues?
* These are the standard accusations philosophers would bring against their opponents, so we can’t assume that they’re precise descriptions of what was going on in Crete. But presuming they’re at least in some way appropriate to the situation, they point in the direction of speculative philosophy.
** This is an odd verse, where Paul is quoting a famous paradox – “Cretans are always liars” – uttered by a Cretan. So was the Cretan lying when he said that Cretans are always liars? There’s the fun of the statement. So:
- Is Paul quoting it as evidence that Cretans are liars? (most commentators).
- Or is he, tongue-in-cheek, referencing the famous paradox: how can you verify the statement “Cretans area always liars” if it’s uttered by a Cretan? How can we trust these false teachers if their only source of their authority is themselves, and their own conduct points in a different direction? (See Thiselton, “The logical role of the liar paradox in Titus 1:12,13, p. 214.”)
- Or could it be mocking the “meaningless talk” in v.10 by using the famous (but pointless) paradox in his argument? (Gray, “The liar paradox and the letter to Titus.”)
One thing is sure: commentators are always wrong…