We’re continuing our series in the epistle of Paul to Titus. Yesterday, we saw Paul give instructions on what to teach the older men in the church on Crete. Today, we move to the (more controversial) instructions concerning the teaching of women. (You need to have read yesterday’s post for today’s to make sense.) Let’s refresh our memory of the first part of this passage:
Titus 2:1-5 You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. 2 Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.
3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
Yesterday, we saw how Paul told Titus to teach the older men in the church to be model citizens the way society around defines it. But to do it in faith, in love, and in endurance – three distinctly Christian virtues.
When we get to the next verse, we see Titus is to teach older women likewise. The same principle – appropriate cultural virtue in a distinctively Christian way – but expressed in terms appropriate to the role of older women in Crete : reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Just like the old blokes, don’t hit the booze hard, but live in a way that earns you respect. And don’t gossip, which may have been a particular problem (like alcoholism) in Cretan society.
They are then able to teach younger women. (Why doesn’t Titus do this directly? We’ll talk about that next week.) The specific character and behaviour they are to teach is, again, in line with what the culture around would value: to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands…
In a world in which men were expected to display virtue in the public sphere while women were restricted to the private sphere, this instruction makes sense: be the best wife and mother you can be. Here, Paul adds a reason: …so that no one will malign the word of God. Again, cultural virtue is to be lived out for a Christian reason.
And the focus of that reason is the reputation of Christians with outsiders. Don’t give the outside world a free kick at Christians for failing to live up to society’s values (insofar as those values aren’t at odds with the kingdom of God). Be the best kind of person the secular world can imagine, living up to the noblest of ideals, so that God’s reputation isn’t damaged by your conduct! At times, you’re going to have to break with the surrounding culture where the Gospel demands it – whether it be participating in pagan religious festivals and emperor worship, or taking a public stand for God’s views on e.g. justice, sexuality, and forgiveness. But the rest of the time, try to out-virtue the virtuous!
For the early Church, one of the dangers was that Christianity would become linked with secondary causes and dismissed as just a subversive cultural movement. In some places (like Crete and Ephesus) it could have become associated with moves by wealthy women to break with cultural norms (see Bruce Winter, “The ‘New’ Roman Wife”) stopping people from seeing the bigger picture of the Gospel. In the earliest stage of Christianity, it was important that the main subversive message remained in focus – a proclamation of the risen Christ as saviour and king – and that it didn’t get distracted by secondary issues (however worthy) like the role of women and slaves. In time, these could be addressed, so that Paul’s picture of a new community in which there is “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) could become progressively realised.
I make these observations regardless of whether we see in Scripture an enduring model of male headship and divinely ordained roles within the church and family. In either a complementarian or egalitarian framework, to insist that Christian women today adhere to first century Mediterranean homemaking practices, etc., doesn’t flow from how these instructions “worked” within the culture of the day. What’s more, to do so may well cause many in our world to “malign the word of God”!