Paul writing to Titus ~ “One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.' (Titus 1:12 ESV)
The prophet that Paul was referring to was Epimenides, who was himself from Crete and was born in Cnossos and lived as a philospher and prophet in the 6th century B.C. Paul takes a phrase uttered by a man 600 years before to describe a people to whom he had sent Titus to plant a church among. Here is the context:
For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. (Titus 1:10-16 ESV)
Paul just took a whole group of people – an entire culture and nation – and lumped them all in together and applied the words of a pagan philosopher 600 years before to them, calling them liars, evil, and lazy. And, this designation was included in Holy Scripture as the infallible, inerrant Word of God. Paul doesn't just use the words of Epimenides as an illustration. He says, “this testimony is true.” He says it and then affirms that it is true. And, the result of this word is that Titus is to “rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith…”
What to make of Titus 1:12?
Well, for one thing, what Paul describes here is how all of us were before we came to Christ. We were all liars, evil, lazy, and self-centered. He describes well the unregenerate state of human self-glorification. In my flesh, all that I want to do is advance myself and find personal satisfaction. I will use others and run over others. Paul says it well when writing to the Ephesians:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV)
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24 ESV)
So, there are “ways” of living that are related to the world and the flesh that are destructive and are not in line with God's will for humanity. James puts it this way:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13-18 ESV)
The “worldly” way of living exalts “self” and is demonic. Christ came to set us free from our flesh and the demonic wisdom of the world and to restore us to our intended state in relationship with Him. This is what the Cross is all about and is why we are called to die daily to our fleshly desires and to live to Christ. This applies to everyone.
But, Paul writes a specific condemnation to the Cretans. Why? Isn't this racist? Or, at the very least full of ethnic prejudice? No. I do not think so. Paul does something that our modern society tells us that we cannot do. He makes a judgment on a culture and a people and says that their way of living collectively has real problems. He describes how certain sin-patterns have established themselves in this culture where Titus is trying to plant a church that makes it especially difficult for the gospel to take root and for the church to function well. Paul uses the words “evil” and “lazy” and “liar” and says that these are real problems for the Cretan people.
I think that we have to be able to see these things. We have to be able to assess cultures and people groups and understand where the errors and the strongholds are. The “world” does not want us to do that. The “world system” wants us to accept everything that a culture produces and say that it is right and normative and that we should not make judgments against it and if we do, then we are the evil ones – or the racists or the unpatriotic or disloyal ones. Who are we to say that the way a group of people lives is wrong? The very assessment itself is then considered to be evil. We should support the “way of life” of a people and if we can love them and affirm them into the Kingdom of God through the message of salvation through Jesus without offending them, then that is great, but we should not actually call them out and say that things that are related to their “culture” are wrong and devastating to them. To do so would be racist or elitist or prejudiced or judgmental or disloyal whatever other term applies here.
The Bible does not just call out personal sin, though. It also denounces cultural expressions that are evil or that foster selfishness or that put people in opposition to God and that hurt others. The Bible tells us that these expressions can affect an entire people and culture because sin can metasticize and grow until it takes over everything. But, here is the thing: Paul was not a racist. He was not saying that there was anything inherent to the genetics of Cretans that made them this way. He was not saying that they were inferior to others in this or that only Cretans were cut off from God because of their sins. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). He denounced a lot of groups, including his own Jewish people when they opposed the work of God. What he is saying is that these are the ways that sin has manifested itself in this particular group of people and this manifestation among this culture was creating problems for Titus in his work. Paul believed in cultural and structural sin as well as in personal, individual sin.
But, Paul also said this:
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:26-29 ESV)
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:9-11 ESV)
Salvation was available to all people, and when they came to Christ, there was to be complete unity in the church on the basis of what Jesus had done for all of them equally. The Cross changes everything.
I think that recognizing that a culture and a group of people are broken and are acting in destructive ways is necessary to developing a missiological approach to those people. It isn't hateful and it isn't racist – unless you are judging a people as inferior according to your own broken culture/people/sin instead of by the Word of God. What are the barriers to the gospel? What are the bridges? How can God transform a people and make all things new? If you recognize that your own native culture also has problems that only God can heal and if you apply God's Word to yourself, then perhaps you can also see what is happening elsewhere. Our judgment should only be according to the Way of Jesus, however – not to tear down, but to address the problems and then build up.
That is why I wrote When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus
. Southern white Evangelicals were subverted by the evil in their own culture as Southern Whites worked to promote their own “way of life” over and above others. They bought and enslaved Black Africans and used them for their own gain. They tore families apart and bought and sold men, women, and children in slave markets, many that were next door to Christian churches – and often, Christian pastors gave this practice their approval and even participated in it. They fought a war where 600,000 people died. They then established an evil system of segregation where Black people were treated as inferiors for a hundred more years. They did all of this to promote their own culture and position. They subverted Christianity beneath their own self-seeking desires and used the Bible for their own ends. It was a worldly and self-centered thing to do. The White Evangelical church went along with it and even gave it sanction, acting as the chaplain to such a culture. Taking that position for almost 300 years has done terrible harm to the church and the cause of Christ in North America. The sin beneath the sin of racism still affects us till this day. The only way out of the historical dilemma is through the Cross and the repentance and new life that is provided for us in Christ. At any point that we seek to promote ourselves or our own “way of life” or try to use God as a means to an end of finding the good life for us, then we are trafficking in the same errors that our ancestors engaged in.
What would Paul say about us? About our culture? What would he say about America? If Paul were to write a letter to our churches, what would he say? If Paul would have written to the Southern white church in 1850, what would have said? In 1950? Today? Paul was not a racist. He was telling the truth about the Cretans. But, his goal was that Cretans would also be conformed to the image of Christ, because God loved them too. The real racist/prejudiced/elitist move is to think that they were what they were and that the grace of God could not bring transformation to them. As the letter to Titus goes on, Paul says,
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14 ESV)
We can tell the truth about our broken cultures and nations because the Word of God is a mirror that shows us where we are falling apart. We can also tell our culture that Christ is our Hope and that in Him all things hold together (Col. 1:17). Let's all find our life and hope in Jesus, in whom all things are being reconciled (Col. 1:20).
And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
(Colossians 1:17-20 ESV)