Titus: Living at Large (2)

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

Do you know what we need more than gospel preachers? Godly elders.” My young mind could not understand the conference speaker’s words, nor forget them. Only in a world not going to hell could such a statement be true, I thought, but Paul would have understood it. He wastes no time getting to business in his letter to Titus, finishing up the greeting, skipping the thanksgiving normal to ancient letter writing, and launching straight into the main body of his letter on the topic of elders.

For Paul, the gospel is the dynamic message of God (Rom 1:16; 1Cor 1:18) that is growing and bearing fruit through the whole world (Col 1:6), even turning it upside down (Acts 17:6). Eldership, by comparison, seems static. Why does Paul place such urgency upon it? This passage shows us that the reason elders are important is precisely because the gospel is important. Far from setting the work of evangelists and elders against each other, Paul shows how interrelated they are. To the degree that we have been influenced by the institution-wary spirit prevalent in the West today, we need this Scripture to remind us of the utter urgency of men being raised up to become godly elders. The spread of the gospel depends upon it.

Reminder of the Task to Appoint Elders (1:5)

“This is why I left you in Crete” (1:5), implies that Paul had been on the island with Titus (see 2Tim 4:13, 20). Commentators are in general agreement that this likely took place after Paul’s Roman imprisonment in Acts 28. Crete is a mountainous island, 250 km long. Despite lying south in the Aegean Sea, Crete was not a plush posting for Titus – “I left you in Crete,” says Paul, “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town” (1:5). This was a relatively new gospel work, and Paul and Titus began to set right what had been lacking, but they didn’t get everything finished before Paul left, including the appointing of elders.

Presbuteros (elder) is the first of three terms Paul uses in this passage to describe the same role. This verse is less straightforward than others, and less effective for defending the practice of a plurality of elders, because of the addition of “in every town.” Other texts are better. (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil 1:1; 1Tim 5:17). Before he left Crete, Paul “directed” Titus to appoint elders. The word suggests that the whole of chapter 1:5-16 is a written repetition of what Paul had already told Titus orally. Like a supervisor discussing a matter on-site with a foreman and then leaving to “put it in an e-mail,” Paul is putting on-the-job oral instructions into writing, both to guide Titus and to give him authority. Establishing elders is clearly a priority for Paul (Acts 14:23).

Reminder of the Qualifications of Elders (1:6-9)

In verses 6-9 Paul puts into writing the qualifications he had directed Titus to use. The first qualification functions as a head term, defined by all that follows. For someone to be an elder, he must be “above reproach” (1:6) or “blameless,” having no grounds for accusation from those within or outside of the church.

He needs to be above reproach in his domestic life, “the husband of one wife” (1:6). That is, a man who is faithful, sexually and otherwise, to his wife,[1] and, Paul goes on, “having faithful children.” Or is it, “having believing children,” as Darby renders it? A comparison with 1 Timothy 3:4 favors the former, as does the following phrase in Titus 1:6: His children are “faithful” in the sense that they are “not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.”

Why must an elder be “above reproach” in his home life? Because he is “God’s steward” (1:7). This is the second term for an elder, and the word connotes a household setting. If a man cannot care for his own household, he will not be able to care for God’s (1Tim 3:5). Along the way Paul uses a third term for an elder: “an overseer” (1:7). Scripture uses these terms interchangeably (Acts 20:17, 28).

The basic requirement to be above reproach is further fleshed out by a series of five negative characteristics he is not to have, and seven positive ones an elder is to possess. In the quality control world, a Go/No-go gauge is used to check if a part’s size is within an acceptable range of variation. The piece must fit through the “go” part of the gauge, but must not fit through the “no-go” part. Paul is providing a Go/No-go gauge for leadership – a man whom the Holy Spirit has fitted to be an elder will fit the seven positive qualities, but not the five vices.

“He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain” (1:7). For the first term the KJV has “self-willed,” which gets at the self-loving spirit that disqualifies a man from leading God’s people. That the next three terms go hand in hand requires no explanation. The last one checks one’s appetite for money.

On the positive side, an elder must be “hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (1:8). The first two Greek terms begin with a prefix meaning love (phil), hence the KJV’s “a lover of hospitality.” “Upright” signifies one’s conduct before people, while “holy” means being without fault in relation to God.

The seventh requirement stands out from the rest of the list, partly because it is a participle, captured by the KJV as “holding fast the faithful Word” (1:9). A future article will show that this “faithful Word” is the gospel message. A potential elder must hold firm to the gospel “so that he may be able” to perform two tasks: (1) positively, “to give instruction in sound doctrine” and (2) negatively, “to rebuke those who contradict it” (1:9). The verb in the first task is parakaleō; it means to urge, exhort, encourage. “Sound” doctrine means teaching that is correct and healthy, like the truth that leads to godliness (1:2). This is the elder’s positive work of discipling believers toward transformed lives.

Sadly, the elder’s negative task is also needed, for there are “those who contradict” and oppose the gospel. The Cretan opponents are everything that the elders are not to be. If elders are to be blameless in regard to their households (1:6), it is because others are upsetting whole households (1:11); these men are insubordinate (1:10, cf. 1:6), teaching unhealthy doctrine (cf. 1:9) “for shameful gain” (1:11; cf. 1:7), and are in need of sharp rebuke (1:13, cf. 1:9). Meanwhile, the list of positive virtues in 1:6-9 anticipates ethical instruction for all the believers later in the letter. Paul wants all the Christians to develop in character all that is required in an elder (e.g. see “self-controlled” in 1:8; 2:2, 5).

No wonder elders are so important to the work of the gospel. False teachers are spreading harmful teachings that oppose the gospel and promote behavior that would undermine its spread. To counter them, elders are needed who will protect God’s people from such harm and will encourage them in godly living, by word and example, “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:13).

Elders are key to the gospel, but so is the gospel key to an elder’s character and work. How does he say no to the vices listed in this passage and yes to the various virtues? By “holding fast” to the gospel. And it is this clinging to the gospel which also enables him to do his twofold work of instructing the Christians and rebuking the opponents. An elder is a man who has himself been transformed by the gospel, and is used in the transformation of others by the gospel, all the while protecting them from those who oppose the gospel. If the appointing of godly men to serve tables in Acts 6 was vital to the dynamic spread of the gospel (Acts 6:7), much more so the appointment of gospel-clinging elders (Acts 16:4-5).

A dim view of the importance of elders can affect us all in different ways. A middle-aged man shirking a divine call to become one; a young Christian hesitating in respecting them; an elder himself no longer shepherding with the devotion of earlier days. In any case, consider Titus 1:5-9 a Scriptural nudge toward attaching as much significance to the work of elders as you do to the work of the gospel.

[1] For a defense of this view, and of the possibility of a single man being an elder, see George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary, pp. 157-159.