Titus Deep Dive
INSTRUCTIONS TO A CHURCH LEADER
| STEVE BURGESS
Titus was a Gentile believer. He probably came to faith under the ministry of the apostle Paul. He became a trusted cohort of Paul: a regular travelling companion and a ‘safe pair of hands’. He seemed to have Paul’s confidence, as he was left on the island of Crete with no small task: to bring order to a network of churches that had developed there. (Titus 1:5). Paul is writing this letter to Titus to give him instruction concerning this very task.
The people of Crete had a well-established reputation for being of bad character. In Titus 1:12-13, Paul says- ‘One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true…’ He’s citing the poet and philosopher Epimenides, and not for the only time in the New Testament (Acts 17:28). One possible motive for his doing so may have been to alert Titus to the very kinds of behaviours which he must confront and correct. However, this should certainly be primarily taken as a direct condemnation of the Cretans who had evidently begun to cause problems in the church there.
In contrast to some of the other Pauline epistles, there isn’t much time devoted in this letter to explaining or correcting doctrine. Paul evidently had a great deal of confidence in Titus’ theological understanding. This letter is about the matter at hand.
Paul begins with a brief introduction. This is the first four verses of the letter. There’s a very important phrase to note in verse 2. Paul says that his message, the gospel, is the message that gives us ‘the hope of eternal life’ and that this message is from ‘God, who never lies’. Remember, the Cretans had a reputation for lying themselves. Unsurprisingly then, there was prevalent worship of Zeus- a mythological Greek man-became-God who had a shady reputation himself. Zeus was truly ‘a god made in the Cretan’s own image’, from whom they may have drawn a kind of divine permission for their behaviours- e.g. ‘If God lies, then why shouldn’t we?’. There was also a traditional societal bent towards polytheism, which may have tempted the Cretan believer to think of Jesus as ‘another god to accommodate’. Certainly, the Cretans were trying to assimilate a Christian worldview into their own pre-existing worldview. So then, at the heart of this phrase in v. 2 is Paul’s eagerness to establish the one true God as being both profoundly distinct and starkly different from the false gods of their mythology, as well as removing any grounds that the Cretans might have felt that they had for their immorality.
With the greeting done, Paul launches into the business of the letter. Having reminded Titus of the task at hand, Paul outlines the kinds of attributes that those who would serve as ‘elders’ in the church must demonstrate. There are different titles that are used somewhat interchangeably here for the same role, even within this particular text- (‘elders’ in v. 5, ‘overseers’ in v. 7). It seems to me that for Paul, it mattered more that the role of the ‘Elder’ was established and flourishing within the church than it did what they were called.
There is a sense of intended plurality about this role. So, while what we know today as ‘Senior Pastors’ must also exhibit these attributes to qualify for their role, Paul seems to be interested in more than a sole figure or couple within a congregation. He’s interested in a team assuming responsibility as stewards for the orderly oversight of the church, working in a cohesive and complementary fashion, all the while exhibiting these crucial attributes of good repute.
This is one of few such lists that appear in the New Testament; other notable passages are 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and 1 Peter 5:1-4.
An elder must be ‘above reproach’ (v. 6). This means that their lives are free from habitual sin and that they have gained sufficient mastery over the sinful proclivities that would impede their ministry and witness. The elder must be of such irreproachable reputation that nobody could even point to a hint of impropriety.
An elder must be ‘the husband of one wife’ (v. 6). This doesn’t exclude singles from the office- (1 Corinthians 7:6-8). It is certainly a call for those who would serve as elders and are married to have shown themselves to have been faithful and monogamous to their spouse. It has also been taken by some to be a prohibition of female elders- after all, a woman can’t be ‘the husband of one wife’. This is a matter over which there is acceptable disagreement between those who would adopt a more ‘complementarian’ position and those (like myself) who would adopt a more ‘egalitarian’ position.
‘And his children are believers…’ (v. 6). That’s the way that the ESV puts it. This is a really tough one, and there’s some controversy here. The word translated in the ESV as ‘believers’ is ‘pistós’ and it has two possible meanings. It can be translated as ‘believing’ (i.e. ‘one who is convinced that Jesus has been raised from the dead and has become convinced that Jesus is the Messiah and author of salvation’). It can also be translated as ‘faithful’- (i.e. someone who is worthy of trust and can be relied upon). The difference between those two possibilities of interpretation in Titus 1:6 is of significant consequence. Either Paul is saying that a person may not be a candidate for eldership if they have unbelieving children, and thus that sitting elders may be disqualified in the case of their children departing from the faith. Or he is essentially saying that an elder should have proved their competency as an under-shepherd and as a manager by raising children (if they have them) who are not wild and unruly. While the original language here in Titus could go either way, I favour the latter interpretation. After all, Paul continues in Titus 1:6 saying that an elder’s children should ‘not be open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination’ and this seems to be more congruent with the latter interpretation of ‘pistós. Also, the parallel text of 1 Timothy 3:4-5 reads. ‘He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? It seems clear to me that this aligns more with the second interpretation than the first.
‘He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined’. (v. 7-8) This is all fairly clear and self-explanatory but worthy of pause. The Elder’s life should not only feature the absence of the ‘bad fruit’, but also the abundant supply of evidence of the ‘good fruit’.
It’s worth emphasising the need for elders to be hospitable. The call for elders to be given to the practice of hospitality should not be dismissed as being of relatively minor importance or as being only for those with the spiritual gift of hospitality. All Christians are to practice hospitality, and the elders (and pastors) are to lead the way.
‘He must hold firm to the trustworthy Word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.’ (v. 9). Obviously, a part of the duty of the elder is to ‘give instruction’ to the church, in various settings and ways, that aligns with the authoritative counsel of the Word of God. Here, the command is that elders not only offer ‘instruction’ but that they also personally abide by their own teaching and themselves live with Biblical conviction. Understandably, there is a fear that failure to do so would undermine the integrity of otherwise Biblically sound instruction.
The need for a firm grasp on Christian doctrine was immediate given the swirling threat that the church faced from false teachers. Accordingly, we now see that Titus was tasked, not only with appointing elders of good repute but also with confronting those who were of bad repute.
One of the obvious threats to the church in Crete were Judaizers who aggressively taught that people must adhere to circumcision and other Mosaic ceremonies in order to be a part of the people of God. They were a constant disturbance to the early church and perverted the message of ‘salvation by grace through faith’. Paul doesn’t mince words here with regards to their corruption, and he instructs Titus to also ‘rebuke them sharply’.
While they were the chief target of the stinging words of Paul here, they weren’t the only category of people that were being disruptive in the Cretan church. Paul says in v. 10- ‘For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party’. In other words, while the Judaizers were proving especially relentless in their heretical assault on the church, there were others that were ‘insubordinate’, ‘empty talkers’ and ‘deceivers’. The church must always be on guard against these elements, and the elders are to be the first (but not the only) line of defence. (Of course, not everybody who has a contrary opinion is to be written off as ‘a deceiver’. There is a need for humility and discernment on all sides, so as to constantly and properly distinguish the sheep from the wolves)
Having emphasised the need to confront error with the truth and wayward ideas with sound instruction, Paul now offers such sound, godly instruction in chapter 2. In these first ten verses, Paul addresses certain social groups within the church.
Men who are advanced in their years are to lead the way in ‘sobriety of mind’, ‘dignity’, ‘self-control’, ‘faith’, ‘love’ and ‘steadfastness’. Of course, these attributes are not the domain of ‘older men’ alone, but the older men are to take seriously their special responsibility within the church to model these virtues to those under their impression. Similarly, ‘older women’ (v.3) have a special responsibility to model ‘reverence in behaviour’. Without question, older women were honoured and esteemed in the early church, and thus Paul has in mind their special responsibility as influencers within the assembly. The idea of ‘reverence in behaviour’ has priestly connotations; that the women should model a life lived wholly unto God. Of course, gossip and slander have no place in such a life, nor drunkenness.
In instructing the older women on the example that they should provide for younger women, Paul also simultaneously offers instructions for younger women in v. 4-5. Probably the most striking and controversial of these virtues is the command to women to be ‘submissive to their own husbands’.
It is hard to get around the fact that the idea of ‘submission’ is offensive in a society with largely egalitarian ideals. We (in Australia and New Zealand) have had female Prime Ministers. We have female CEO’s and female pastors and leaders. Consequently, a phrase like this one may very well be deemed to be incongruent with our societal values. But believers don’t (or shouldn’t) live their lives being ‘conformed to the patterns of the world’ (Romans 12:2). We seek to discern what the will of God is and live by faith in this way, even when it is confronting to our personal or societal sensibilities.
It should be noted that the command here is that ‘wives’ are ‘submissive to their own husbands’. This means that whatever submission is, it is something that is to be outworked within the context of one’s own marriage relationship. It is not a call for all women to submit to all men. Nowhere in the Bible are women called to generally submit to men. Nowhere in the Bible are women assigned inferiority to men.
It’s also worth saying that Paul envisages a marriage relationship in which both parties are seeking to submit to God in the way that they treat one another. The same Scriptures that provide instructions to the wife as to how she ought to relate to her husband also provides complementary instructions to the husband as to how he ought to relate to his wife. Undoubtedly, the marriage relationship works best when both parties are seeking to honour and obey God in the way they behave towards their spouse.
Paul teaches in the New Testament that the husband is ‘the head of the wife’ (Ephesians 5:23). Headship is the call of the husband to lead with Christ-like, servant leadership in the home. The call then of the Christian wife is to honour and to affirm her husband’s leadership and to help him to carry it through according to her gifts. In that way, the two work together for a harmonious marriage. This does not render women voiceless, mindless or spineless and weak-willed, any more than it permits men to be abusive, domineering or chauvinistic. When the man leads his home as Christ leads the church, his home is happy to be led so.
The young men are to live ‘self-controlled’ lives (v. 6). Titus was a younger man himself, and so Paul now goes on to remind Titus that he is to live a model life as an example to the younger men and also to the wider church community.
Slaves are addressed in v. 9, instructed in the way that they ought to relate to their masters. Slavery was common and largely unquestioned in the Greco-Roman era. Texts like these shouldn’t be read as a divine endorsement of slavery of any kind, nor a reflection of Paul’s own views on slavery. It’s an acknowledgement of a socio-economic reality and an exhortation to slaves, though they are equal to their master in the church (Galatians 3:28-29), to relate to them pleasantly, honestly and in a way that glorifies God.
Lest we fall into a ‘gospel of works’ (as there is no such thing), Paul summarises the basis for our living lives as this hope-filled new humanity from v.11. ‘The grace of God’ appeared in the person of Jesus Christ and through His redemptive work on the cross, salvation is freely offered to all people. It is this powerful reality (and the help of the Holy Spirit) that helps us to live in a way that is fitting for the people of God (and a good witness to our neighbours) while we wait for His sure return.
Paul goes on now to declare that the Cretan Christians ought to be ideal citizens, which of course would be quite the transformation given the way of life that they were renowned for. Cretan Christians (and all Christians) are to ‘be submissive to rulers and authorities’, ‘obedient’, ‘ready for every good work’. They are ‘to speak evil of no one’ and to ‘avoid quarrelling’. They are ‘to be gentle’ and ‘to show perfect courtesy toward all people’. The believers’ citizenship of heaven (Philippians 3:20) provides no cover for poor citizenship on earth, and the Cretan believers’ belonging to the people of God through faith called for a behaviour which stood out as a contrast to the way of life to their former ignorance. (v. 3)
The idea that the ‘appearance of the goodness and loving kindness of Jesus, who saved us’ should both stimulate and sustain a transformed way of life is conveyed through a poem in v. 4-7 which presents the Gospel reality of the newness of life which accompanies the new birth. ‘But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.’ (ESV). Paul is eager that a people who were formerly known for bad works would now be known for an abundance of good works and that this would point to the power of the Gospel of grace.
As Paul draws towards the end of his short letter, he instructs the members of the church in Crete to ‘avoid foolish controversies’, for they are ‘unprofitable’ (v.9). I’ve always found that to be instructive. Almost in the same breath, Paul confronts the one who would generate such controversies and division and advocates that decisive and corrective action be taken in such an instance to preserve the unity of the church.
With some final personal remarks, Paul concludes his letter.
And finally, as if to make sure his main point would not be obscured or lost, Paul says one last time- ‘And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works…’ v. 14. As Martin Luther would say many years later- ‘we are saved by faith alone. But the faith that saves is never alone’.