Previously we noted that the qualifying phrase “what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1) at the head of the list of commendable behaviors Paul delivers to Titus (vv. 2–10) means that the ethics he lays out apply to all times and places, since the doctrine establishing these deeds never changes. Thus, even though the institution of slavery is never described as good in itself in Scripture, the behavior the apostle lays out for slaves in today’s passage is likewise the Word of God for us today.
Christian slaves in Paul’s day had some of the greatest opportunities to bear witness to the truth of the gospel. The lazy, good-for-nothing slave was a stereotype in Cretan culture, and believing slaves who were well-pleasing to their masters could pique their owners’ interest in the motivation behind their service, namely, Jesus Christ (vv. 9–10). So, being well-pleasing through hard work and not pilfering the many possessions of their owners to which they had access was one of the best ways for a slave to demonstrate his faith in a tangible way.
As always, Paul magnifies the dignity of those on the bottom of the social ladder. Similar to his instructions for married people, slaves are to submit freely to their masters (v. 9), but masters are not told to demand the submission of their slaves. Of course, slaves have no license to do anything their master says. John Calvin notes, “When he enjoins servants to please their masters in all things, this desire of pleasing must be limited to those things which are proper…to the effect that nothing should be done but according to the will of God.” Believers obey those over them unless doing so violates God’s law (Dan. 6; Acts 5:17–42).
In our current setting, we can apply Paul’s teaching to the employer-employee relationship, since modern contractual employment is not unlike slavery in the ancient world. We are obligated to be diligent laborers, not stealing from our bosses, which means that we work as many hours as we have been scheduled to work. It means that we do not seek our own way or talk back to our supervisors; however, as Matthew Henry notes, this “does not exclude turning away wrath with a soft answer, when season and circumstances admit.”