As a new Christian, I remember reading and re-reading Titus 2:3–5. I put it to memory quickly. What a handy blueprint, I thought. I was so excited at how this list was going to help me set priorities as a Christian woman and simplify the work I had before me in my family, home, and church. As I saw it, my duties were simply to:
- Love my husband.
- Love my children.
- Be self-controlled.
- Practice purity.
- Be a keeper of my home.
- Be kind.
- Submit to my husband.
Surely each day I could just keep this list in the front of my mind and then check, check, check the duties off until bedtime rolled around and I would go to sleep and start over again tomorrow.
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 (Titus 2:3–5).
I would bet that many of us have that passage underlined in our Bibles or even memorized. There are many virtues and character qualities Christians want to cultivate, but probably no passage has been more greatly studied for women of the church than Titus 2:3–5.
This passage is widely (and rightly) taught to be a discipleship blueprint for older women who mentor younger women. It is a call for relationships between the generations of women within the church. Want to know what to teach younger women? Or if you're a younger woman, do you want to know what questions to ask or qualities to emulate of an older woman? God has told us in Titus 2:3–5. It’s all laid out.
But I have fallen into two different ditches when I take these verses out of the broader background from which they were written and don't consider them within the context of the entire book of Titus. When I only look at verses 3–5 of chapter two, I see a handy list. And when I see a list, I get excited because we all know, lists are awesome! Yet there is more than a simple list of duties here. Sadly, we can slide into error if we don’t study a passage fully.
Ditch Number One: Self-Righteousness
I become proud because I have a good day of “Titus 2'ing.” I might think inwardly, There’s a delicious stew in the crockpot, homemade rolls rising, the house is tidy, and my brilliant children completed all their school work today with smiles that were ever so big. My marriage is strife-free, and it’s because I have been obedient to God in His instructions for wives to submit to their husbands. Yep, I’m pretty much awesome.
We judge that we really did well with our Titus 2 duties and met our own expectations of what godly marriage, motherhood, and homemaking looks like.
Sadly, this limited understanding of Titus 2:3–5 can produce an even deeper ditch. Because if I continue in the sin of self-righteous pride in meeting my own low expectations, I can begin to base my worth on my performance. Some of us get all the way to the bottom of this “ditch,” falling on our face spiritually, where God will bring this sin to light. It is then that He pulls us out and sets our feet back on His firm foundation of love, forgiveness, and grace.
Many of us have trusted in Christ alone for our salvation, but gradually and unconsciously we can revert to a works-based relationship with God. We may recognize that our best efforts cannot get us to heaven, but we do think they can earn us God’s blessings here on earth. I still struggle with these tendencies even though I know better. As Jerry Bridges said in his book Transforming Grace, “We know we are saved by grace, but we think we must live by our spiritual ‘sweat.’”
Some of my sisters reading this may be getting nervous right now. Doesn’t the Bible tell us to work out our own salvation, to pursue holiness, and to add to our faith virtues such as goodness, knowledge, and self-control?
Yes, it does. The Bible is full of exhortations to pursue the disciplines of spiritual growth. And because of our human, legalistic natures, we must be reminded that pursuing growth in holiness does not mean that we are earning God’s blessings on our lives and homes. I must be reminded often that our sanctification is not a 50/50 relationship with God, as if I supply half the growth with my merits and half with God’s help. No, we were justified by His grace alone, and we are sanctified by His grace alone.
Ditch Number Two: Quit Trying
I become overwhelmed and discouraged because I never seem to measure up. All that Titus 2 lays out for me to do seems unattainable. I examine these three verses and look deep into each virtue listed, and then I look at my own heart and life and see how far short I fall. (I don't know about you, but I haven’t consistently loved my husband and children perfectly with complete self-control and pure behavior through one whole day, much less an entire lifetime.)
As C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, "No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good." It’s tempting to throw in the towel and quit trying because there is no way we’ll ever be good enough.
But if we read the whole book of Titus, we find that Paul addresses other groups of people besides just the older women and younger women. He also instructs the older men, the younger men, Titus himself, and then the masters and slaves. And within all these wonderful and practical lists of behaviors for many types of Christian people to strive for, we find verses 11–14 . . . which should make us want to turn a cartwheel and shout hallelujah:
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.
Our pursuit of holiness, that is our attempts to obey the commands found in Titus 2:3–5, are an outflowing of the glorious truth of our salvation. They are not the thing; they are an outworking of the thing—our "blessed hope." If these characteristics are not a natural outflow of the work of God in our hearts rather than a spiritual checklist we mark off, we can easily become either full of pride and self-sufficiency (on good days) or overwhelmed and defeated (on bad days). We cannot keep these commands apart from the Holy Spirit who enables us. Were it not for His work within us, we would not even have the desire to keep them.
Freedom from a List
Not a day goes by that we can live out these commands perfectly. Through Paul's hand, God has given us the instructions on how to behave within the home and family. And thankfully, God blesses our homes not based on our merits or demerits, but based on Christ’s merits purchased 2,000 years ago on a Roman cross. Moreover we can rejoice in knowing that as we strive to obey Him, He will daily provide the desire, strength, and grace to love our husbands, children, and homes with self-control, submission, and purity.
What is the remedy for avoiding the ditches of error on either side of Titus 2:3–5? It is to stir ourselves to remember often: “All this is from God” (2 Cor. 5:18).