A couple of weeks ago, I declared my intention to devote my Sunday nights to expository preaching, and that I intended to begin my program with working through the book of Romans. I’m still on track for the first part of that, but I’ve hit a snag with the second. The elders pointed out something that I hadn’t noticed, which is that in 2018, I’m actually scheduled to teach a class on Romans, and I agreed that when there is so much Bible to cover, focusing that much attention on one book, however worthy, probably isn’t for the best!
Consequently, I decided to turn my expository attention elsewhere, and after a few moments, I settled on the book of Titus. I think that Titus is kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of New-Testament epistles. It never gets any respect! Even though it’s a short book, it’s loaded with all kinds of practical teaching that will help us get to heaven. With that in mind, then, let’s consider Titus 1.
As most of the epistles do, Titus begins with an INTRODUCTION. It appears in Titus 1:1-4. At its most basic level, this preface tells us who the sender and the recipient are. Titus comes to us from the pen of Paul, and it is addressed, not surprisingly, to Titus, whom Paul describes as another of his sons in the faith. As the letter will reveal later, just like Paul sent Timothy to Ephesus to straighten out things in the church there, Paul has sent Titus to the island of Crete and its churches.
After that, though, things get really interesting. Because this is an open letter rather than a private one, Paul defines his apostleship again, and this definition gives us some intriguing glimpses into what the body of the letter is going to be about. Crete certainly wasn’t as important a place in the Mediterranean world as Rome was, yet Paul wants the Christians there to understand that their humble lives play a part in nothing less than the eternal plan of God.
Paul reports that even before time began, God determined to give His people eternal life and promised them that they could have it. God’s plan ripened and matured for thousands of years, until finally it was revealed through the preaching of Paul and others like him. This is where the Christians in Crete come in. Paul’s message is designed to show them the truth and inspire their faith, so that they will live the godly lives that God has always intended them to live, so that they can receive the eternal life that God has always wanted to give them.
For that matter, this is where we come in too. Maybe we too feel like we’re living unremarkable lives in an unremarkable place, but the reality is that we are part of the most important thing ever to happen on this planet. Maybe we feel like our decisions to serve God, or not, are unimportant, but the reality is that those decisions determine whether we are fulfilling the reason for our existence or not. Our walk with God is important. It is eternal-life kind of important. Let’s treat it like that!
Next, we come to a discussion of ELDERS AND FAMILY. Look at Titus 1:5-6. There’s certainly a lot of controversy surrounding this text, but we can’t shy away away from it for that reason. Unless we come to an understanding of it, we can’t appoint elders, and elders are a vital part of God’s plan for the church. We need elders, so we need to confront this head-on.
Let me begin by observing that these qualifications are a portrait, not a checklist. If they’re a checklist, then why is the checklist in 1 Timothy different? We shouldn’t zero in on one or two of these qualities in isolation; instead, we should read them together to see whether a man rises to this overall level of spiritual attainment.
When we’re asking these questions, there’s one qualification that we should use as the lens through which we examine all the others, and that is the qualification of being above reproach. In fact, I generally read “above reproach” as the primary heading and everything else as the subheadings. All of those other things are areas where a prospective elder’s life can’t be reproached.
This starts with his marriage. “Husband of one wife” isn’t a married-yes-or-no checkbox. Instead, I prefer the alternate ESV reading here, which says, “A man of one woman”. This is about what a man’s marriage says about him as a Christian. Is he devoted to his wife, both in a sexual and in a relationship sense? His record as a husband will tell us things about him we can’t learn any other way.
The same holds true for his children. This is another place where I like the alternate reading, “are faithful”. The problem is that the mere fact that a man’s children show up at church someplace doesn’t tell us much about him. I’m familiar with a situation where every one of a Christian man’s three children are observant Christians, but he didn’t have a thing to do with it. Instead, he was an abusive drunk who divorced his wife when his kids were still in high school, and she was the one who rose up and led them to the Lord. Does their godliness help establish that he is above reproach?
Rather than counting noses, we need to look at relationships. Basically, do we see a man’s good example at work in the lives of his kids? Do they honor him? Do they respect him? Does he have the relationship with his children that we want an elder to have with the members of the congregation? In the example I cited, by the way, that man has no relationship with his kids, and no surprise. Certainly, the question of children’s faithfulness to the Lord must figure into the way we answer these questions, but when we turn them into a math problem, we’re making a mistake.
Next, we come to Paul’s discussion of ELDERS AND CHARACTER. Let’s read on in Titus 1:7-9. First of all, let’s note here that Paul repeats our subject heading of “above reproach”. The would-be elder has to be above reproach in his personal character as much as in his family relationships. This calls for judgment on the part of the congregation, and I think that’s why these qualifications often don’t get as much attention. They don’t offer the illusion of certainty that a simplistic reading of the previous verses does.
There are several things here that an elder can’t be. His character has to be free from pride, contentiousness, addiction, violence, and greed. Instead, we have to be able to look at his life and see somebody who gladly opens his home, particularly to strangers. He has to love what is right, display self-discipline, and be a man of integrity and devotion to God.
Especially, Paul says, he has to be somebody who is committed to the word. He has to know how to teach, and he has to know how to use the truth to address error when it comes up. Interestingly, the same Greek word that is translated as “believers” in v. 5 is translated as “trustworthy” here in v. 9, which I think shows us something of how much translation itself is a judgment call!
One final word on these qualifications. All of these things are traits, not absolutes. It’s possible to set the bar so high here that nobody can qualify, not even Jesus, because Jesus never got married and had kids! That’s a disastrous reading of the text because it ensures that God’s plan for the leadership of the church will not be enacted. We have to read and apply this like people who want to appoint elders, not people who don’t want to, so that our church can have the leadership God wants.
Paul then goes on to point out that we need elders, among other reasons, because of the presence of DECEIVERS. Consider Titus 1:10-14. Here, we learn that just like all churches everywhere, the churches in Crete have problems. In fact, they’re suffering from a rash of Judaizing false teachers who are coming in and leading Christians away into Jewish superstitions. Paul, though, puts part of the blame here on the audience. They’re people who need a firm hand in order to continue serving God.
When Paul spells out the problem this way, it’s pretty obvious why elders are the solution. Once the Cretan churches have elders, the elders can beat these false teachers at their own game. They’ll have the command of the Scriptures that they need to crack the whip when they have to, but they’ll also have the relationships with these weak Christians that they need to counteract the subtler influences of evil. Once there are shepherds, things will go a whole lot better for the sheep!
If we ever get to thinking that we’re above the need for elders in this congregation, we’ve got another think coming. I’ve been through something that most of you probably haven’t—the dissolution of an eldership—and let me tell you, this text pretty well describes how things went. There were men who stirred up trouble by teaching things that weren’t true. There were others who fell away because of the sin they nurtured in their own hearts. As a result, in the course of the year after the eldership disbanded, the congregation declined from 115 on Sunday morning to 75.
I am convinced, then, that it is vital for the health of this congregation that we honor and follow our elders, and that we do everything we can to make sure that we will continue to have elders in future. This has to start on an individual level. It’s possible that someday I may serve as an elder, and that means that I have to make it my job to equip myself to serve should I ever be called upon. When we turn aside from this good work, we are turning aside from what this church needs to thrive.
Finally, let’s contemplate Paul’s words about THE PURE AND THE DEFILED. Let’s read on in Titus 1:15-16. Paul here is drawing a distinction between two kinds of people. On the one hand, you have the pure. When he says that to the pure all things are pure, he doesn’t mean that these are people who see purity in sin. Instead, he means that they don’t see problems where there aren’t problems. They don’t get caught up in worrying about circumcision and which foods are clean. Instead, they devote themselves to good works.
By contrast, the defiled defile their minds and their lives. Notice first of all that Paul says these people are unbelievers. Here, I think he’s referring to Jews and Judaizing false teachers, people who miss the point of the gospel and see spiritual problems everywhere. Ironically, this attitude, rather than producing holiness in them, makes them unholy and useless in the kingdom.
Now, we don’t have Judaizing false teachers today, but I think we still can have problems with defiled spirits. I think it shows up in those brethren who are so caught up in disapproving of everybody who doesn’t follow their own little quirks that they themselves don’t have any room left in their lives to serve the Lord.
I can think of people who, whenever I saw their number pop up on caller ID, or their name on a Facebook message, my heart just sank, because I knew for sure that they would not have anything encouraging or edifying to say. It was always complain, complain, complain, usually about a problem that didn’t matter or a person who wasn’t doing anything wrong. When I suggested to them that maybe they should tackle the problem themselves, or maybe they should talk to the brother or sister themselves, they always had an excuse for why that wouldn’t work. Brethren, the Lord’s church doesn’t need more people like that. In fact, it needs fewer. Let’s examine ourselves to make sure that we don’t act like that and resolve to change if we do.