According to the online Merriem-Webster’s, a polemic is “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another.” When most people use the term, it’s to describe how someone uses their words, whether written down or spoken aloud. If we describe something as polemical, what we usually mean is that an argument is a sort of an exaggeration– the person making their argument took a more hardline stance than they actually believe in order to get their point across through shock or strong reactions. When someone is polemical, it means they’re a controversial figure.
Paul is probably one of the most polemical writers in the New Testament, and that’s saying something, because Peter contributed to it, too. When many evangelicals describe Paul, polemical is probably not one of the first words that spring to mind. For many theologians, Paul is regarded as the scholar of the Bible; educated Roman citizen, bordering on lawyer, trained by the Pharisees, intimately familiar with the Law and the Prophets.
However, if we’re being honest, Paul gets . . . well, excited. And I don’t blame him. Frequently, it’s to get passionate about Jesus, which I love, and sometimes, well, he gets carried away with his fervor, and we end up with this:
One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true.
It was a common ethnic slur, originating in the logic puzzle made famous by the Labyrinth Certain Death Riddle. This is also known as the Epimenides paradox, and it was originally stated as “How can a Cretan’s statement, ‘Cretans always lie,’ be either true or false?” This conundrum appeared in the 6th century B.C., and the perception persisted; that Cretans were always liars, and Plutarch extended it when he said that Crete had no need for predatory animals because it had predatory people. Paul, writing a letter to Titus on Crete, used an ethnic slur in order to contrast the behavior of the Christians on Crete with what they should not have been doing.
Not cool, Paul, not cool.
However, I’m not really going to be dissecting that today (it’s already been done spectacularly here), because I’m going to be focusing on the second chapter of this epistle– but it’s important to keep the nature of this letter in mind. Paul was writing a letter to a young pastor who was facing some frustrating issues, and his response is true to Paul’s shoot-from-the-hip style. His tone is steeply exaggerated, and he builds and works on extreme contrasts.
I’m going to be talking about this passage today:
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.
This portion of chapter two is pretty much the only one I heard preached on growing up. If a pastor was going to Titus, he was probably going for this one. It’s the passage that has been used to found and encourage mentorship ministries because “older women” are to “train the young women.” And what are they supposed to train them in? To be “keepers at home” (as the KJV puts it) and submissive to their husbands.
As a teenager and young woman, the charge that I was intended to be a keeper at home was probably one of the single most influential teachings I received, because it strongly affected many of the choices I made. It practically decided for me where I was going to college (which, *gasp* I went to college), and it most certainly decided what I was majoring in. I became a Secondary Education major with a concentration in music, so that I could be a piano teacher out of my home, and organize my schedule around my children.
Even today, this teaching determined a lot of my decision making. Today, I’m a freelance editor, and I work from home. This works out for me, and it’s been a life-long dream of mine, but that’s the thing– it’s been a life-long dream to be an editor. Even my big, grand, what-if dreams were shaped and molded by the only option I had: to be a keeper at home. Now, though, years later, I no longer believe that there’s anything wrong with pursuing a career– any career.
Interestingly enough, that belief is based on Titus.
One of the most important questions we keep at the forefront of our thoughts when we study any part of the Bible (or any book, for that matter) is Why? Why did Paul write Titus? Why did he say the things he did? Why did he choose the way he said it? What was he trying to accomplish?
The answer: he wanted to help Titus, a young pastor who was struggling with the lifestyle his church had embraced long before he got there. The Christians on Crete were behaving in such a way that they were being judged by the citizens of the island– citizens with a Greco-Roman moral code, a code based on shame and honor. The Christians Titus pastored were bringing shame on themselves in the eyes of the other islanders.
We can see this in two ways through the letter: that Paul emphasizes the need for the Christians to be respected (1:5-7, 1:11, 1:16, 2:5-7, 2:14-15, 3:8). He repeats the idea that their behavior should be so far above reproach that they “cannot be condemned”– by the citizens who would judge them by the Greco-Roman moral code. We can also see this by how Paul also emphasized self-control (1:8, 2:2, 2:5, 2:6, 2:12), the moral cornerstone of Roman society. Self-control was the most admirable and necessary quality for any Roman citizen. If there’s a message to be pulled from Titus, it’s basically Paul shouting “Get ahold of yourself, people are watching!”
So how does “being submissive” and “working at home” come into play?
Because, like the men, women had a very specific role to play in Roman society, and if they didn’t conform to that role, they would bear the heavy shame of their community. Two primary components of this role was to be under the husband, and the other was to manage their home. However, “managing their home” was a hugely different thing than how we think of it today. Today, a stay-at-home-mom runs errands, cooks, cleans, takes care of the children, and is fairly industrious, but all of it is unpaid and unprofitable in a commercial sense. At this time, however, as Gaston Boissier notes in Cicero, “women appear as much engaged in business and as interested in speculations as the men. Money is their first care. They work their estates, invest their funds, lend and borrow.”
A Roman woman ran the family business while her husband engaged in community service and other things that couldn’t be run from home. A husband and wife were considered, in Roman society, to be a single economic unit, working toward the same goal. In the culture, where men were frequently away from home for up to years at a time, the wives were responsible for everything. They were the COO’s of Roman days.
That’s a bit of a different picture than what I was taught about being a “keeper at home.”
Also, it’s important to keep in mind what Paul was doing in the letter: he was telling Titus that it was monumentally important for the Christians on Crete to have a good reputation by Greco-Roman standards. That the islanders would have “nothing evil to say” about them. That’s the main point of Titus– that Christians should be aware of what their behavior looks like to the world around them. It’s not a prescriptive book in the sense that Paul was laying out a bunch of rules for what every single last Christian should always do, everywhere, for all time– he was writing down the principle that Christians need to examine the priorities of their culture, understand what that culture will judge them for, and adapt (within reason). A possible subtitle for Titus could be: When in Rome.
So, in a limited sense, what does the “moral standard” of American society say about the value of women?
And what does Christian society say about the value of women? And could that message earn us the disdain, judgment and condemnation of the world we live in? Is there anything in the messages we loudly proclaim from the “rooftop” of a hundred different books on “true womanhood” that could cause a non-believer to see how we treat our own as ethically, morally wrong? If there isn’t anything sinful about integrating well with our culture (which 200+ years after Titus was written, the decadence of Roman society could have made this problematic), why do we insist on gender stereotypes that haven’t existed for longer than sixty years and a mode of living only available to the privileged?