Truth in the Pastoral Epistles (13): Its Preservation (4)

The Elder

When reading the epistle to Titus, it is useful to note that each of the chapters in the epistle pivots around the word “for.” The second section of each chapter outlines the reasons behind the requirements that are outlined in the first section. So, in chapter 2, the responsibilities of believers, outlined in verses 1-10, are motivated by verses 11-15. Similarly, in chapter 3, the obligations of the believer to society, outlined in the first two verses of the chapter, are motivated by “the kindness and love of God our Saviour,” displayed to us (vv3-4).

This structure is equally apparent (and important) in chapter 1. The moral and spiritual qualifications of an elder outlined in the first half of this chapter are essential because “there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers” (vv10-11). In first-century Crete, as in our own day, the Truth was under attack, and, then as now, elders stood in the forefront of the battle. And because they had such a vital role to play, it was essential that their character and conduct would meet the highest standards.

It should come as no surprise to us that the apostle mingles doctrinal and ethical qualifications. Truth and behaviour are linked throughout Scripture, but their imbrication is never so clearly expressed as in the Pastoral Epistles, and is an especial concern of the epistle to Titus, with its focus on “the truth which is after godliness” (1:1). The order in which the apostle refers to teaching and behaviour is always instructive in these epistles. Here, conduct comes before teaching, for the elder’s ability to stand in defence of the Truth is undergirded by the godliness of his life. It is interesting to compare this passage with 1 Timothy 3:1-7. While both passages outline similar qualifications, they do so with a different emphasis. In 1 Timothy, the focus is on the moral authority to lead the flock; here, it is on the moral authority to face the foe.

Godliness of life is essential, but not in itself sufficient, for the defence of the Truth. The elder must hold “fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (v9 KJV). This verse deserves careful examination. Notice the expression “the faithful word.” A study of things that the NT describes as “faithful” is worthwhile, and even a cursory search will reveal the preponderance of occurrences in the Pastoral Epistles. “Faithful word” (which is also translated as “faithful saying” or “true saying”) is also distinctive of the Pastorals, occurring in 1 Timothy 1:15; 3:1; 4:9; 2 Timothy 2:11, and Titus 1:9; 3:8 (cf. 1Tim 4:12). In general, it refers to a particular, specified saying, but here it has a broader scope, encompassing the full range of apostolic teaching. This teaching is the faithful Word – it is reliable, dependable, and trustworthy, and stands in total contrast to the unreliable teaching of the gainsayers.

The elder is to hold fast the faithful Word “as he hath been taught.” He is called upon to be a maintainer, and not an innovator. The faithful Word is faithful because it was taught by the apostle and by those whom the apostle had taught (see 2Tim 2:1-3). What these elders received was not something to be developed and elaborated – their responsibility was to maintain what they had received. And they had learned what they had been taught. This was essential, for it is impossible to hold fast what we do not hold. The elder needed to have firmly grasped the truth of God’s Word. Only so could he hope to hold it fast: to grip it tenaciously, and to wield it effectively to the blessing of the saints and confusion of the “gainsayers.”

In the second half of the verse, Paul outlines two ways in which the elder must use the Truth. While it is possible to apply both “exhort” and “convince” to the gainsayers, it is altogether more likely that the scope of the two activities is different, and Paul’s instruction is that the elder must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (NET). However, the KJV’s translation of the verse has the advantage of drawing our attention to the means by which the elder accomplishes both the exhorting and the convincing. He is to do this, not by intellectual prowess or force of personality, but by “sound doctrine”- the healthful and health-promoting teaching of the Word of God. Both content and communication are included in this expression. “Sound teaching” is both the resource and responsibility of the elder who faces a world populated by “many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers” (v10).

Paul does not tell us who these “talkers” are. It seems clear from the passage that Paul is describing a range of false teachers, within and without the assemblies in Crete. Some clearly were Judaizers; others were not. Paul is not interested in the fine dissection of the details of their errors but in highlighting the motivation of these teachers, the havoc that their error would wreak, and the response that it required.

The motivation of these teachers was “filthy lucre.” They had no real interest in the blessing or the building up of believers; their only concern was their own personal enrichment. Teachers like this have not become extinct in the intervening centuries, and the name of Christianity has too often been sullied by false teachers who take advantage of the poor, the vulnerable, and the credulous. The contrast with the example of the apostle, who was willing to “very gladly spend and be spent” for even the contrary and cantankerous Corinthians, is so marked as to require no further comment. Equally marked is the contrast with the elder described here, who is “not given to filthy lucre” (v7).

The problem with these teachers was − and is – not only that their motives are deficient, but that their teaching has devastating effects. That is the force of the word “subvert” – it refers to complete overthrow and ruin. These teachers of error choose their battleground carefully. Their attack is not directly upon the assembly, but on the households that make up the assembly. This may indicate that at least some of these teachers were not in assembly fellowship. Certainly it demonstrates the necessity of safeguarding the homes of believers from false teaching, and the danger of the “house group” teaching that has become so fashionable in evangelical circles.

So serious is the potential of these “unruly and vain talkers and deceivers” that only one response is appropriate: their “mouths must be stopped.” What precisely is involved here has been the subject of some disagreement. Some have seen a reference to an act of assembly discipline whereby individuals are “silenced” – forbidden from teaching because of the error that they hold. For a number of reasons, however, it seems unlikely that this is what Paul has in mind here. Firstly, the word “stopped,” which literally means “gagged” or “bridled” and which occurs only here in the NT, is used in Greek literature to describe those who are confuted in debate. Secondly, as we have seen, it is highly unlikely that all of the teachers described here would have been in fellowship in the assembly, and thus susceptible to assembly discipline. On balance, it seems more likely that the gagging that Paul has in mind here is effected by the clear presentation of the truth of God’s Word, which robs the error of its appeal and effect.

The relevance of this for today is very clear. Modern communications mean that believers are bombarded by a whole array of teaching, much of it either partly or wholly erroneous. Those who propagate it will never form part of a local assembly, and can never be silenced by an act of assembly discipline. But the faithful elder, by clearly teaching the faithful Word can gag them without ever mentioning their names or alluding to their teachings.

Among the gifts outlined in Ephesians 4 is the “pastor teacher.” There has been much debate as to whether this refers to one gift or two. In the Pastoral Epistles, it is clear that Paul did expect that shepherds would be teachers, for teaching is an integral part of their shepherding. Sound teaching (whether public or in private) by godly elders strengthens the flock and dispels its enemies.