In modern times, the question of ethics creates a philosophical dilemma. While most accept the importance of ethics, and even demand ethical behavior of their civic, religious, and business leaders, few agree on a shared moral framework that constitutes right or wrong behavior within a domain. What makes an act right or wrong? And what ought to guide the ethics of individuals or organizations? Historically, ethicists have offered various philosophical approaches to such questions to guide an ethical decision maker toward the good. But each sets the fulcrum upon which ethical decision are balanced at different locations. Consequentialists evaluate the good by the consequences of the action (Fedler, 2017). Deontologists look to rationally-discerned universal rules or principles (Fedler, 2017). Virtue ethicists emphasize the character of the agent rather than the actions he or she takes (Fedler, 2017). Unfortunately, ethical decisions based upon these philosophies often lead to contradictory or even competing outcomes.
First-century Christians faced a similar ethical dilemma in their commitment to follow Christ within a dominant culture of pagan gods. Early Christian writers focused much attention on the ethical behavior of the Christians as an apologetic against misunderstandings and accusations leveled against them by the larger society (Fedler, 2017). They were, in fact, motivated to show the moral superiority of Christian ethics over those of paganism (Fedler, 2017). But even within the early church, believers came from vastly different cultural perspectives and group associations that challenged ethical development within the newly forged community (Ackerman, 2015). For Gentile believers, their new faith in Christ removed them from their former political, social, and religious associations in the Roman Empire. Jewish believers, already removed from their Roman communities and cloistered in local synagogues, experienced tension with their Jewish brethren because of their newly found acceptance and association with the formerly despised Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ (Ackerman, 2015). Among these various, and often conflicting, worldviews, which would form the moral framework of the new community in Christ?
In the pastoral epistle of Titus, Paul instructs Titus to “put what remained in order” for the church in Crete and “appoint elders in every town” (Titus 1:5, English Standard Version). Paul’s concern was that the ethics of the church leadership contrasted remarkably with the Cretan reputation as “liars, even beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:5; 12). He wanted Titus to develop ethical Christian leadership capable of preserving sound doctrine and promoting right conduct in the Cretan church (Titus 1:10-16). Throughout the letter to Titus, Paul institutes Christian leadership among these new, culturally set-apart, communities as stewards entrusted with the formation of God’s people who are devoted to “good works” (Titus 3:8). Consequently, the ethics of a Christian leader emerge out of God’s formative work within the community of his people, rather than from abstract ethical principles disconnected from genuine community identity.
A social and cultural analysis of the context of Titus 2:11-3:11 uncovers the cultural, social, and political world that Paul, Titus, and the Cretan church inhabited, and which formed their ethics for Christian leadership in the early church (Robbins, 1996). The cultural and social environment of this world influenced how Titus received and interpreted Paul’s message to him on leadership. The foundling Cretan church faced difficult ethical challenges in forming a viable Christian subculture. In his letter, Paul instructs Titus on the formation of ethical Christian leadership appropriate for the honor and shame cultures of the Roman world. Specifically, because of his desire to establish sound doctrine and right social order within the church as a living apologetic to the watching world, Paul offers Titus the subculture rhetoric with a conversionist response to that world.
Redefining Honor and Shame within a Christian Subculture
Honor and shame dynamics dominated the culture of the first-century Roman world. Within this values framework that determined appropriate roles and behaviors of societal members, the Christian church was a community set apart from the larger societies that had previously ascribed to them a highly desired status of public honor. Honor was a social rating that determined how a person ought to engage with others of lower, equal, or superior status in socially prescribed ways (Robbins, 1996). Identity and personal worth within an honor/shame culture was bestowed upon people by their primary communities (Robbins, 1996). It was not self-generated as modern and largely western individualistic cultures suppose (Robbins, 1996). Ancient honor/shame cultures conceived of personalities as dyadic in nature. In other words, an individual’s self-image was formed according to the perceptions of others and the feedback they received in social exchanges (Robbins, 1996). The community assigned honor and shame to its members, and thus, exerted tremendous pressure on individuals to control behaviors and conform to societal expectations (Ackerman, 2015).
The family was the primary source of honor for a person (Ackerman, 2015). Honor was crucial for participation in familial and, by extension, societal life because it defined the normative parameters of relationships (Ackerman, 2015). Unacceptable behaviors threated group cohesion (Ackerman, 2015). Therefore, Paul’s designation of the church “a people for [God’s] own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14) defines the family context of the Cretan church (Ackerman, 2015). Because they are God’s family, they ought to behave according to the household codes following in Titus 3:1-2 (Ackerman, 2015). These behaviors honor their community head, God, and, by extension, the entire community of God. Essentially, Paul re-zoned the parameters of honor and shame for the church as defined by their new life in Christ (Ackerman, 2015). They were a subculture set up apart from the larger culture and how it defined honor.
Subculture rhetoric often claims that it performs the values and norms of the dominant culture better than members of the dominant culture (Robbins, 1996). We find this in Titus where Paul infuses subculture rhetoric in his instructions to Titus:
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. (Titus 3:1-2)
Paul’s concern was to present Christianity to the larger society as a philosophy that trains its members to renounce “impiety and worldly passions” and “live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly” (DeSilva, 2004; Titus 2:12). These, in fact, represented the highest ethical ideals of Greco-Roman philosophy (DeSilva, 2004). Paul institutes these household codes for the family of God in Crete so that they may demonstrate lives that enhance the reputation of this fledgling Christian movement (DeSilva, 2004). Paul was eager that the credibility of God’s word, which was dangerously counterculture, would be demonstrated by the ethical conduct of the Christians in accordance with the dominant culture’s ideals (Collins, 2000).
Of particular concern was the proliferation of false teaching and its degenerative effect on the cohesiveness of the Christian community. Paul warns Titus to “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law” precisely because they were unprofitable, worthless, and divisive (Titus 3:9-10). To combat these worthless teachings, Paul reminds them of a “trustworthy saying” (Titus 3:3-8) that is excellent and profitable. He describes a new foundation of honor and shame in the family of God based upon the “goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior” (Ackerman, 2015; Titus 3:4). The central concern of church leaders, including Titus and the elders he was instructed to appoint (Titus 1:5), was to promote the household of God according to this new honor/shame reality (Goodrich, 2013). Essentially, the task of these church leaders was to resocialize the Cretan Christians within both their faith community and society at large (Goodrich, 2013). Having been justified by the grace of Jesus, the Christians now had a new social identity as heirs of eternal life (Titus 3:7). The church leaders, then, were entrusted as stewards to manage God’s family in a manner that promoted faith and sound doctrine, which would be the hallmarks of honor within this reconstituted community (Goodrich, 2013).
The Conversionist Response: Christian Leadership and an Ethic of Stewardship
Because of the desire of early church leaders to legitimize the Christian subculture by sound doctrine and right conduct within a larger honor/shame context, a leadership ethic of stewardship emerged as a conversionist response to the dominant culture. The conversionist response presupposes the world at large is corrupt because people who inhabit it are corrupt (Robbins, 1996). Consequently, it proposes that salvation lies in transforming people (Robbins, 1996). Leaders within an honor/shame culture were best positioned to extend honor to its members and sanction those who transgressed group boundaries (Ackerman, 2015). Paul refers to the Cretan church leaders οἰκονόμος, a term referring to household managers who were servants to the owner of the house or enterprise (Goodrich, 2013; Titus 1:7). Christian leaders, then, are managers of God’s family (οἰκος is the Greek term for family) whose ethics are aimed at transformation so that the community continues to grow into the reflection of the God whose family name they bear.
Paul provides the subculture rhetoric of that transformation in Titus 3:3-7. Scholars believe Paul was incorporating a traditional creedal statement already circulating among the churches by the time the letter was written (Holman, 1996). Here, he presents a defense against the false teaching that deviated from the standards of honorable conduct appropriate for God’s family (Holman, 1996). Paul declares rhetoric of Christian subculture as trustworthy (Titus 3:8), that is ascribes honor to those who adhere to it in their lives (Ackerman, 2015). It proclaims the Savior God whose actions transform people from “foolish” (Titus 3:3) to “heirs” (Titus 3:7) with the honor of belonging to God’s people (Ackerman, 2016). Within the Hellenistic world, a trustworthy statement from a God who “never lies” (Titus 1:2) connoted prophetic knowledge that only a god could have (Collins, 2000). The effect of such a prophetic creedal statement is formative for the people of God. It defines who they are as God’s covenant people and the hope of eternal life to which they are called (Collins, 2000). In fact, Paul’s use of the word “regeneration” (pallingenesia) in Titus 3:5 contained echoes of stoic philosophy that used the word to describe the restoration of the world after destruction by fire (Pobee, 1985). It described a new world or age, a cleansing of the old manner of life and a renewal by the Holy Spirit to be dedicated to good works (Ferguson, 2010).
Christian Ethics…For the Sake of the World!
In Titus 2:11-3:11, Paul forges the ethics of Christian leadership for a community who belong to God as heirs to eternal life. Christian leadership is stewardship directed toward the formation of God’s people who are devoted to good works (Titus 3:8). The creed of Titus 3:4-7 provides the motivation for right behavior: God’s people are expected to live submissively to rulers and authorities and ready for every good work because they have been saved and live in expectation of eternal life (Collins, 2000). The ethics of Christian leaders answer the crucial question of how God’s people, set apart from the larger pagan culture, can live in common with citizens of the earthly city (Smith, 2017). The conversionist response, according to Titus 2:11-3:11, is by living out the very hope, or telos, we have as a community of God’s people so that the world around us sees and believes in the God we honor with our lives (Smith, 2017).
Christian leaders live out and promote within the community ethical behaviors that honor God our Savior, our family head, in the hope that he will save others too. The Titus 3:3-7 creed functions as an embodied liturgy in the life of God’s people that call leaders to incarnate an ethos of solidarity with others as the basis for good works and the hope of reconciliation (Smith, 2017). Escobar (2011) explains that all ministry is done within a cultural context. Christian leaders must incarnate their ethics within that context. Their ethics must reflect the cross of Christ and be lived out in for the sake of the redemption of the world (Escobar, 2011). The ethical behavior of Christian leadership is formed by God’s grace and the renewal of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5-7). This is the new creation in which honor is restored to people as Christ’s image-bearers and shame is removed through Christ’s mercy (Col. 3:10; Titus 3:5). Any teaching or behavior that does not comport with this ethos threatens the honor of God’s community and the truthfulness of its creed (Titus 3:10-11). But good works honor the “goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior” (Titus 3:4) in response to the community and the world (Escobar, 2011).
The Heart of Christian Leadership
A social and cultural examination of Titus 2:11-3:11 reveals the heart of Paul for leadership within the fledging Cretan church. At stake is the honor of this new community demonstrated through sound doctrine and good works within the dominant honor/shame culture. He instructs the leaders to steward the formation of the community based on God’ saving work among them to purify them for himself (Titus 2:14). They once were “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing (their) days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another” (Titus 3:3). But now, by God’s mercy, they are God’s possession and their ethical behavior, their “good works,” must be excellent and profitable for people (Titus 3:8). By bestowing honor for good behavior or sanctioning shame upon divisive behavior, Christian leaders steward the formation of the community to reflect the honor of “God our Savior” so that his grace, demonstrated in community life, may appear and bring salvation to all people (Titus 2:11-12).
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