Doin' Good in the 'Hood - Insights from the book of Titus

An original article for Love Your Neighbour by Dr. George Wieland

17 September 2007

George_Wieland.jpg Dr. George Wieland has lived in NZ with his wife Jo and family since 1999, when they joined the staff of Carey Baptist College. George teaches New Testament courses at Carey and at Tyndale-Carey Graduate School.

Before moving to NZ the Wielands were missionaries in Brazil before pastoring in the North of England and Scotland.

George loves exploring how the NT speaks to contemporary life, and trying to live it. He has a special interest in the letters to Timothy and Titus (the subject of his PhD; also his book, 'The Significance of Salvation: A Study of Salvation Language in the Pastoral Epistles' Paternoster, 2006). He also enjoys music and sport.

What are we saved for?

Paul puts it like this: Jesus “gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2:14) In other words, Jesus wants to set people loose to do good!

Significantly, Paul stressed this aspect of the purpose of salvation in an environment where doing good was not the norm.

Titus was trying to establish groups of believers on the island of Crete, which had a reputation at that time for violence, deceitfulness, primitive religious traditions and social structures that even others in the Greek world regarded as damaging to family relationships and general standards of behaviour.  

street_race3.jpgBoys were separated from their families at a young age and brought up to be warriors in the crude and aggressive atmosphere of the men’s halls, where the older men ate, drank and bragged about their exploits.

For many women, on the other hand, restrictions on leaving their homes and lack of education and opportunities left them frustrated and bored, with just the wine flask or a bit of local gossip to add colour to their lives.

Paul’s description of people who were “foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another” (Titus 3:3) sums it up!

But Good News had come to Crete! “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all” (Titus 2:11). How could the grace of God “appear” in that environment?

On one level it was through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the message about him that Paul, his team and other believers were taking out to the world; but it still had to be made visible in those neighbourhoods, in the towns and cities constantly at war with each other, in the men’s halls and the women’s quarters, among the slaves in the households and fields. That’s where “doing good” comes in.

If those who had become believers in Jesus were just to carry on as they had been doing before, the message would lose credibility (2:5). There were many who were waiting for an opportunity to discredit those who brought this new message, but if those who taught it actually lived what they preached they couldn’t be criticized (2:8). If those who accepted the message now lived lives shaped by Jesus, not by the environment around them, they would become beautiful visual demonstrations of the message about their Saviour (2:10).  

It’s interesting that Paul didn’t advise that when people came to believe innight_club.jpg Jesus they should be taken out of these unhelpful environments so that they could live differently – he wanted them to live differently in those environments, and it was the responsibility of the Christian leaders to help them to do that (2:1, 3, 15; 3:1, 8, 14!)

There’s certainly plenty in the letter to Titus about what the message about salvation contains. It’s about God’s promise, Jesus’ self-giving, the Holy Spirit’s renewing; it’s about believing, being put right with God, having the hope of eternal life.

But in that challenging mission setting Paul called for the most practical demonstration of the goodness of God through God’s people simply doing good. This was to be not a duty but a passion – “zealous for good deeds” (2:14)! And not an optional extra but a central and urgent element in Christian faith and life – “careful to devote themselves to good works” (3:8, 14).

In fact so closely is behaviour tied to belief that Paul says that those who are “unfit for any good work” must have something seriously wrong with their faith (1:16).

In the ungodly and challenging environment of first century Crete the grace of God became visible as those who had come to belong to God set about reversing the downward spiral in their communities, introducing an unexpected dose of goodness into situations instead of joining in with the bad, living generously instead of selfishly, showing gentle respect in place of animosity and aggression.

Our environment needs the same treatment. To “love your neighbour” is more than a sound missional strategy. It is a recognition that in part this is why Jesus makes us his own, rescuing and washing us and setting us in a right relationship with God – so that his grace can become visible as we who have been changed by it do good in our neighbourhood.