Every day I turn on the news and see another traumatic event. Murders, pandemics, racism, lawlessness—what is a believer to do? Who do we vote for? How do we make an impact? Are there any biblical passages that believers can turn to for guidance?
Church historian Henry Chadwick wrote that one of the major reasons that the church grew in its early days is that it preached “the divine grace of Christ, the remissions of sins and the conquest of evil powers for the sick soul, tired of living and scared of dying, seeking for an assurance of immortality.”1 They kept the goodness of the gospel central for the people who needed its power most.
One New Testament passage that showcases this ethic is Titus 3:1-11:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.
But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.
In verse 8, the apostle Paul pleads with Titus, his protégé sent to the island of Crete, to “insist” on certain things. Literally, he wants Titus to promote the teachings in this passage vehemently.
Paul was not just making recommendations to Titus; these were apostolic directives. Note verse 8: “I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people.”
What are our directives?
In times like ours, we who believe in God must be careful to (1) devote ourselves to and (2) engage in good works which are excellent and profitable for people.2
The Biblical Background
Why is Paul pushing Titus so hard on this? Remember that writing to a pastor who lives and teaches in Crete, a place whose inhabitants were known for their immorality (Titus 1:12). Although Rome maintained control of Crete at the time of Paul’s writing, the Romans had their hands full, as the Cretans were fiercely independent. And the only thing the Romans hated more than rebellious colonies like Crete were religious sects that refused to worship the emperor—like the Christians.
Consider how the onlooking world may have perceived the believers in Titus’ churches. Christians were seen as rebellious, subversive sects bent on undermining Rome, and in some ways this was right. Christians refused to worship the emperor. They met weekly in secret private meetings. They would help the sick and dying during plagues when Rome demanded quarantines. Christians followed and worshipped Jesus, an executed criminal in Rome’s eyes. As Christianity grew, the leaders of Rome wondered what to do with these Christians.
Knowing this background, one can only wonder how Christian Cretans would be viewed in Titus’ culture. Perhaps as the ultimate nonconformists?
Subversive Wisdom for Today
Are Christians today in the West not in a similar situation? Our culture does not know what to do with committed Christ-followers. We are sympathetic to COVID-19 precautions, but we are commanded to gather for worship. We reject gay marriage while we love and proclaim Christ’s love for the people who hate us for it. We oppose abortion while we give to and build crisis pregnancy centers for women in need. We stand against lawlessness at our borders while we house and feed hungry refugees. We speak against abuses of police power that affect minorities, but we abhor lawless riots. These kinds of actions are seriously nonconformist and do not easily fit into our nationalistic political landscape.
True Christianity has always been subversive. The Christian begins his journey with unadulterated allegiance to Christ and follows him throughout the course of life, submitting to his authoritative commands as revealed in Scripture.
Paul’s instruction to Titus is simple: because of our allegiance to Christ over all, believers will always be eyed as subversive—but we can and must engage in good works as bright lights in the darkness, overcoming the suspicions of our detractors. Remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:14–16:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
Churches and individual believers who follow Christ will be continually engaging in good works. Paul teaches Titus to do this by laying out the attitude and lifestyle of a church or person engaged in “good works.”
1. They are to be submissive. “Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient…” (Titus 3:1a). As we study Scripture, we find that blind, unquestioning obedience to the state in opposition to God’s law has never been required (Acts 5:29). But we are exhorted “to be subject” (relating to attitudes) and “to be obedient” (relating to actions) to the human government that God has placed over us.3 Submission does not mean we are weak-minded pushovers. It means we, as much as possible, should cooperate with legitimate authorities as they fulfill God’s charge.
2. They are to be ready. “…[B]e ready for every good work…” (Titus 3:1b). The Greek has the idea of “making ready” and “being ready.” Good works are not an afterthought. To obey this, believers must to be prepared for opportunities to do good.
In a church I pastored, there was a single lady who always kept a frozen meal in her freezer “just in case.” She understood that she would have opportunities to give, provide and love and she prepared well. Likewise, we are to always be ready for every good work.
3. Thirdly, they are to be courteous. “[S]peak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2). A key aspect of being “light,” or doing good works, is watching our tongues. We must speak evil of no one (v. 2). This is critical wisdom this for the age of social media. This includes our parents, exes, former bosses, and spouses. It even includes Joe Biden and Donald Trump.
If this verse is a verse about anything, it reveals to us how believers are to engage in political dialogue with the world. Before we post anything on social media, it should pass the Titus 3:2 test.
- Will my words do undue harm someone’s reputation?
- Will my words start an unnecessary quarrel?
- Are my word gentle?
- Are my words perfectly courteous toward all people?
There are times in Scripture when God’s prophets use cutting language to warn his enemies or rebuke his own people. Even in the New Testament, Paul opposed Peter to his face when Peter was guilty of legalism (Galatians 2:11). Such biblical examples exist to be followed when necessary and not ignored. But knowing when strong rhetoric is necessary requires discernment and godly counsel. If we are honest, most conversations that we think require harsh prophetic woes probably do not. Because we are frail and fleshly, we should always err on the side of gentleness, following Paul’s explicit command to Titus.
4. Lastly, they are to be humble. “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). One of the key reasons that believers need to be so courteous and gentle, especially when we are dealing with unbelievers, is because we were once them. We must not forget that without the grace of God we would be right where they are, and in fact we used to be right where they are at. Paul tells Titus in verses 4-7:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
These are humbling verses. Jesus appeared and saved us. How can we be arrogant? We were not saved by our works of righteousness or correct political views; it was Jesus’ mercy that saved us. Consider how God is at the center of the structure of these verses:
“Our Savior appeared…
he saved us…
…not because of anything we had done…
…according to his mercy…
…by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit…
…who Jesus poured out.”
God is at the center of our salvation. We don’t deserve it, and we didn’t earn it; in his mercy, God did it all.
It is easy to forget the call to humility when our political passions are aroused. In the battle of ideas, it is tempting to adopt the world’s playbook, shouting down opposing voices, returning blow for blow, dredging up dirt and scandal.
How to Navigate Divisive Times
We must be different from the world because our allegiance isn’t to a partisan agenda or party. We are Christ’s. If we identify with him, our interactions with the world should bear Jesus’ fingerprints. We are Christ’s, and his mission is not a mere political action plan; it is a call for all to come and follow him.
Because of this, Paul strongly warns Titus to watch how he interacts with others:
But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (vv. 9-11)
Paul takes a hard stance as he guides Titus. If a person stirs up division, warn him twice then have nothing to do with him. Why? Because our mission is not to win quarrels—it is to share Christ with a lost world through our love and good works.
We may lose an argument from time to time, and the wrong candidate may be elected. But we do not need to fret because of verse 7: “…so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” We are heirs according to the hope of eternal life. We have an eternal inheritance awaiting us. This promise should inform our actions here. We are free to obey Christ and imitate his gentleness and boldness, regardless of the potential consequences. Even when the wrong politician takes power, the believer can press on knowing that this world is not our home.
The writer of Hebrews sums up this passage well:
For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come. Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name. And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God. (Hebrews 13:14–16 NLT)
If we want to represent our Lord while amidst a divisive and dying culture, we must engage practically in good works. Join me in taking these four impactful steps:
- Act submissively. All authority is God-derived. When we obey the laws, we obey God. Let us work diligently with those in authority over us to accomplish their God given work.
- Think proactively. The old phrase “actions speak louder than words” is still true. If our good works truly are “excellent and profitable” to all people, then let us let them communicate loudly. We must be thinking and planning ahead. People around us are experiencing crisis; let’s be ready to help.
- Communicate graciously. Words are still powerful weapons for change, but let’s make sure our words reflect our true allegiance to Christ. This means husbands and wives speaking courteously to one another; it means our political speech must be gracious, showing “perfect courtesy.” How can we lovingly pursue people for Christ while we alienate them with our communication?
- Live hopefully. Your inheritance is not the winner of this next political election. Your inheritance is the riches of knowing your God for all of eternity—streets of gold, gates of pearl and the presence of the very King himself.
1. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1967), 55.
2. What is a good work? Spurgeon summarizes them in four categories: works of obedience, works of love, works of faith, and acts of common life. Works of obedience are obeying the commands of Scripture. Works of love are loving acts for God and for our fellow man. Works of faith are what we do in reliance upon God and His promises. Acts of common life are whatever we do at home, at work, traveling, or on a sick bed.
3. Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, vol. 34, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 318.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 20, 2020.