Titus 3:9-11 – Dealing with Those Who Disagree

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Because of the descriptions of the false teachers in the background of 1 Timothy and Titus, scholars often suggest the letters were written well into the second century. There is some similarity between the description in Titus to the followers of Marcion (explaining why Marcion would not have accepted the books as authentically Pauline) or an early form of Montanism. Montanism was a charismatic revival of the middle/late second century and the Pastorals Epistles do not mention the ecstatic gifts of the Spirit.

Other scholars suggest the description of the false teachers is “generic.” There is no specific threat to the churches overseen by Timothy and Titus, but this is the sort of generic anti-heretic language which could be applied to any number of churches. This is similar to modern political rhetoric, Republicans always accuse Democrats as favoring “tax and spend” and Democrats always accuse Republicans of being in the pocket of the NRA. Whether those things are true or not about a given politician, the accusation will almost always be made. In Titus, Paul could be laying out a laundry list of the typical things his opponents have said and done, whether he has a specific false teacher in mind.

Could the be a an early form of Gnosticism or Montanism? This is always possible, depending on the definition of “proto.” The mixture of Greek philosophy and Jewish asceticism that becomes Gnosticism later in the second century may have its roots in the very churches planted by Paul. But the false teachings that the writer is dealing with is not at all close to the Gnostic teachings of the second century. To argue against “foolish myths and genealogies” as Paul does here is applicable in the first century as much as the second (or third or twenty-first!)

Regardless of the source of false teachers in Ephesus and Crete, Paul provides a three-step method for dealing with these troublemakers. The steps seem reasonably clear, but it is hard to know how to use them in a contemporary context. Paul is not describing a medieval excommunication or some sort of strange shunning-ritual. He wants his churches to be unified around a core yet also to preserve some diversity within the members of the church. How does this work?

The first step is to avoid teachings which create quarrels and dissensions. This cannot include the core elements of the Faith, the things Paul has already defined as “sound doctrine” in Titus 3. What things might be considered “divisive” our context? Paul is talking about drawing lines which include some and exclude others. to a large extent, the modern church has dealt with this by dividing up into a wide range of denominations. This would be intentionally divisive attitude designed to cause quarrels in the church. I have occasionally been asked to preach at conservative a church which used the King James Bible only; if I intentionally preached out of a NIV Bible, the congregation would be so angry they would never hear a single word I said. Imagine if I were asked to preach in a Christian Reformed church and did a classic dispenstionalist sermon on the Rapture!

Second, if there is a person who cannot set their divisiveness aside, then they are to be warned. The text says the false teacher “stirs up dissension,” indicating they are looking for an opportunity to argue over his special doctrine. This too becomes a difficult to apply in a modern context since people want to share their views in a welcoming and affirming environment. But the divisive person is not discussing an issue in order to gain a clearer understanding, they are pushing their agenda in order to make coverts to their fringe position. I understand what it is like to have a view out of step with the majority and I try not to be divisive on the issues I know will cause people to be upset.

Last, if the person continues to stir up dissension, then the church is to shun the person as a false teacher. This is very controversial since ostracizing someone from a group is a very “un-American.” Paul seems very prejudiced and arrogant to force someone who believes differently out of the church! “Shun the heretic” has a positively medieval sound to it which most modern people would like to avoid. We want to have open and honest discussions about our differences and come to a respectful understanding whether we agree or not. But for Paul, the presence of someone teaching unhealthy doctrine or advocating impure practices in the church can only damage the church.

Most likely these steps will look different in different cultures (African churches vs. American churches, for example). I have been a university professor for many years, and every once in a while I have a student who seems to want to argue about everything I say. It is not that they want to learn anything new, they just like to debate and argue (and probably waste class time so the test gets postponed). In a few cases the student was not interested in an open discussion of new ideas, they wanted to shut down anything they disagreed with and force their ideas on the group. I can think of examples from the most Fundamentalist students ever to the hyper-Calvinist (and one really odd Arminian). Although I have yet to shun a student, I have asked them to realize they are not in debate club and other students want to learn.

How do we use this material to preserve the unity and promote diversity within a local church?