Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (II)

We do not have to use liturgy to quell dissent: we can use it to sing in harmonious discord

December 25, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Titus 3:4-7

This excerpt from Titus blends the Christmas language of incarnation (“the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,” 3:4) with baptismal language (“through the water of birth and renewal,” 3:5). Some scholars suggest that Titus 3:4–7 originally comes from an ancient Christian baptismal liturgy that the author quotes. Though they cannot confirm this, the suggestion is quite plausible and helps make sense of the shift from moral commands in 3:1–3 and 3:8–11 to this theological liturgy. (Paul also does this several times in his authentic letters, including the baptismal formula in Galatians 3:28 and the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:6–11.) 

Engaging with this text on Christmas opens us to the diverse perspectives that shape our liturgies, which can help us embody Christ’s light and love in the world.

Context matters

First, an important and quick reminder about the letter to Titus: Though the author claims to be Paul, it is abundantly clear that Paul did not write this letter. Another writer used Paul’s name and reputation to make an argument about the church in the second century (circa 120 C.E.): what it should believe and how it should be structured. Whereas Paul speaks of his audiences as loosely structured “assemblies” meeting in houses, the author of Titus presents a firm vision of a structured “church,” with clear rules and hierarchies. 

Their presentation closely aligns their vision of the church with the sociopolitical hierarchy of the Roman Empire. In contrast to competing visions of the Jesus movement (as seen in noncanonical sources like the Acts of Thecla), the letter of Titus desires a church that is socially acceptable and upwardly mobile. This context helps us appreciate the rhetorical framing of 3:4–7 within Titus’ argument. The author inserts this liturgy amid a series of moral commands to the letter’s audience. 

The passage immediately follows the author’s commands to be submissive and obedient to (Roman) rulers (3:1) and to avoid certain vices. The vices listed in 3:3 echo the longer string of vices that Paul applies to Gentiles in Romans 1:29–31. Both vice lists repeat racialized Roman morality, which attributed these vices to the inhabitants of the non-Roman nations that Rome conquered and ruled. 

The passage is followed by more commands in Titus 3:8–11, which emphasize not being dissentious or quarrelsome (3:9) and encourage the audience to stop associating with anyone who “causes divisions” (3:10) because they are “perverted and sinful” (3:11). This moral guidance is part of the author’s overall project of shaping the church in a particular sociopolitical direction: one that is united around a moral hierarchy that reflects Roman imperial custom. 

This direction influences the author’s theology. Differing from other early Christian baptismal liturgies (for example, Galatians 3:28), Titus’ liturgy connects salvation to baptism. Salvation, for the author of Titus, is something that has already been completed—whereas for earlier writers like Paul, salvation is collective and will not be complete until the future coming (parousia) of God’s justice. For Titus, moral living is prerequisite for salvation; for Paul and others, moral living is a joyous response to God’s promise to save all people. For Titus, baptism marks salvation. Therefore, Titus demands that their baptized audience must live morally under the terms set by the author (and Rome) in the rest of the letter. 

As 3:4–7 is a liturgical insert in a theological argument, we need to be cautious about excerpting it without seeing this wider context. It connects salvation and baptism in ways that theologically support particular ways of living at the expense of others. It theologically renders dissenters, rebels, and marginalized, conquered peoples as unworthy of salvation because of their purportedly inherent immorality. 

Making space for additional perspectives with liturgy

Could there be value to the liturgical words expressed in this passage beyond how Titus uses it? How might we reclaim that value while celebrating Christ’s coming into the world?

There are other voices and perspectives around this passage and letter. The author makes their argument because other Christians dissented. Titus uses this theological appeal to baptismal salvation to quarrel with them and support his vision for the church. If we accept the suggestion that 3:4–7 could have been a commonly used liturgy among second-century Christians, then we have some of those different voices embedded in the letter itself! When pastors refer to scripture or a hymn in sermons, it is often because those words have meaning and authority to the folks assembled to listen. The author of Titus draws from this liturgy because it was familiar and had value to the audience they are trying to persuade.

This recognition helps us look critically at how Titus uses 3:4–7 and ask why and how its theological words inspired others—especially folks who disagreed with the author. 

Perhaps they emphasized the “loving kindness” of God’s salvation that brought them “rebirth and renewal” through the pouring out of water during their baptism. For some early Christian women leaders, baptism marked a calling to leadership and living that visibly unsettled Rome’s sociopolitical hierarchy. Some of those leaders could have interpreted this liturgy very differently from Titus, in ways that profoundly validated their calling and ministry in the church. If some of the audience loved this liturgy and strongly disagreed with the author’s moral commands, they might have interrupted the letter’s reader and vocally contested using these beloved words for this purpose. 

As Christians celebrate the salvation that Jesus’ incarnation promises this Christmas, engaging with Titus 3:4–7 invites us to celebrate the many perspectives that different people hold dear to their theologies, past and present. Like choirs of angels singing descants in exaltation, we do not have to use liturgy to quell dissent: we can use it to sing in harmonious discord that includes and embraces difference and dissent. Whether preaching on Titus or using 3:4–7 in part of a Christmas liturgy, it is possible to proclaim it in ways that give voice to the many dissenting ways people make meaning with it.