In answering this question, I’m going to reverse the question so that those who would affirm that Titus 1:12 permits racial stereotypes and generalizations have their position described in the three objections. These objections will be followed by a contrary consideration. I will then provide my own understanding of Titus 1:12 and a reply to the three initial objections.
Are ethnic stereotypes or generalizations impermissible for Christians?
Objection 1: Paul affirms that the saying, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” is true testimony (Titus 1:12-13).
Objection 2: The statement that Paul asserts as true is an ethnic stereotype.
Objection 3: If Paul is willing to affirm an ethnic stereotype or generalization as true, Christians should be willing to make true ethnic stereotypes or generalizations.
On the Contrary, Proverbs 17:5 says, “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker.” Applying the principle in this proverb to race/ethnicity, Christians should beware that racial stereotypes and generalizations of people dishonor God who made people of every race or ethnicity (cf. Hays, NSBT, 50-51).
I Answer That, Since there is an absurdity in a Cretan giving true testimony that Cretans are always liars—meaning that either the Cretan is lying or there is an exception to the always—Paul was making use of the liar’s paradox as a humorous way to make a serious point (Köstenberger, EBTC, 319-22; cf. Yarbrough, PNTC, 496). By invoking the liar’s paradox, Paul is explicitly acknowledging exceptions to the statement—namely the Cretan prophet who uttered the statement (Ngewa 2009: 348). In addition, the Cretan Christians would have recognized that they were delivered from the sins enumerated (Marshall, ICC, 202).
The saying does seem to have picked up on widely acknowledged vices that characterized Crete (Mounce, WBC, 398; Marshall ICC, 201-2; Towner, NICNT, 700-2), though Paul seems to be targeting the “opponents” to his work in Crete rather than all Cretans (Mounce, WBC, 404). Paul’s statement in verse 13 may not be saying that Epimenides’s statement was true of all Cretans but that it was true of his opponents. By recognizing that this critique comes from a respected Cretan himself, Paul avoids the charge that he has a foreigner’s bias against Crete (Marshall, ICC, 203). In addition, Paul is critiquing those who are attempting to Judaize Cretan Christians by linking the Judaizers with characteristic Cretan sins that they would think they had transcended (Towner, NICNT, 703).
Reply to Objection 1: The original context for the statement that all Cretans are liars is due to an objection to the Cretan claim that Zeus had died and that his grave was in Crete. “If then this testimony is true, observe what a difficulty! For if the poet is true who said that they spoke falsely, in asserting that Jupiter could die, as the apostle says, it is a fearful thing! Attend, beloved, with much exactness. The poet said that the Cretans were liars for saying that Jupiter was dead. The apostle confirmed his testimony: so, according to the apostle, Jupiter is immortal: For he says, ‘this witness is true’! What shall we say then? Or rather how shall we solve this?” (Chrysostom, NPNF1 13:528). Thus, Paul was not endorsing the truthfulness of the larger argument against the Cretan claim that Zeus had died but making a more general statement about the truthfulness of the assessment as it relates to his opponents in Crete (cf. Mounce 2000: 404).
Reply to Objection 2: A stereotype is “A preconceived and oversimplified idea of the characteristics which typify a person, situation, etc.; an attitude based on such a preconception” (OED, s.v. stereotype, 3.b.). Paul’s statement is not an example of stereotyping since, Paul was likely aware of the liar’s paradox involved in his statement (cf. Thiselton, Collected Essays, 217; Köstenberger, EBTC, 322, n. 84) and since he was affirming its truth as it applied to his opponents rather than universally of all Cretans (Mounce, WBC, 404; Towner, NICNT, 703).
Reply to Objection 3: Paul, in this epistle, requires believers to avoid slander (1:3), be kind (1:5), to utter only “sound speech that cannot be condemned,” (2:8), “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (3:2), to “avoid foolish controversies, [and]… dissentions” (3:9). If Titus 1:12 is an ethnic stereotype, Paul contradicts the teaching of the rest of the epistle (Thiselton, Collected Essays, 222). Thus Titus 1:12 does not permit stereotypes. Generalizations, when defined as “an excessively broad or general statement based on limited or inadequate evidence” (OED, s.v. generalization, 1.b.), are also impermissible. Whatever generalizations (in the sense, “the action or process of forming or expressing a general concept or proposition on the basis of inference from particular instances,” OED, s.v. generalization, 1.a.) a Christian makes about a group of people must not be slander (1:3), must be uttered in a spirit of kindness (1:5), must be sound and above refutation (2:8), must be done with gentleness and courtesy and not with an intent to malign anyone (3:2), and must be made in such a way that they do not promote foolish controversies or inflame dissensions (3:9).