Monday, June 4, 2012

"That the word of God may not be reviled": Titus 2:3-5 and Women's Proper Place

Noted Christian blogger, Rachel Held Evans, is hosting a blogging event this week: "One in Christ: A Week of Mutuality." She has challenged sympathetic bloggers to write a blog post to contribute to the egalitarian bonanza. So, I offer this reflection on Titus 2:1-5 in support of her cause and to my regular readers for consideration, as well. I hope it can provide something interesting and useful for the ongoing conversation about women in the Christian church. 

(By the way, for the composition of this post I used some material from several years ago in another post, regarding a certain seminary's newly established degree in homemaking, since they used Titus 2:3-5 as support.)

Although 1 Timothy 2:12-15 gets all the attention in debates about women's proper place in the church and the home, Titus 2:1-5 is almost as important in terms of how it has been used to construct "biblical womanhood" within evangelical Protestantism in the U.S. Indeed, many a women's ministry have drawn inspiration from this passage, emphasizing woman-to-woman mentoring, calling themselves Titus 2 Women (or something of the sort), and drawing their mission statement from the list of exhortations that Paul gives to women in this passage. I have no problem with these practices and I support women's ministries in all their many varieties. I merely raise this point to say that Titus 2:1-5 is key for the discussion of what women should and shouldn't do in the home and the church. So, I'd like to address it in some detail. 

The text in question reads as follows: "But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled" (Titus 2:1-5 ESV).

(Before I proceed, I need to acknowledge that many contemporary New Testament scholars debate the Pauline authorship of Titus. Many scholars conclude that Titus (along with 1 and 2 Timothy) were not written by the Apostle Paul at all, but composed later in the first century by a student of Paul. Obviously, many evangelical scholars do not accept these arguments and are reluctant to give up Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles because, among other things, it calls into question the trustworthiness of the NT canon (in their minds, at least). Frankly, I am not prepared to weigh in to this debate on either side. Moreover, for the purposes of this post, I don't think Pauline or non-Pauline authorship makes much practical difference. The letter is in our canon. The Church has discerned that it is sacred scripture. With or without Pauline authorship, it must be considered carefully. For the purposes of easier reading, I will refer to the author as "Paul" throughout.)

The focus of the unit that begins in Titus 2 is the idea of "teach[ing] what accords with sound doctrine." The idea here is to encourage a way of life that is in keeping with right teaching ("right teaching" being defined, it seems, by conformity with the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to the preaching of Paul [see Titus 1:3]). This "right teaching" is the opposite of those "false teachers" that Paul contends with in Titus and 1, 2 Timothy. In the previous verse, the false teachers have been denounced as those who "know God" but "with their deeds deny him" (Titus 1:16 NET). So, the point is this: deeds can nullify the truth. Right living is essential for the preservation of right teaching. 

So, what is the "right living" that Paul maps out for women in Titus' congregation? Well, he suggests that older women are to be reverent, hold their tongues ("not slandering"), not drink too much (I have to giggle that he had to say this at all), and to teach "what is good" (v. 3). In doing so, Paul anticipates that the older women will thereby "train" (the Greek here implies instruction in what is prudent or wise) younger women to love their husbands, love their children, be self-controlled, pure, good managers of the household, kind, and subject to their own husbands (v. 4, 5). 

All of this is clear enough, right? There's no doubt that being reverent, kind, self-controlled, loving to spouse and children, etc., are all good things. Who would deny that? I'm certainly not about to say that this instruction doesn't apply to women today. It does. But, before we take the mention of "homemaking" in these verses and make it into a flat prescription for all women in all times and places (as many evangelicals are prone to do), we need to consider why exactly Paul stresses these particular elements for the women of Titus' church. In fact, I would argue that the why in this passage is key to rightly interpreting and applying Paul's exhortation.

Paul clarifies exactly why such instruction for women is needed at the end of v. 5: "so that the word of God may not be reviled" (ESV). Another translation says, "so that the message of God may not be discredited." Now this is a strange reason to teach women to be homemakers, isn't it? Why would Paul found the winsomeness of the message of God--the Gospel of Christ, no less!--on the behavior of women? The answer, I believe, is in the missional motivation of Paul, who perceived all things through the lens of proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom (including marriage, paying taxes, circumcision, eating practices, and slavery). In short, Paul believed that the homemaking skills and holy behavior of the women in Titus' congregation were essential so that the good news of Christ would not be slandered (and therefore undermined and discredited) by non-Christians.

There is good cultural support for Paul's concerns. In the Roman world, the wife's vital role was as administrator of the husband's (pater familias) household. She oversaw slaves, financial books, entertainment, and, yes, cooking and cleaning. Roman wives were expected to fulfill such tasks as a duty both to her husband and to the Empire. In the mind of most Romans, the security of the Empire rested upon the faithful administration of the home. (This is a common trope throughout most world empires, actually: women are rhetorically constructed as the backbone of the nation's common life. Thus, for women to disrupt their role was to threaten the stability of civilization. Sound familiar?)

So, it is safe to say that if a non-Christian Roman encountered a household like mine, where the husband and wife share responsibilities, it is certain that the non-Christian would assume, not only that we are treasonously out of sync with Roman society, but also that the Christian message is simply backward nonsense. In that day and age, everyone knew that women were inferior to men and, therefore, not to be considered "partners" in the household, let alone friends. Thus, in order to be sure that the message of God is not discredited and the Kingdom of God is not thwarted, Paul instructs Christian wives in Titus' assembly to be faithful to do what is culturally appropriate (just as he does in his first letter to the Corinthians in the case of head coverings and eating meat sacrificed to idols). 

(By the way... It is interesting, isn't it, that Paul had to make this statement at all? Within the several decades after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost it seems that the radical message of Jesus had made some serious changes to the way women and men viewed themselves and their relations to one another--so much so that Paul [and others] had to start offering corrections. If this were not so, then why did Paul have to tell women to "pipe down" and control themselves in church meetings [1 Cor. 11, 14] or "keep silent" and "learn" from their husbands [1 Tim. 2:12ff.]? Perhaps women were taking their status as "one in Christ" [Gal. 3:28] seriously and were now living differently in light of it. And Paul, the consummate missionary, was worried about how these drastic changes in social norms would effect the advancement of the Gospel.)

I think a comparable situation to the one experienced by Paul in the first century Roman Empire can be found in the roles of missionary wives in middle eastern countries. For a Christian family living in Syria, for example, it is essential that the wife learn to adopt the patterns of wives in Muslim households so that the witness of the couple is not hindered by her apparent lack of submission, reverence, and homemaking. In some situations, the husband simply cannot help his wife with dishes or clothing or cooking because such actions on his part would shame her and bring reproach on him as a man. For the sake of the good news, therefore, the wife and husband adopt the appropriate cultural roles and perform them to the best of their ability.

For this reason, I think the use of Titus 2:3-5 as support for the universal prescription that all women (or at least all married women) are to be homemakers is actually a little absurd. Read in light of his cultural context, Paul is not teaching the universal, inalterable responsibilities for all women at all times. (Indeed, if it were so, surely they would have shown up in more places than Titus!) Instead, he is teaching the right way to submit to the expectations of the surrounding culture in order for the good news to be advanced. This is not uncommon for him, as you know (see especially, 1 Cor 9:19-23; 1 Cor 10:23-33; 1 Thess 4:11-12; 1 Tim 6:1), but was a hallmark of his mission work: 

"Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings." 

In fact, to press the matter further, I think an argument can be made that the view of women's roles and homemaking propogated by many complementarians (and others) may actually do more to hinder the reception of the good news in the U.S. than help it. Complementarians claim that proper gender roles is essential for a Christian worldview and inseparable from the truths of the Gospel. They use Titus 2:5 to make this claim. But I would suggest that we think carefully about the status of women in the U.S. and the new cultural norms that have developed in the past fifty years. Paul's principle is that things like occupations, household roles, food choices, head coverings, circumcision, etc., are to be submitted to the question of whether or not they will help or harm the propagation of the good news. Is it possible that in our context, the insistence on a very "traditional," white, middle class, 1950s-style model of the family is serving to drive young women away from the Kingdom? Would Paul intend for us to slavishly repeat the culturally-rooted model of the family present in the NT when we have the good news to preach and people to disciple? I don't think so. 

Let me offer one more point for consideration before I bring this post to a close. When Paul provides his counsel regarding respecting governing authorities in Romans 13:1-7, he is speaking of how to live Christianly within the Roman system of government. And, when Paul provides instructions to Christian slaves (1 Cor. 7:20-24; Eph 6:5-8; Philemon), he is speaking of how to live Christianly within the Roman system of slavery. As contemporary interpreters read and seek to apply these passages, no one suggests we must re-create the historically and culturally situated system of Roman governance or Roman slavery in order to do so properly. (In fact, Christians are eager to say that democracy is clearly the preferred system of government and that it is now oh-so-obvious that slavery is inherently wrong!) So then, why is it that when Paul provides instruction on how to live Christianly within the Roman household and marriage system (Eph. 5:22-33; 1 Cor. 7:1-16; Titus 2:1-5), so many contemporary interpreters presume that we must re-create the Roman structure Paul was addressing in order to rightly apply his words? I think this is nonsensical and ultimately counter-productive.

In closing, therefore, I suggest to my readers that Titus 2:1-5 contains much that is good and wise about how women (and men!) should conduct themselves as Christians seeking to live in accordance with "sound doctrine" (v. 1). But, we must not use the cut-and-paste model of biblical interpretation that assumes the implementation of Paul's inspired instructions means the replication of the Roman model of marriage and household management. Indeed, in light of Paul's motivation "that the word of God may not be reviled," I would argue that to seek to replicate ancient gender roles in the contemporary context is not only bad hermeneutics, but also working against Paul's intention. Let us stop using Titus 2:1-5 in this manner. And, let us stop causing the beautiful and unmatched Gospel of Christ to be slandered by tying it to culturally bound and humanly devised patriarchal gender roles. There is enough about the Gospel that is offensive to 21st Century American ears. I urge my complementarian brothers and sisters to cease hanging the albatross of patriarchal gender roles on the necks of women who would seek to enter the Kingdom of God. 


Gary Snowden said...

Great post, Emily. Thanks for sharing a well-exegeted and reasoned understanding of Paul's instructions to Titus.

Philip Taylor said...

I am complementarian but I agree with almost everything in your post. Very well written and helpful.

KR, Phil.

TL said...

thank you for acknowledging the cultural relevance to this letter written close to 2000 years ago.

RachelRenae said...

Wonderful. Thank you so much for this perspective- all new information for me!

Charis said...

The author of this instruction is not referring to domestic servitude IMO any more than the "keeper" assignment to Adam in Genesis 2:15 is a consignment to domestic servitude.

For me, a word study on "keeper" was very edifying and enlightening! (link to "keepers" word study)

Rubi Diaz said...

I just found your blog via Rachel Held Evans. What a wonderful post! Thank you for the insight!