For God’s saving grace has appeared to all people, training us in order that we might renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and live in self-control, righteousness and godliness in this present age, waiting for the blessed hope and the appearance of the glory of the great God, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself on our behalf, in order that he might redeem us from every lawlessness and cleanse for himself a chosen people who are passionate about good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
Paul appears to have two practical concerns for Titus’s church in Crete: first, that the church would fall prey to false teaching (1:9, 13; 2:1-8), and second, that divisions would creep in (2:2, 15; 1:9). Part of “sound doctrine,” according to Paul, is maintaining order within the faith community. In chapter 2 he expresses this desire for order to the various members of the community: elder men (1-2), elder women (3), younger women (4-5), younger men (6-8), and slaves (9-10).
Now, my New Oxford Annotated Bible (2007, M. Coogan, ed.) calls this 2:1-8 “a catalogue of virtues reflecting and inscribing the hierarchical order of the Greco-Roman household.” The reader of this note is perhaps to infer that the passage reflects Paul’s unenlightened patriarchy. Certainly some have read Paul in that way: throwing out the material that is perceived as chauvinistic or pro-slavery.
But I wonder whether Paul has a different motivation. Throughout the book he expresses a concern for order and unity. This central desire stems from his eschatology: the grace of God has appeared in Jesus Christ (2:11, 3:4), and it will appear again (2:13). In the meantime, it is wise for this small, persecuted community to “keep its head down,” to avoid making social and political waves that would distract from the message of Jesus. Paul doesn’t call for a complete overhaul of Greco-Roman household order. But he does call for a complete one-eighty in the mindset of the Christian, whether male or female, old or young, slave or free. That mindset is dominated by God’s grace (2:11) motivating his people to good deeds (2:12, 14).
I think the beauty some of Paul’s allegedly patriarchal passages is that they quietly overturn the bases of the social orders he appears to support. I think if Paul knew that slavery would end someday, and that women would be revered as equal to men, he would be pleased. I know that he would be displeased by militant feminism and masculism, because both are motivated by selfishness and the struggle for power. When we read Paul’s words in context, we will be driven to mutual submission and a unified face toward the world in our present age.