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Paul and Cultural Critique: Titus 1:12-13

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series

"Missions and Music"

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In relation to critiquing other cultures in an age of cultural relativism, Titus 1:12-13 caught my eye a couple of years ago as I was working through this passage, in particular, Paul’s quotation in 1:12, and his estimation of it in 1:13.

The quotation which Paul gave is from a Cretan poet, Epimenides: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Paul is applying this characterization to those whom the Cretan elders must silence, apparently Cretan Jews (cf. 1:10; for the category, cf. Acts 2:5,11). This verse has come under intense scrutiny for at least a couple of reasons. One, it contains what is known as the “Epimenides paradox,” an example of a “liar paradox.” Two, we have Paul quoting a pagan poet with approval, which is a stumblingblock for some.

What interested me, however, is that Paul is taking a specific culture and agreeing that certain specific sins characterize it, generally speaking. Paul does not merely quote Epimenides, but adds his agreement: “This testimony is true!” (1:13).

It is not considered politically correct these days to note that certain sins characterize certain cultures. It appears, though, that Titus 1:12-13 gives justification for highlighting specific sins which characterize particular cultures other than one’s own.

Having said that, it is necessary as well to scrutinize one’s own culture for its besetting sins — and preferably first. This would seem to be in the spirit of Matt 7:3-5 and Gal 6:1. But is it not true that it is more difficult (though not impossible, as Paul’s estimation of Epimenides’s characterization of Cretans shows) to recognize one’s own culture’s besetting sins? How then shall we critique our own culture? This is a practice perhaps best done with the aid of those who are not part of our own culture, be they contemporary voices from other cultures, or voices from the past.

What is true for our own culture in this regard, however, is true for other cultures as well.  That is, as outsiders, we may be able to see more clearly the besetting sins of another culture.

Regarding Paul’s agreement with the Cretan observation, Knight’s estimation (Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC, 299) is thought-provoking and accurate: “Paul is not making an ethnic slur, but is merely accurately observing, as the Cretans themselves and others did, how the sin that affects the whole human race comes to particular expression in this group.” Human sin comes to particular expression in any cultural group, and that expression will vary in intensity and manifestation from group to group. Based on Paul’s example, it seems to be appropriate to observe how sin particularly manifests itself in a given culture, even when one is not part of that culture. There are better and worse ways to go about doing this, but it is not intrinsically wrong to make the critique.

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About Chuck Bumgardner

I seek to be a student of the Scriptures — New Testament in particular — and also have a deep love for the praise of God through music in the church. I have at the present time the privilege of overseeing the music and leading the singing in my local church, a ministry which brings me great joy and provides a God-ordained outlet for my musical energies. I've enjoyed serving in music-related areas in the church since high school — some 25 years now — as a vocalist, choir member, choir director, and congregational songleader. In addition to serving as a member — and for a time as an assistant pastor — in various local churches, I've also had the privilege of traveling during my college years to many churches throughout the United States and Canada as part of a vocal ensemble. I hunger to see, both in my own church and beyond, an increased appreciation for the great historic music of the church in which theologically rich texts are wedded to music which provides an appropriate setting for those texts, and through which our affections are turned toward God. I'm also eager to see new contributions to the rich heritage of Christian music which share in the same characteristics.