But avoid foolish debates, genealogies, quarrels, and disputes about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. Reject a divisive person after a first and second warning, knowing that such a person is perverted and sins, being self-condemned. -Titus 3:9-11
Every now and then, and especially in the course of slaughtering an individual or church’s sacred cows, I run into a well meaning Christian who decides to use this passage as an excuse to prematurely end our conversation (or prevent it from occurring).
Here is a typical parting shot1):
I have never seen or heard you clear up anything in the body of Christ. Instead you most often stir up divisions and arguments. Paul makes it clear in Romans 16:17, and Titus 2:9-11 exactly how I am to respond to someone who does exactly what you seem to find joy in doing everyday. So in obedience to my savior, goodbye Wes.
Here is another one:
I added that cause I wanted you to know that I do, love you, care for you, respect you: it is very easily separated. A person will not except change from a person who he does not respect. So you will not take correction from me, you have not in the past so I can not expect it in the future.
I am teaching Titus in Sunday School and these verses come to my mind:
Titus 3: 9-11.
I am not cutting you off, I am not mad, I will say hi, will talk with you but make any effort of correction will not unless you ask.
Now, personal feelings aside (and the snippets cited above contain quite a bit of emotional/historical baggage), the question needs to be asked: What exactly are “foolish debates” that are mentioned in Titus 3:1-9 and how should they be understood today? This question is quite vital since, if misunderstood and misapplied, it can quite readily lead to a complete breakdown in any and all debate and, as an extension, any and all discussion, discourse, or, indeed, disagreement altogether. So it is very important that we get this issue right at the outset.2
First we need to examine the text itself:
But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. -Titus 3:9-11
To begin to understand what Paul was writing about here it is helpful to understand the context. I highly encourage you to take a minute to read all of Titus. It’s only 3 chapters and the section quoted above comes right before the final greeting (Titus 3:12-15). So to get a good understanding of what Paul is talking about, we need to go back a bit as Titus 3:9-11 is likely a culmination of his letter’s primary train of thought rather than an independent, self-contained, section that is able to adequately stand on it’s own.
In chapter 1 we read:
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
A few things need to be noted here. The first is that Paul is addressing an existing problem and the second is that this problem is between believers and unbelievers “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” and the third is that the way we are to tell them apart is by “their good works”. We can also deduce that the particular group Paul is addressing here are “especially those of the circumcision party”, meaning Jewish converts.
This kicks off what Paul focuses on for the rest of his letter, the presence and practice of good works. In fact, if one were so inclined, a word study in Titus on the phrase “good works” will undoubtedly yield much in the way of fruitful insights which are beyond the scope of this short post.
In chapter 2 Paul further develops his exhortation for believers to practice good works, namely what those good works look like and how they should set believers apart from the world around them. Likewise, in the beginning of chapter 3 we are given opposites of good works, the “evil deeds” we are supposed to look out for.
So it is reasonable to conclude that Titus 3:9-11, since it is Paul’s conclusion to his letter, is a reference to the beginning, Titus 1:10-16 and that the “foolish debates” are the “Jewish myths” mentioned in chapter 1. But what is more, these “foolish debates” are foolish, not because either party deems them to be so, but because the result of these debates is an “upsetting of whole families”. And this upsetting is not merely agitation or physiological discomfort. This upsetting is a damaging of others’ faith through false (lying) doctrine that is designed to draw others away from Christ. So the divisive persons here are primarily guilty of drawing others away from Christ and secondarily, from each other (as members of the Body of Christ).
In a post titled, Unity s ‘first tier’ doctrine, Alan Knox points out that:
According to Paul, a person who divides from brothers and sisters should be warned twice. If the person still remains divisive, then the church should separate from him. In other words, “divisiveness” is a reason supposing that someone is NOT a brother or sister in Christ.
He goes on to conclude:
In Scripture, there are very, very few reasons given for one believer to separate from another believer. This separation is the same as refusing to recognize someone as a brother or sister in Christ. Thus, “divisiveness” is a first-tier doctrine that is placed on the same level as teaching a false gospel, practicing gross immorality, and refusing to work to support yourself and others (yes, this is a ‘first tier’ doctrine also).
I believe Alan is spot-on here. Sadly, in an effort to quash what some pastors see as a threat they are quick to throw around passages such as Titus 3:9-11. What they often fail to realize is that in using this passage to quell what they perceive as division and discord, they actually end up coming dangerously close to participating in the same sort of divisive behavior Paul wrote to Titus about. That is, they seek to divide between brothers and sisters in Christ by calling into question (either intentionally or by implication) the salvation of the one they’ve (often unilaterally) deemed to be “divisive”.
So the next time you are tempted to apply Titus 3:9-11 to someone, take a step back and ask yourself whether they have earned such a label according to Paul’s previous exhortations. Do they have a history of immorality? Do they seek to draw others away from “sound doctrine”3? Do their arguments contain much speculation4? Do you have a real reason to question their salvation (apart from the present disagreement)? Do you really think they are headed to hell5? Is the other party, once warned, unwilling to continue a productive discourse on the issue at hand6?
The charge inherent in Titus 3:9-11 is not something to be taken or thrown about lightly.
- I use the phrase “parting shot” here because after citing this passage no other contact is made. Thus, the pattern seems to be 1. identify someone’s speech as undesirable, 2. claim the offending party is in violation of Titus 3:9-11, 3. have no further contact with them, cutting off any and all hope of further discourse (which includes reconciliation [↩]
- It is also important to settle this question in our own souls because if we leave this question unexamined it could lead to some serious personal spiritual damage. [↩]
- This does not include personal theological preference, ie. Calvinism, but sound doctrine as is found in 1 Corinthians 15 [↩]
- For a good example of “Jewish myths” that likely existed in Paul’s time, look into Kabbalah. [↩]
- and do you want them to go there? [↩]
- If they are, then you need to seriously consider whether it is you who are being divisive in this instance. [↩]