The word “Cretan” means (not surprisingly) an inhabitant of Crete. But it also means an uncouth, uneducated person as in:
“When we were in Moscow I tried taking Billy to the Bolshoi Ballet but the Cretan listened to his heavy metal garbage the whole time on his iPod.”
So the word “Cretan” in fact doubles as a racial slur not unlike calling someone a “Jew” as a way of impugning thriftiness. [Author’s note: This is in fact incorrect. I incorrectly conflated “Cretin” and “Cretan”.]
From where does this racial slur originate? It comes, apparently, from the sixth century BC Cretan philosopher Epimenides, though much of what we know of him is shrouded in the mythical mists of ancient history. But one thing is clear: the slurring of Cretans got an enormous shot in the arm from none other than the Apostle Paul and the Letter of Titus for which he has traditionally been considered the author.
Titus consists of Paul providing Titus with direction in his ministry in Crete. Paul writes: “The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.” (1:5) However, things have not been going as Paul (and Titus) had hoped. Paul provides a quick rundown of the problems:
“For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain.” (1:10-11)
Why is it, one might wonder, that there is so much rebellion, meaningless talk and deception among the congregation of Crete? Paul goes on to explain to Titus:
“One of Crete’s own people has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith.” (1:12-13)
Did Paul just say what I thought he said? Let’s put this into a contemporary context. Imagine you have a senior pastor writing to a junior pastor who has just begun a ministry among a Creole community in New Orleans. Things are not going well so the senior pastor writes to the junior pastor these words of explanation and encouragement:
“One of the Creole’s own prophets has said it: Creoles are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith.”
What? Are you joking? This would be considered by everybody a morally indefensible racist slur. It would also be extraordinarily bad advice to think that when things start going wrong in a congregation you blame the problems on the predominant race (or gender, or age,or socio-economic class) of the congregants!
Think about that as you contemplate this definition of the inerrancy of the Bible from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:
“Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”
The person who wants to affirm this statement surely has a problem with Titus 1:12-13 because Paul has just given advice which is racist, evil and pastorally very bad.
So where does one go from here? I would plead with inerrantists not to go the embarrassing route of attempting to defend Paul’s statement with the suggestion that maybe Cretans really were all liars, evil brutes and lazy gluttons. I would also discourage people from saying “Let’s forget about that altogether and just talk about the fascinating ‘liar paradox’ that is embedded in Epimenides’ statement.” That is an interesting topic, but not germane to the present discussion.
Here’s another option. We return to the Chicago Statement’s declaration that “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching” and ask ourselves: What is scripture teaching here? We know that what Paul was teaching is false, but is scripture teaching what Paul is teaching? What if we thought of this in an entirely different way in which the morally flawed but very human advice of one beleaguered pastor to another is divinely appropriated to provide a mirror to our own failings. Isn’t this a vivid portrayal of human nature on display? Remember Adam’s pathetic defense of his actions in Genesis 3:12? “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” When you read that you want to take the guy by the shoulders and shake him: “Dude, take responsibility for your own actions!” But that’s what we do: when we mess up we resort to blaming others.
And it looks like that is what Paul is doing here too. He advises Titus that when things don’t go as planned you content yourself with slurring the inferior moral and intellectual character of the race to which you are “ministering”. Yikes! So in this instance Paul shows us what not to do and what advice not to give.
There is indeed an inspiring and instructive lesson here for those who are looking to find it.