“It is said by a certain one of their own prophets, ‘Cretians are always liars, evil wild animals, and lazy gluttons,’ and this testimony is true! Because of this you must severely discipline them in order that they may be free from error in the faith and not giving attention to Jewish myths and the commands of men turning away from the truth.”
According to Clement of Alexandria, the “prophet” in question here was Epimenides of Knossos (Knossos being one of the major cities on the island of Crete), and is part of a poem to the glory of Zeus (of which we only have a fragment preserved here and in Acts 17:28). The sin of the Cretians seems to have been (according to the fragment) the belief that Zeus was mortal…something with which Epimenides strongly disagreed. Thus, he calls them liars, wild beasts, and lazy gluttons (some scholars suggest that the “evil wild animals” may even be a reference to the minotaur!). And Paul adds that Epimenides was right about the character of the Cretians (which means Paul is not quoting this in a sarcastic way)!
A question that is sometimes raised is how does Paul’s use of the pagan poets/prophets impact our understanding of these ancient texts. The obvious answer is that Paul’s allusion to these texts does not add canonical authority to them nor does it imply inspiration. Paul is simply demonstrating that he is aware of a text culturally known by his audience and is alluding to it in an area that is sadly truthful. American fundamentalism has tended toward the error of rejecting the study of any non-Christian text, yet this was clearly not the practice of the Apostle Paul. In fact, Paul’s practice is clearly just the opposite. It is a reminder that we ought to be familiar with the cultural expressions of our day and should be able to use them to illustrate truth and error.
And into this context, Paul sends Titus to establish a church! As odd as this might be to say, pastors take courage when you face obstacles of all sorts within your own congregations. Yes, we face stubborn people, complaints, frustrations, etc…. yet, how many of us can say that we live in a community filled with liars, wild beasts, and lazy gluttons! Even the most frustrating of church communities stands head and shoulders above the context that Titus is finding himself within. Too often, we fall into discouragement. Let us remember Titus and his challenges.
So, what is the solution for a congregation filled with liars, wild animals, and lazy gluttons? Discipline them. Like a parent disciplines a rambunctious child, so too, Titus is called upon to discipline the church. And, by extension, the Elders that Titus is to raise up, men of great character, are to continue the practice of disciplining the congregation so that they do not pursue Jewish myths or legalists who reject the Truth.
Legalism and mysticism is on the rise today in America. The “New Age” movement is gathering followers as are Judaizers. Paul’s reminder to us is that these movements lead people into error and apostasy. His reminder to us (also) is that the way to prevent these errors from taking root in the soil of a congregation is by spiritual discipline. It begins with what is taught in the pulpit and continues with what is practiced by the church leadership when people drift astray. Doing so is never easy and requires prayerful discernment, but the end is the purification of Christ’s church, what could be more worthwhile?