Paul’s “House-Tables”


Text Comment

v.1

In contrast to the false teachers described in the previous verses, Titus is to teach sound doctrine. But sound doctrine does not mean simply “right” or “true” doctrine, but doctrine that is health-giving, doctrine that leads to a fruitful and happy life. If heresy is a disease that leads to death, sound doctrine makes people healthy. The best way to combat false teaching is with sound teaching and the living that comes from it.

v.2

Now the congregation is divided up into its constituent parts, primarily in this case by age. Older Christian men ought to act as becomes the senior members of the community. Interestingly, some of the adjectives used to describe their behavior are used for church officers earlier in Titus 1 and in 1 Timothy 3. They ought to act like mature Christians.

v.3

One gets the impression that, on Crete at any rate, these were altogether too common behaviors among older women. Again, as with the men, the traits are not all negative, but positive: they are to teach what is good. They have a ministry to perform. In context, as the next verse will make clear, their teaching would be among other women and in the home.

v.4

Christian matrons are to help younger Christian women learn the disciplines of family love and service. It may seem odd that a woman would need to be taught to love her children, but on Crete, as in the USA in our time, it happens that there can be a need for this. Not simply to feel affection for one’s children, but really to love them and to care for them properly.

v.5

The same quality mentioned as especially important in the older man is mentioned here in regard to the younger woman. There is a universality of virtue in Christian living. We are all called to the same holiness, however different our sphere of life. That the mother’s sphere is home is a commonplace of biblical teaching and, in particular, of the teaching of Paul’s Pastoral Letters. Another commonplace is the teaching that a man is the head of the home and the wife is to be subject to him. I won’t stop to comment on this directly, controversial as it has become in the contemporary world and church. I will only remind you of four things concerning this submission: first, it is everywhere the assumption or the explicit teaching of the Word of God, second, submission is required, in one way or another, of every Christian, third, it does not imply inequality or a lesser value, as the Bible is often careful to say and as is proved clearly enough by the fact that the same idea of submission is used to describe the Son’s relationship to God the Father; and, fourth, that the Bible has a great deal to say about the duties of men and husbands as well, duties that lay them under the strictest obligation to make that subjection a happy thing for wives and not a burden or a sorrow. We are all subject to authority. We are all arranged in orders of subjection. Everyone. And the happiness of every human being is shaped to a very great degree by how willing one is to accept that subjection and live in obedience to it.

One more thing. The Bible characteristically teaches its ethics in generalities and does not descend to cover exceptions such as we are so concerned to do in our day – a day when exceptions tend to trod roughly over general interests to the great harm of society as a whole. To be sure that gay folk do not feel left out, we feel it necessary to alter the definition of marriage. To be sure that we do not hurt the feelings of divorced people we hesitate to speak strongly about the indefectibility of marriage vows. So as not to cause pain to unwed mothers we do not ring the changes on the essential role of the father in the life of children, and so on. Well, not so the Bible. The main things always get the attention. Most women have children – in those days, almost all women had children – and so Paul addresses himself to them. Obviously these commandments apply to single women and married women without children only mutatis mutandis, necessary changes being made. The Bible knows of business women – think of Lydia in Philippi in Acts 16 – and of women with no children – think of Elizabeth for most of the years of her adult life. And women in the New Testament are presented to us as intelligent, resourceful, and important contributors to the work of the kingdom. The New Testament, it could fairly be said, seems utterly indifferent to sexual distinction most of the time. Most of what it says regarding the Christian life and Christian service it says to men and women without distinction. That must be remembered as we hear the Bible speak directly to the primary sphere of the life and work and kingdom contribution of most Christian women.

v.6

Once again, in regard to the young men, there is the same obligation of self-control. Apparently the lack of this self-control was a special problem on Crete.

v.8

The commandments that Titus is to relay to the Cretan Christians will do little good if they are not commended by Titus’ own life or if, by his life, he gives the enemies of truth and godliness occasion to belittle them.

v.9

Christian slaves should be obedient, hard-working, and honest and so demonstrate the higher life to which they have been called, not as slaves, but as followers of Christ. Even slaves, if they are Christians, have a calling to fulfill and a ministry to conduct for the Lord and to the honor of his name. No Christian is without an important life to live and a great calling to fulfill. If the work is more difficult, the faithful life is, for that reason, the more noble. And sacrifice and self-denial are always chief characteristics of true godliness. If you are the person with the least freedom, as the world counts such things, you are Christ’s free man. Live like it and show yourself Christ’s willing servant. Remember, by the way, that the slave was not free to change his circumstances. What he is being told is how to live in them. Remember also that Christian masters – whether or not there were any on Crete at this time – were required to treat their slaves as brothers-in-Christ, an obligation that virtually ensured the end of the slavery in the church. That the claims of the slave should be regarded as being as real as the claims of the master was a revolutionary element in Christian ethics and undermined the entire system of slavery in the Greco-Roman world.

Three times in these verses Paul gives as motivation for this behavior to which he is calling the Cretan Christians the impact that it will have on those around them. In v. 5, “so that no one will malign the Word of God;” in v. 8 so that the enemies of the truth will be silenced; and in v. 10 “to make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” This has led some to argue in recent years that the obligations listed here were obligations only because they were accepted in the culture. That is, Paul didn’t want Christians to behave in ways that would have offended the culture round about. That is why he told wives to be subject to their husbands. Had this not been the expectation of the culture, Paul would have taught egalitarian marriage and an end of sex roles. Beware of such arguments. Unbelief and rebellion are hidden within them. People are looking for a way around what the Bible says. Nothing is said here that isn’t said often enough elsewhere in the Bible and with other motivations provided as well. Elsewhere, for example, Paul will say that women should be in submission to their husbands because of the way God made men and women, a consideration that has nothing to do with his contemporary culture. What is more, the entire section is introduced with Paul’s remark that Titus was to teach “what is in accord with sound doctrine” as opposed to the false teachers who make up their own commandments (as we read in 1:14). That godly behavior bears its own witness to the truth of the gospel is a fact the Bible often points out without ever suggesting that Christians are to take their marching orders from the culture that surrounds them. Fact is, the church repudiated the standards and mores of the culture so profoundly and so constantly and in so many ways, the notion that Paul would subject Christians to unnecessary obligations so as not to offend the unbelievers round about is simply preposterous.

In any case, I want to return to this motivation next Lord’s Day morning, viz. that we should live so as to adorn the gospel.

Now what we have before us this morning is what Martin Luther famously called a Haustafel, a “house-table,” by which he meant a list of rules for a household. In Ephesians and Colossians Paul’s house-tables are literally rules for a household: they concern husbands and wives and parents and children, though they also refer to slaves and masters because, in those days, slaves were part of the household of the master. Here the house-table is a list of rules for the household of the church, its mothers and fathers, its young men and women, but it is not far from the same sort of house-table that we find in Ephesians or Colossians for it too concerns marriage and parenthood.

Now when modern people read such a house-table as we read just now, it seems quite foreign and alien to them. I understand that. Not so much the need to be self-controlled or sober, or even reverent. Nowadays people might expect that serious Christians would demand such behavior. But wives submitting to husbands, that they should be instructed to be busy at home, and that slaves should serve their masters so selflessly, all of this seems like a communication from some other world, some distant galaxy. It strikes the modern ear as hopelessly out-of-date, even Neanderthal. The younger the reader is, the less likely it is that he or she would appreciate that well into the 1960s, the average American, Christian or non-Christian would find little here that sounded strange or unnatural. So greatly has the world changed in the last generation.

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw, in an email, a copy of several pages purporting to be from Housekeeping Monthly from May 13, 1955. It was being sent around as a joke, of course, and is probably one of those internet legends now so common, but it supposedly opens a window on another world. Entitled “The Good Wife’s Guide,” the 1950s housewife was given 18 separate pieces of advice as to how to prepare for her husband’s return home after a day’s work. Some of the more ridiculous items I have omitted, but the rest are, perhaps, not so far from what many people today might well imagine were the mores of the 1950s American home. These included:

  1. Have dinner ready. Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal ready, on time for his return. This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him and are concerned about his needs.
  2. Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you’ll be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh-looking.
  3. Be a little gay and a little more interesting for him. His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties is to provide it.
  4. Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives.
  5. Prepare the children. Take a few minutes to wash their hands and faces, comb their hair, and, if necessary change their clothes. They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part. Minimize all noise.
  6. Make the evening his. Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner, or other places of entertainment without you. Instead try to understand his world of strain and pressure.
  7. Make him comfortable. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice. And my personal favorite:
  8. Listen to him. You may have a dozen things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first – remember, his topics of conversation are more important than yours.
  9. The last one: A good wife knows her place.

I omitted more of the same. Now, to be sure, that is way, way over the top even for May 13, 1955. Often such stories circulate precisely to discredit a previous way of life. My mother wants all of you to know that she never did half those things! Most 1950s housewives would say the same thing with a chuckle. But, and here is my point in citing it, strange and alien as it sounds to modern ears, before you pour too much scorn on that view of life and marriage and home as you are no doubt intended to do, consider this.

We nowadays take for granted an outlook and a domestic situation that are so far from this that they are nothing short of grisly by comparison. If the notion of a wife so much the servant of her husband offends us, if we find it genuinely laughable, what do we think of the modern American home? In America today one third of all children are born out-of-wedlock. That’s horrible enough. In Norway, one in every two children is born to an unmarried mother. First marriages in our country now end in divorce, according to one calculation, 43% of the time. The figure may be higher; it is hard to calculate. For remarriages the rate is about 60%. What that means is that about a million American children each year experience their parents’ divorce. For the first marriages of children of divorced parents the rate of divorce is 60%. And the psychological carnage caused by these developments is only beginning to be understood. One silver lining in this dark cloud is that a robust Christian faith makes a huge difference for children in escaping the consequences of divorce. [“Lives of Quiet Turbulence: Elizabeth Marquart on what happens in the souls of children of divorce,” Christianity Today, (March 2006) 41-43]

Nevertheless, though we are falling apart as a country so far as the life of the household is concerned, we somehow pity the mother in the fifties who had a stable home and a committed husband and consider normal a poor woman who, physically and emotionally exhausted, is struggling to raise children by herself and fearful that she is not doing a very good job. If we chuckle at the supposed pieties of a 1955 magazine for homemakers, what will people, years from now, think of any issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, or other magazines of the modern feminist view of a woman’s life?

In fact, the other day, on my MSN home page, I noticed that they were offering the results of a recent sociological study on what makes wives happy in marriage. With Paul’s house-table ethics before me, I checked out the article. There were some entirely predictable things mentioned in the accompanying article – a committed husband who cares about her life, her heart, her feelings – a sharing of her responsibilities, etc. But what was genuinely interesting – this is MSN remember – is that the conclusions of the researchers were that women were happiest in traditional marriages, when they were at home with their children, when their husbands were the primary breadwinners, and they were free to make the choice to give themselves full-time to their children. This was identified in the article – apparently with a straight face – as “the changing face of a happy marriage.”

And with those observations in mind, let us now return to Paul’s haustafel and consider what, in fact, is being said to us.

Older women are to help young mothers to adjust to the responsibilities of motherhood and the hard work that it always is to build a happy, godly home. They are to teach the young women to love their children and to busy at home. The words can sound antique, unsophisticated, unfashionable, ridiculously out of date, and, especially, patronizing. But are they really?

Fact is, as is now being talked about by almost everyone – indeed this is the startling new realization that is now dawning on the consciousness of the Western world – the feminist worship of female self-fulfillment – understood in terms of wealth and power – together with the ethics of the sexual revolution has produced an anti-marriage and anti-child outlook that must condemn itself to extinction by a mathematical certainty. One article that crossed my desk this week described the collapsing fertility rates that foretell disaster for Western culture. A fertility rate of 1.5 – which is slightly more than Europe’s average rate – cuts the population in half every 65 years. A rate of 1.3 children per woman cuts the population in half every 32 years. Austria, West Germany, Italy and Spain are at or below that lower rate and despite offering money to women to begin having children, with or without husbands, social catastrophe draws nearer on the horizon. Another article on the same theme arrived this week, this, interestingly, from the left-of-center New America Foundation. It points out that “As governments going as far back as imperial Rome have discovered, when cultural…conditions discourage parenthood, not even a dictator can force people to go forth and multiply.” [P. Longman, “The Return of Patriarchy,” Foreign Policy (March/April 2006), 2] Even in the United States there are states – California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts – whose fertility rates are also in steep decline. Interestingly, they tend to be the states where efforts to create the revolutionary concept of gay-marriage have had the most success. After pointing out that the societies with the lowest fertility rates are precisely those societies that have embraced most enthusiastically the conclusions of modern feminism and sexuality, those societies, we might say, that have moved furthest from the social ethics of Titus 2:1-10, the article by the secularist, non-Christian author concludes this way:

“Across the globe, people are choosing to have fewer children or none at all. Governments are desperate to halt the trend, but their influence seems to stop at the bedroom door. Are some societies destined to become extinct? Hardly. It’s more likely that conservatives will inherit the earth. Like it or not, a growing proportion of the next generation will be born into families who believe that father knows best.”

If Western nations – if any nation – wishes to survive, it must bear children. The very thing modern Western, secular people want less and less to do. But if children are born they must be cared for. They must be loved, nurtured, educated, brought up to responsible adulthood. And as any faithful mother can tell you, that is a full-time job! Will any of this happen – is there any evidence anywhere that it will happen – without mothers who are busy at home. And, we go on to ask: will that ever happen in a wholesome way if husbands and wives do not again find their God-created and God-appointed order for life in which the husband’s masculine life and the wife’s feminine life are drawn together in a unity of love for the sake of the rising generation? Will any of this happen if there is not that division of labor that God’s Word and all of human history proves is necessary for the welfare and happiness of children?

However normal the world of modern feminism may now seem to us, however impossible it may be for many to imagine a different world than that on display every day on American television – featuring almost all of the time women who are either single or who are presented without regard to their children – that world is suicidal. It will not and cannot survive. It has survived this long – a single generation – only by feeding on the carcass of a previous generation that lived in very different ways. It has no new life to give to the world. It’s philosophy, sad to say, however unwilling its advocates are to admit it, is and must be to eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we must die and we will leave no one behind to mourn our passing or to follow us in our way of life.

And what is true of women and mothers and husband and fathers is true of everything else in Paul’s haustafel. Are we better off, can we even survive, if men and women do not exercise self-control? A people, like America’s people, whose common life has been so devastated and demoralized by addictions of every kind is perhaps the last one to answer that question honestly. But a lack of self-control sexually, monetarily, and with regard to drugs and alcohol is eating away at the fabric of our once-great country and leaving us spiritually incapable of solving our problems.

And what of slaves serving their masters with honesty and industry, even when the circumstances of their lives are deeply unjust and unfair? Is a better result likely to be found by dishonesty, idleness, and a spirit of irritable victimization? Ask the Soviet Union how well they managed their system of slavery and how much good it did their people to respond to it as men naturally will instead of as a Christian should. And then ask our own nation the same question?

No, what we have here in this house-table is not the ethics of some antiquated and out-moded social system. What we have here is the way of life of a society that will not only prosper and thrive in a sinful and unjust world, but will pass on that life, that happiness, that fruitfulness to its children so effectively that they will bring a still greater measure of the wholeness of human life to the world they inhabit as adults. What we have here is not what people normally will do when left to themselves. Far from it. What we have here is what people ought to do and what a society needs for them to do.

I say again. What we have here is, as always in Paul, a distinctively Christian ethic of life, of marriage, of the home, and of work. It is behavior that is in accord with sound doctrine, a point Paul begins with. It is behavior that is precisely suited to “making the teaching about God our Savior attractive.” But because it is God’s law, and God’s will; because this is the life to which both our Maker and our Savior is calling us, it is the life that, in every way, gives life and health to human beings and to human societies. The proof that it is God’s way is that the more people live this way, even unbelievers, the more likely they are not only to survive as a society but to enjoy their lives in this world and contribute to the happiness of others.

And who then should live this life more willingly, more enthusiastically, more devotedly, more expectantly than the children of God and the followers of Christ who know that God’s commandments are never burdensome and that in the keeping of them there is always a great reward?

If this way of life makes even the unbelieving world sit up and take notice, then how much more must it be the path of blessing for those who take it for Jesus’ sake.