Truth expressed in relationships in Titus and Philemon

Most years I contribute to the Bible Reading Fellowship’s (BRF) Bible reading notes Guidelines. Some time ago I wrote on 2 Timothy, Titus and Philemon, and share my thoughts as the Pastorals, whilst the focus for certain traditions, are neglected by many churches in their teaching. Here are my notes on Titus and Philemon; see yesterday’s post for my notes on 2 Timothy.

1. Establishing God’s people Titus 1.1–14 

Paul follows the usual format of letter-writing in the ancient world, but this one has an unusual introduction, similar only to Romans in its focus. He commonly identifies himself as a ‘slave’ of God (or Christ) and an apostle or ‘special messenger’ of Jesus; the purpose of slaves and of messengers is not to drawn attention to themselves, but to serve and point to the one who sent them. But here, Paul expands on his purpose in relation to those to whom he has been sent—to build up God’s people in their faith, knowledge of the truth and their hope, and that in turn is to shape godly living. As elsewhere, Paul emphasising that this is not of his choosing, but by the ‘command’ of God.

This focus is not surprising, given the reason for Paul’s writing. Titus is not mentioned in Acts, but is referred to by Paul in his early (Galatians 2.1, 3) and later (2 Corinthians 2.13) writings. He was probably one of Paul’s converts (‘my true son’) from a Gentile background, and is not only a trusted partner in gospel ministry (2 Corinthians 8.23) but also someone who can tackle difficult pastoral issues (taking Paul’s ‘harsh letter’ to Corinth, 2 Corinthians 7.12–15) and trustworthy with the collection for the Macedonians (2 Corinthians 8.5–7). It appears that, after Paul’s release from the imprisonment at the end of Acts, he and Titus went to Crete and planted churches there, and Paul has left Titus to appoint local leaders. Paul is here not seeking to control what is happening, but to enable the delegation of shared ministry—not correcting problems, as in 1 Timothy, but putting leadership in place to avoid them.

Although Paul only mentions men as elders (‘of one wife’, v 6), we know from Romans 16 that he worked with women who shared his apostolic ministry (Romans 16.7). He recognises the importance of living an integrated life—a leader’s good standing amongst believers should reflect his competence as a leader in his own household. ‘Hospitality’, literally ‘the love of strangers’, was a notable characteristic of the early Christian community and a concern of all (Romans 12.13, Hebrews 13.2, 1 Peter 4.9). In asking leaders to be ‘blameless’, Paul is not asking for perfection, but that leaders should be mature in the faith, living distinctive lives in good standing with all, just like the first believers in Jerusalem (Acts 2.47).

2. A healthy distinctiveness Titus 1.10–2.5

Although Paul is not trying to correct errors that have already crept into churches in Crete, he is aware of the possibilities of danger. Chief amongst these threats are those ‘of the circumcision [group]’. These seem to be the ones who were arguing that to be a follower of (the Jewish saviour) Jesus, you needed to be circumcised as well—something Paul believed undermined the sufficiency of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, and compromised the offer of salvation to all, both Jew and Gentile. It was a major debate for the early church (Acts 15) and touched on a key part of Paul’s understanding of the gospel (Romans 1.16). Titus had already encountered this debate, since he was in Jerusalem with Paul, and his lack of circumcision was part of Paul’s own case (Galatians 2.3). For Paul, Jesus (and he alone) was the ‘yes’ to all God’s promises (2 Corinthians 1.20–22), and nothing need to be added to the message about him—and Paul was concerned that those whom Titus appointed would hold to the same good news. Paul’s opposition to ‘Jewish myths’ (v 14) is no opposition to Jewish faith, or the Jewish roots of Christian faith; he consistently assumes that the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament) have become the Scriptures of all followers of Jesus, Jew and Gentile alike.

Though it sounds harsh, Paul agrees with the Cretan philosopher Epimenides about the failings of his fellow countrymen (v 12)—but that could not describe all the island’s inhabitants, else Titus would find no-one to appoint to leadership! Paul’s concern is rather that Christian leaders are shaped more by the fruit of the Spirit than by their surrounding culture, and that they lead distinctive lives that others should follow. This is quite the opposite to a narrow-minded legalism; the discipline and self-control that comes with mature faith actually allows people to enjoy the freedom that is theirs in Christ (‘To the pure, all things are pure’, v 15.) Paul here uses a medical metaphor of ‘healthy’ teaching—translated in most English versions with the rather duller ‘sound’—a word he uses frequently in the Pastorals and not in his other letters, but one which makes a connection with Jesus’ own claims to be the one who brings spiritual health (Luke 5.31). Healthy churches need healthy teaching from healthy leaders!

3. Winsome living Titus 2.6–3.2

It is easy to feel frustrated that some of the ethical instructions in the New Testament don’t sound a bit more radical. The apparent acceptance of slavery and the submission to what was in reality a violent autocratic system of government seem too meek and mild and highly conformist—not just in comparison with contemporary Christian ethics but also compared with the radical ethics of Jesus. It is easy to misread Paul’s concerns in two directions—either rejecting them as a failed compromise, or accepting them as a universal agenda for social conformity.

But all letters in the New Testament are ‘occasional’—written to people in a particular time and place. The early Christian movement at this stage comprises perhaps 10,000 people in an empire of 14 million, so challenging the structures of the status quo was not an option. And this new way of life was a revelation—but it mustn’t look too much like a revolution. Any movement which was seen to be threatening the social order would quickly be put down by the Roman authorities. The message of the gospel was indeed radical, but not in ways we might realise. It offers a radical involvement of all; groups (slaves, women and children) who might be expect simply to do as they are told are appealed to as active moral agents. If offers a radical blessing of all; the ethics here are full of concern for others and kindness to them. And it offers a radical hope—that we will see the full glory of God at the coming of Jesus our saviour (the best way of understanding v 13). He is the one who not only loves us and accepts us, but effects the radical transformation of holiness in each of our lives.

Paul’s consistent concern is that this hope should be made available to all—hence the repeated refrain that ‘they should have nothing bad to say about us’ (v 8) and that ‘the teaching about God our saviour [will be] attractive’ (v 10). There were plenty of issues in which the early Christians were distinctive, not least their refusal to worship anyone other than Jesus, and Paul did not want to add any unnecessary barriers. And it worked! Over the next 200 years, this tiny band grew faster than any religious movement in history until it took the empire captive.

4. Oh, what a gift! Titus 3.3–15

The sharp contrast that Paul has drawn between the moral position of believers and those in wider society could easily give the believers a sense of superiority so that they looked down on others—were it not for two things which Paul now explores.

The first is that he is very clear that believers are, by their own efforts and in their natural state, no different from those around them. It is striking that Paul includes himself, a Jew, in the description of what ‘at one time, we also were’ (v 3). The list of seven faults are not just a matter of moral failure but of being spiritually ‘enslaved’; we needed not just teaching but rescuing from bondage. And that rescue has been effected by the one who ‘saved’ us. The ‘washing’ alludes to water baptism which acts as a sign of the inner washing by the Holy Spirit. The language of ‘rebirth’ reminds us of Jesus’ teaching in John 3, that we must be ‘born again’, but the particular term Paul uses hints at the new creation, the new world that God’s anointed one brings into being. When we are born anew of water and the Spirit, we begin to live the live of the age to come—the meaning of ‘eternal life’.

But the second thing Paul emphasises is that the change we have experienced is all God’s doing—it is his ‘mercy’ and not our merit by which we have received this gift. In Paul’s day, gift-giving was governed by strict protocols; you gave a gift to a person who merited it by their worth, and the greater their worth, the greater the gift you gave. But God turned that system upside-down in Jesus; the greatest gift of all has been given to those of no worth at all, but by the sheer kindness and generosity of the Giver.

Having received this gift, however, is only the beginning. In the light of God’s generosity to us, we now seek to be generous to others by ‘doing what is good’. There is no point in Titus engaging in ‘foolish controversies’ that will not change anything; focussing on responding to God and sharing good news in word and deed will avoid the pitfall of living of ‘unfruitful lives’ (v 14).

5. Transforming relationships Philemon 1–11 

It is perhaps surprising to find one of Paul’s personal letters in the canon of the New Testament, especially as it does not appear to be concerned with obvious issues of ministry, leadership or doctrine. But it is significant in giving us an insight into how Paul handled a difficult situation.

The first part of this short letter is dominated by Paul’s establishing of his strong relationship with Philemon before he turns to make his personal request. Luther called this letter ‘holy flattery’, and some have suspected Paul of being manipulative and underhand—but in fact the kinds of things he focusses on here are present in his other letters. He deploys the language of friendship and family (Apphia ‘our sister’ might well have been Philemon’s wife) which he uses frequently elsewhere; having been born of the same heavenly Father, all those who believe are now members of one family which transcends natural family ties. He also emphasises shared commitment and ministry; Philemon is a ‘fellow worker’, a term Paul uses for those who shared his apostolic ministry, who seems to be the leader of the Christian community (‘church’ is too institutional a term for ekklesia) meeting in his home. Another member of his family (perhaps his son?) is addressed as a ‘fellow soldier’; the imagery of fighting as a soldier is one that Paul and others use elsewhere (1 Corinthians 9.7, 2 Corinthians 10.3, Ephesaisn 6, 2 Timothy 2.3, 1 Peter 2.11).

But the theological basis of their relationship is matched by one of personal experience. Paul prays for Philemon, his family and his fellow believers, and ‘constantly’ gives thanks for them, as he does for many others (1 Thessalonians 1.2, Philippians 1.3, 1 Corinthians 1.4). It is typically that Paul’s concern is both upward (‘faith in the Lord Jesus’) and outward (‘love for all his people’), and that he sees discipleship not simply as having a decisive beginning but as also involving a continuing journey of ‘deepening understanding’. And, also typically, Paul is reluctant to demand anything even when he would be entitled to do so; instead, he prefers to ‘appeal to you on the basis of love’. The quality of relationships within the body of Christ are no mere abstraction for Paul, but make a practical difference in the way that he relates to his brothers and sisters.

6. The practice of reconciliation Philemon 12–25

In past debates amongst Christians about slavery, both sides have appealed to this letter. On the one hand, Paul appears to take the institution of slavery for granted, and offers no obvious objection to it. After all, up to one third of the population of the empire were enslaved, and an ending of the institution would have brought the social and economic structure crashing down. And yet the language Paul uses here challenges the very assumptions that make slavery possible.

It appears as though Philemon’s slave Onesimus (whose name means ‘useful’) has run away (‘separated from you’, v 15), possibly because he stole some money (‘if he…owes you anything’ v 18). He has met Paul, either by seeking him out or in his imprisonment, and has become a Christian through him (‘my son’ v 10). Paul’s affection for Onesimus (‘my very heart’ v 12) outstrips even the warmth of his greeting to Philemon—but instead of seeking the freedom of the slave, or allowing him to go his own way, he seeks reconciliation between the two which will transform their relationship. The language of v 16 (‘no longer a slave’) is rather ambiguous; Paul does not appear to be suggesting that Philemon should grant Onesimus manumission—setting him free—but does assume that the fraternal relationship between fellow believers will both transcend and transform the social relationship that already exists.

This reconciliation involves at least three things for Paul. First, it means Paul making costly decisions to prioritise the reconciled relationship over his own needs and preferences. He would rather have kept Onesimus with him, as a support in his confined situation, than send him away. But his commitment to Philemon means doing what is right by him. Secondly, it means Paul ‘standing in the gap’ and being ready to bear the cost of whatever it will take to restore the relationship and right what has gone wrong. Thirdly, Paul is committed to maintaining his relationship with both parties as they come together with one another. Not only does he emphasise his continuing partnership with Philemon (v 17), he also commits to coming to him again in person (v 22). For Paul, the reconciliation effected between us and God through the death and resurrection of Jesus (2 Corinthians 5.18–19) was not simply an useful idea or a handy metaphor—it was something that shaped his own life and relationships.

7. Reflection

These two letters of Paul, with their attention to two very different issues, have less of a sense of urgency about them, and less personal disclosure, But they are marked by Paul’s continued concern for truth in teaching and truth in relationships.

Having entrusted to Titus the task of leadership amongst believers in Crete, he hopes that Titus will in turn find people he can trust and who are trusted in their own communities and contexts. It is no surprise, then, that his focus is on character rather than gifting, and on people for whom the transformative impact of the good news is real and evident. But Paul is also concerned about the truth of the doctrine and teaching that they receive, so that they can pass on to others what Paul himself received and passed on, first to Titus and (through him) to these others. The quite distinctive nature of Christian belief, and the way that it sets apart the followers of Jesus from their surrounding culture, means that it is all the more important that there should be no unnecessary stumbling blocks to faith; leaders must present no unnecessary obstacle that would distract from holding out the offer of life which they themselves have received. The renewing life of the age to come must be lived out persuasively amongst those still living in this age which is passing away.

Christian truth will only be persuasive when it is lived out in practice. Paul’s exposition elsewhere of the reconciling power of the good news is expressed in his own concern for reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus, when both might have good reason to choose another path. Paul is committed to rebuild relationships, even at cost to himself—and the preservation of his personal letter is most likely testimony to the fact that what he longed for did in fact happen. Paul’s concerns here have continued relevance to us. How can we make sure we (and those around us) are rooted in healthy teaching, and how can that be expressed in healthy and health-giving relationships? How can we communicated God’s offer of reconciliation—and how can we live it out in an ever-divided world?


Do encourage your congregations and friends to engage in regular Bible reading; BRF’s notes are really valuable in encouraging thoughtful reflection and application.


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5 thoughts on “Truth expressed in relationships in Titus and Philemon”

  1. If I recall, Ian, the figure suggesting only 10,000 believers in the whole Empire at the end of Paul’s ministry was obtained from a previous blog. It seems such a low calculation for a sect which had an impact described as having “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6)

    This comment from the ESV Study Bible on Acts 4:4 is much more sanguine:
    “Luke continues his catalog of Christian growth: 120 (1:15); then 3,000 (2:41); and now the men alone were about five thousand, suggesting that the total number of Christians would have been well in excess of 10,000. The incredible growth of the church occurred in response to two activities empowered by the Holy Spirit: the powerful preaching of the gospel message about Jesus and the “many wonders and signs”

    Reply
    • Hi Peter,
      On Acts 17:6, one might say that those who said it might have been exaggerating for effect. Even then, Οἱ τὴν οἰκουμένην ἀναστατώσαντες οὗτοι means something like “upsetting the Empire” (as land outside was of no account). The nature of this unsettling is important: “they are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus.” It is entirely reasonable that Thessalonica as a sea port would have received reports of events (riots etc.) involving Paul in Ephesus on the other side of the Aegean. I’m not sure that verse gives evidence for the size of the Christian church at the time, only of the impact that Paul and his companions had wherever they went.

      The numbers of believers is an interesting one. The first place I read about small numbers in the 1st century was in Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity.” He could be wrong about his early numbers, which are low. However, he does make the interesting point about the comparison of the numbers in the early chapters of Acts with the population of Jerusalem at the time. More recent estimates of the population at the time range from 20,000 to 80,000 (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographic_history_of_Jerusalem). This range seems reasonable, as it is about the same size as in the period of the Ottoman empire when there are actual records (e.g. in the 19th century). A city needs feeding. If it is not accessible by sea, then there is a natural limit from the range of surrounding land which can feed it. (Rome grew large, partly because N Africa supplied it with grain). If the range is reasonable, 5000 men plus women and children represents a substantial fraction of the population.

      In thinking about the numbers, one must remember the parable of the sower. There are those who will fall away. Of those of the diaspora who responding on the day of Pentecost and then returned to their homes following the festival, how many continued in ‘the Way’, away from the fellowship and teaching of the apostles, who seem to have remained in Jerusalem at least in the period of the early chapters of Acts.

      I think that there is little evidence before the mid-third century of Christians meeting in buildings other than houses (albeit often the larger houses of wealthy people). It is generally reckoned that this means that the typical size of a congregation was perhaps 40. This means that 10,000 believers corresponds to over 200 congregations around the Empire. If I had the time today, I would count up the number of congregations which the NT records. I suspect that it is rather less than 200.

      Stark’s analysis proposes that the Church grew at a steady, compound rate of 40% per decade (rather than growing in bursts with periods of statis). That does mean that by the beginning of the fourth century and despite persecution under the likes of Diocletian at that period (c.f. Alban in Britannia, 304), Christians formed a substantial fraction of the population of the Empire. If this is right, it speaks of the faithfulness of God and also the faithfulness of ordinary Christians in their lives of witness. Perhaps we are in danger of idolising the church of Acts. The Christians who followed were no less effective in their witness to the ends of the earth.

      Reply
      • Hello, David, thanks for interacting.

        Do you not subscribe much authenticity to the ESV Study Bible; it is a fairly recent publication so presumably has up-to-date scholarship?

        Chronologically, the riot at Ephesus happened some years after the trouble at Thessalonica so that wouldn’t have been a factor. It interests me that there was such a riot due to the Christian influence; if you recall the whole city was involved. The account of the burning of their witchcraft items seemed very significant and must have involved a large body of people becoming Christians.

        The figure of 85,000 as the population of Jerusalem at the time of Acts is found elsewhere too. It has often intrigued me that following the execution of James and the attempted one of Peter that the main leaders subsequently seemed able to continue living there without being arrested. That suggests they were living amongst a very large body of people and enjoyed the consequent anonymity of large numbers.

        I have always been intrigued by the impact of Methodism in England. By Wesley’s death there were around 56,000 of them living in a population of 7 million. So, yes, smallish relative numbers can have a disproportionate impact; but Stark’s numbers do seem pessimistically stark.

        I don’t think this is idolising the Acts church; rather it is praising the impact of a people who are thoroughly in harmony with the Holy Spirit, who, as in the case of Cornelius, is always waiting to fall on us to demonstrate the glory of the Kingdom of God.

        Reply
        • On the ESV: it is a very word-for-word translation, and I am not quite convinced by all its decisions. But the worst thing about it is its ideological commitment to male ‘headship’ which flies in the face of good translation decision. To translate ‘anthropos’ with ‘man’ is really inexcusable.

          Reply
  2. (A wee side-note)

    I had read that some are of the opinion that Paul in quoting Epimenides had missed the point of the ‘all Cretans are liars’. There is a paradox which bears his name: is the statement by Epimenides ‘all Cretans are liars’ true or false, given that Epimenides is a Cretan? If it is true, then Epimenides is a liar, so it is false.

    However, I was pleased to learn (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epimenides) that the statement by (the semi-mythical) Epimenides was probably not a philosophical conundrum but a genuine comment on his countrymen. The paradox was associated with his name later.

    Paul was right to warn Titus.

    Reply

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