Titus: The Goal and Ground of the Christian Life (3)

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this series are from the ESV.

Titus 1:10-16 Elders as Curators of the Gospel

One can always be a bad example, if nothing else. As the passage before us shows, the reason we have this beautiful letter to Titus is because certain Cretans were believing and behaving badly. The result for us today is a paragraph of Scripture that underlines the importance of godly leadership and gospel teaching for the spiritual flourishing of Christians in a way that no mere summary statement could achieve. God’s power to reverse all that is bad for our good knows no limits (Rom 8:28).

The twofold work of elders for the health of believers (1:10-11)

In the last article, we saw that, after reminding Titus of certain character qualifications potential elders were to meet, Paul added the requirement that they cling to the gospel in order to perform their positive work of providing instruction in healthy teaching and their negative work of rebuking those who contradict it (1:9). In the final paragraph (1:10-16) Paul now reminds Titus of why this twofold work is needed: false teachers are harming the believers with their teaching.

“For there are many who are insubordinate” (1:10). Paul first draws attention to their rebellious character. The reason why leaders with good character and healthy teaching are needed is that there are many with bad character spreading harmful teaching. Just as anarchists betray, there is no such thing as a leadership vacuum. If leadership is not appointed, it will be assumed. In this case, the influence is being assumed by people of the opposite behavior and beliefs to that prescribed for elders.

Next, they are “empty talkers.” This gives us our first clue that their false teaching is a form of legalism, as the related adjective is used in 3:9 and 1 Timothy 1:6 in connection with the law. This teaching poses such serious danger that Paul calls them “deceivers.”

The rest of the paragraph furnishes further evidence of their legalistic beliefs: they “are of the circumcision party” (i.e., Jewish, 1:10), promote “Jewish myths” and man-made commands (1:14) in the form of purity laws (1:15), and are not genuine Christians (1:16). Their motive is money (“shameful gain;” contrast 1:7), and their ministry is “upsetting whole families.” How are they inflicting such damage? Through their message: “By teaching … what they ought not to teach.” For the sake of the health of the believers, “They must be silenced” (1:11).

Wrong and harmful teaching produces wrong living in the lives of those who teach it and of those who hear it. Likewise, true and healthy teaching produces healthy living. Elders have the twofold task of keeping healthy teaching in and harmful teaching out.

To do so, elders have to get into the very places that harm can enter: “families” or “households” (NKJV). Dear shepherds, for the flourishing of those who live behind them, please come to our front doors. We want you in our homes to the degree you want our wellbeing.

The twofold work of elders for the health of false teachers (1:12-14)

Paul now quotes a Cretan proverb, usually attributed to Epimenides, about Cretans in general, and applies it to the false teachers in particular. The ISV, in poetic rhyme, gives us “Liars ever, men of Crete, savage brutes that live to eat” (1:12). “Liars” links with “deceivers” (1:10) and contrasts with the God “who never lies” (1:2). The second and third parts of the saying, “evil beasts” and “lazy gluttons,” point to the wild living common on the island and to the complete absence of self-control of many of its inhabitants. Paul is not endorsing ethnic slurs in saying “This testimony is true” (1:13), because (1) he’s quoting one of the Cretans’ own respected authorities, and (2) he’s doing so not to disparage Cretans in general, but to apply the saying to the false teachers who, as we’ve already seen, were mostly Jewish. This is not a prejudiced dismissal of some foreign ethnicity, but a measured criticism designed to sting specific opponents who had it coming to them. These promoters of Jewish purity rituals are unclean barbarians, and they lie like their father (John 8:44).

Titus is to “rebuke them severely.” This is the negative part of an elder’s work (1:9), and even though Titus is the one here commanded to perform it, we are still correct in applying this verse to overseers. Just like elders, Titus is to perform the twofold work of rebuking (1:13, 3:9-11) and teaching by words and example (2:1, 7-8, 3:1, 8). Both aspects come together in 2:15: “Exhort and rebuke with all authority.” Clearly Titus’ one-time role models the elder’s permanent role.

Rebuking may be the negative aspect of the work of elders, but the goal is always positive: “That they may be sound [healthy] in the faith” (1:13). False teachers must be silenced, not only for the sake of the Christians (1:11), but for their own sake as well (1:13; see also 2Tim 2:25).

The twofold work of elders as curators of the gospel (1:15-16)

At the root of the false teachers’ barbaric behavior lies diseased doctrine. The gospel originates in the mind and promises of God (1:2), but the false teachers’ message is only “Jewish myths” and man-made commands (1:14). The role of elders is not to make up rules, but to guard believers from those who do.

Evidently these man-made rules were to do with purity regulations. “To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure” (1:15). Our Lord Himself pointed out that external cleansing can’t touch the deeper problems of “greed and wickedness” inside us (Luke 11:37-44). These false teachers want to add dietary restrictions and prohibitions to the gospel, but only the pure gospel kept clean of legalistic impurities can purify us. It is by faith in the gospel alone that our hearts can be cleansed (Acts 15:9; contrast “unbelieving” in Titus 1:15) and our defiled minds and consciences be made pure (1:15, 2:14, Heb 9:14, 10:22).

A rules-based strategy for behavior modification deemphasizes the human problem, a lesson that we parents do well to remember. Yes, there is plenty of defilement in schools, Hollywood, the Internet, etc., and we all try to protect our children from it in the ways we judge best. But no amount of sheltering can protect them from the defilement in their own hearts (1:15). You can’t make mud dirty; it already is.

Writing off legalism as wrong does not mean we write off godly living as negligible: “They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works” (1:16). Rather, it’s that legalism is incapable of producing the kind of transformation that makes liars into light bearers who reflect the God who cannot lie (1:2).

If only the pure gospel is able to purify us, then elders are like curators, making sure that the gospel their people hear conforms to the apostolic “standard of teaching” which alone is able to set people free from sin (Rom 6:17-18). While this includes the Sunday night gospel meeting, we are more prone to add to the gospel in our teaching and exhortation. Teaching that consists of man-made rules or seeks to ground Christian behavior in the self needs to be silenced by the preaching of “the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10) in its place. “In Christian proclamation the struggle between law and gospel must constantly be fought anew, in order that the liberating Christ-centered doctrine of purity may be achieved.”

The problem in first century Crete was that there were many false teachers. The solution then, now, and in every place, is a plurality of gospel-curating elders.