In relation to critiquing other cultures in an age of cultural relativism, Titus 1:12–13 caught my eye a couple of years ago as I was working through this passage, in particular, Paul’s quotation in 1:12, and his estimation of it in 1:13.
The quotation which Paul gave is from a Cretan poet, Epimenides: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Paul is applying this characterization to those whom the Cretan elders must silence, apparently Cretan Jews (cf. 1:10; for the category, cf. Acts 2:5,11). This verse has come under intense scrutiny for at least a couple of reasons. One, it contains what is known as the “Epimenides paradox,” an example of a “liar paradox.” Two, we have Paul quoting a pagan poet with approval, which is a stumbling block for some.
What interested me, however, is that Paul is taking a specific culture and agreeing that certain specific sins characterize it, generally speaking. Paul does not merely quote Epimenides, but adds his agreement: “This testimony is true!” (1:13).
It is not considered politically correct these days to note that certain sins characterize certain cultures. It appears, though, that Titus 1:12–13 gives justification for highlighting specific sins which characterize particular cultures other than one’s own.
Having said that, it is necessary as well to scrutinize one’s own culture for its besetting sins—and preferably first. This would seem to be in the spirit of Matthew 7:3–5 and Galatians 6:1. But is it not true that it is more difficult (though not impossible, as Paul’s estimation of Epimenides’s characterization of Cretans shows) to recognize one’s own culture’s besetting sins? How then shall we critique our own culture? This is a practice perhaps best done with the aid of those who are not part of our own culture, be they contemporary voices from other cultures, or voices from the past.
What is true for our own culture in this regard, however, is true for other cultures as well. That is, as outsiders, we may be able to see more clearly the besetting sins of another culture.
Regarding Paul’s agreement with the Cretan observation, Knight’s estimation is thought-provoking and accurate:
Paul is not making an ethnic slur, but is merely accurately observing, as the Cretans themselves and others did, how the sin that affects the whole human race comes to particular expression in this group. 1Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC, 299.
Human sin comes to particular expression in any cultural group, and that expression will vary in intensity and manifestation from group to group. Based on Paul’s example, it seems to be appropriate to observe how sin particularly manifests itself in a given culture, even when one is not part of that culture. There are better and worse ways to go about doing this, but it is not intrinsically wrong to make the critique.
|Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC, 299.