In Paul’s letter to Titus, Paul lays out some protocol for those in Titus’ pastoral care. In verses 1 & 2 of chapter 3, Paul exhorts Titus to “remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.” As an evangelical who edges closer to confessional Christianity each passing day, I affirm the authority of Scripture to determine faith and practice. So let’s look at the context in which this exhortation is given.
In the beginning of the book, Paul lays out the means by which anyone is a leader in the Church at all: the Gospel. We read,
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior…
This is the apostle’s delcaration of the purpose of his ministry. When he speaks of the promise that has been before the ages, he is addressing the promise of the coming of Christ and the true Gospel which delcares salvation by faith in Christ alone. Paul’s very ministry is reinforced solely by the Gospel, evidenced by his use of “being at the proper time manifested in his word” etc. The means by which this Gospel is proclaimed is through the “preaching with which [he] has been entrusted,” the substance of which is given in other letters such as 1 Cor. 15, Ephesians 1-2, the entire book of Galatians and so on. In other words, Paul’s specific message is well-documented, namely the Gospel and its implications.
Paul then moves on to listing qualifications for overseers in Titus 1:5-16. The qualifications are well-known, but two of them I will reference for the purposes of this post.
First, a word about the phrase “above reproach.” This is a commonly misunderstood phrase, often taken as a standalone command. Taken in context, however, it would seem to be that Paul then goes on to define what “above reproach” actually means, one of which is to be free from arrogance. The other is to “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.”
The word, as taught by the apostles, is given for us in Scripture. All of our actions must be correctable by Scripture. If someone comes to me and, in context, provides proof that I am causing problems in teaching doctrines of demons or stirring up weak women, then I must repent. If instead I am faulted for upholding the demands of Scripture, namely that every opinion, including my own, would be held up to the light of Scripture and repentance and the forgiveness of sins would be preached and offered for every thought not captive, then that fault is completely groundless.
“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” (Titus 1:9). This is an interesting statement. It calls those in the office of overseer to give instruction not in being nice or keeping the status quo, but in sound doctrine. Evangelicals Protestants are, by definition, to hold to the view of sola Scriptura. Any traditions which are binding are traditions found specifically in the pages of Scripture. Any distinctive, denominationally or congregationally, must be evaluated in the light of Scripture.
If you’re an elder at your church, are you more concerned about unity around relationship or the gospel? If both are important, are they of equal importance? The text here doesn’t indicate that they are of equal importance.
This is vital to the wellbeing of the church, both as a whole and in regard to its individual members. We are, after all, a family. But around what is our relationship to be centered? Keeping people happy? Avoiding the appearance of evil, per 1 Thessalonians 5:22, for the sake of gossipers?
Nowhere in Scripture do we see where Paul tells us to keep people happy. And nowhere does Paul say that we are to flee evil appearances, not even in 1 Thess. 5:22…he instead instructs us to abstain from every kind of evil. In fact Paul tell Timothy to “preach the gospel; in season and out of season. This means that even if it is unpopular, if people are offended, or if it is uncomfortable, we are still charged as Christians to hold the gospel paramount.
Paul continues in Chapter 2, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” This comes on the heels of qualifications for elders we have already discovered. Remember, there are no chapter divisions in the original text. They were added much later so that we could easily reference them and they are often fairly arbitrary in their placement. What is the sound doctrine? The Gospel! Remember back in 1:3: “…and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior”?
The gospel, succintly expressed, is that Christ, acting outside of me, apart from my will, died for me in history and that he rose again, giving me his righteousness which covers me like a robe would. His righteousness is always and always will be alien to (outside of) me.
So if the elders are not proclaiming Christ and Him crucified for our sins and are instead neglecting that teaching, opting for preaching of things which are more in fashion to their congregants’ ears such as women’s rights, abortion rights, environmental concerns, creation care or origin of species, then they are NOT fulfilling the qualifications set forth in Titus 1 & 2.
If the above qualifications are not met, dear Christian, then Titus 3:1-2 cannot be claimed by anyone in order to get a member of a congregation to fall in line with the desires of said elder(s). The three most important rules of biblical interpretation are context, context and context. If a group of people are appointed to be elders by a congregation but fail to proclaim the message Christ has given us to proclaim according to Scripture (Luke 24:47, 1 Cor. 15, Ephesians 1 & 2, etc.), then as a result, those elders lose any biblical authority to speak.
If we are evangelicals of the Reformation, then we hold to Sola scriptura. This means we are not free to speak ex cathedra about the opinions of a group of men calling themselves elders. That board of men being at peace with this or that decision or action does not a Scriptural decision make. Sometimes, there are things Scripture does not speak to. In those instances, calls of fair or foul may be made. In instances of gossip or of preaching, or of any other action or condition to which the Scriptures speak, then they must proclaim only what Scripture deems meet and right to do.
Furthermore, in Titus 3:10-11, we read: “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” But what is the context of this verse? Who is it who causes division?
The answer lies in Titus 3:9…and, by extension, back at 2:1. If anyone gets involved in disputes about the law which are foolish and are NOT teaching in accord with sound doctrine, then they are causing division.
Those who fail to teach the Gospel, regardless of their title, are the ones who are divisive.
The good news here is that Christ died for disobedience against Him. Christ died for the disobedience of those who love the Church…me, you, anyone who is called a leader, pastor or layman. Repent and believe that good news.