Two of the challenges that the minister Titus was facing as a church planter on the island of Crete centered on the Christian’s relationship to the world outside of the church. On the one hand, there were false teachers who believed that in order to be saved one had to separate as much as possible from broader society by keeping various laws for spiritual purity and cleansing. On the other hand, there were new converts that had come into the church who were unsure how to relate their newfound faith to their old pagan background. The island of Crete was one of the most immoral and decadent places in the first century world. So it is little wonder that these Christians were perplexed about how to engage it – especially if they did not have a clear understanding of the gospel.
Paul was aware of these struggles, and others, that Titus was facing. So, early on in his letter he calls Titus to elect elders in every town. The purpose is to provide proper spiritual government and guidance for the Christians in the churches in Crete. Elders are God’s gifts to the church who fulfill the role of preaching and teaching God’s Word and ruling over God’s people. They have been ordained to meet challenges like those presented by the false teachers and new converts with the wisdom of the Word of God. They are ultimately called to safeguard the message of the gospel and promote the spiritual health of God’s people. Since Christ is in heaven and we Christians are on earth, God in his inscrutable wisdom has chosen to build and sustain his kingdom by the power of his Holy Spirit working through church government. It is chiefly through the means of the ordained minister preaching the Word and administering the sacraments that God is pleased to make Jesus Christ manifest to us, by his Holy Spirit, for the forgiveness of our sins and our growth in grace.
In our passage this morning, Paul sets forth the qualifications for elders. These qualifications are not only important for those men who aspire to the office of elder, but they are also important for the entire church. Why? Because we all take part in the process of electing elders and we all participate in holding them accountable to their responsibilities towards the church. We will also see that the qualifications for eldership shed crucial light on the kind of life we are to live as those who are not only members of the church but also citizens of a pagan society.
Elder qualifications: general features
At first glance, it can be tempting to read Paul’s set of elder criteria here like a shopping list in the middle of a Shakespearean sonnet. Paul has just finished giving a highly spiritual defence of his Apostleship and a glorious benediction upon Titus in the first four verses of Titus. Now, starting in verse 5, Paul proceeds to provide a very ordinary list of elder requirements. What is the purpose of Paul’s list here and how does it relate to his concerns in the rest of the letter? In order to answer these questions, I think it is helpful to begin by considering three general features of Paul’s set of elder requirements and then we can get into some of the particulars.
The first general feature deals with the obvious fact that these qualifications are given to men in the NT church. Remember that in the OT, once Israel had been constituted as a nation in the Promised Land, God governed virtually every aspect of the lives of his people with detailed laws given to Moses in the covenant made at Mount Sinai. According to the covenant with Moses, there was to be no separation of church and state. Israel was to be distinctly different in her life and identity from the neighbouring pagan nations. During her time in the Promised Land, which was type of heaven on earth, Israel was marked out as separate and holy through obedience to various external laws for cleansing and purity. In other words, the lives of believers during this time were defined by their contrast to the unbelieving world around them.
Now notice that when we come to the kind of lifestyle expected by Paul of a NT elder candidate, we find that it is defined not by separation but by commonality. Why? What happened to those intricate ceremonial laws given by God to Moses? The answer is that the NT church is built on the foundation of the person and work of Jesus Christ, who is the fulfillment of OT law and the prophets. Therefore, OT ceremonial laws like circumcision, sacrifices and rituals for bodily cleansing are no longer applicable. These laws promised forgiveness, holiness and participation in God’s heavenly rest through type and shadows, but they did not secure the ultimate realities they pointed to. Only through Jesus do God’s people – you and I – have the fulfillment of these promises.
The second general theme that characterises Paul’s catalogue of elder virtues here, which follows from the first, is that it outfits a man to gain the respect of outsiders and peacefully inhabit broader society. Paul’s list actually bears strong resemblance to the typical moral codes of ancient Greco-Roman society. Many of the traits here could be used to describe the moral character of, for example, a 1st century military commander. It is likely that Paul used a list of well-accepted ancient virtues, and adapted them for his theological purposes here in the book of Titus. This is not an uncommon practice for Paul. For instance, he does something similar with the elder qualifications in 1 Tim 3. And in Phil 4, he calls Christians to meditate on what moral Greek philosophers called the true, the good, and the beautiful: that is the manifestation of God’s righteousness in the world, which is accessible to all people.
The fact that the divinely inspired Apostle Paul can adapt the majority of the elder requirements from moral codes and practices in the unbelieving world is testimony to the reality that God’s grace is at work even among non-Christians, just not in a saving way. This is instructive for us on a number of levels. I have already noted that it signifies that we are no longer living in the time of OT theocratic Israel. It is also gives us a window into the kind of lives we should be living as Christians who are simultaneously members of the church as well as broader pagan society. NT elders – just like all NT Christians – are to live righteous lives in world, but are at the same time called to blend into the world in things like vocation, dress, food, family and entertainment, as long as we don’t disobey God’s Word in doing so.
Another way in which Paul’s elder checklist is significant is in its indirect argument against the false teachers in the church on the island of Crete. An important thrust of Paul’s letter is a reaction against the false teachers. It is likely that these false teachers, called the circumcision party (Titus 1.10), were Jews. They were insisting that Christians needed to keep the OT ceremonial laws in order to be saved. In other words, they were still incubating in the sterile womb of the OT, oblivious to the fact that Christ has been born, has died and has been raised to new life. These false teachers were teaching a “super-Christian” kind of spirituality that did not mix with broader society in dress, talk and diet, but rather wanted to force separation between the godly and the ungodly at every possible opportunity. In contrast, Paul wants Titus to appoint men who set an example of fitting in peaceably with unbelieving society.
The third and final theme that I would like to draw your attention to is that Paul’s list is not an assessment of what is private and hidden in the heart of a man. This reminds us not to make the qualification for eldership more rigorous and introspective than the Word of God does – lest we be guilty of hypocrisy like the false teachers. Rather, Paul presents straightforward qualities that are easily discernable by members of the church and society at large. Imagine a visit to the new doctor in town. What would you think if he had a tattered shirt, dirt under his fingernails, and a rough bedside manner? He would not be in practice for long. Similarly, elders are to adorn themselves with character that engenders respect and dignity in the eyes of a watching world.
Elder qualifications: particulars
With these three general features in mind, I think we are now in a better position to briefly consider some of the important particulars of Paul’s list of elder qualifications. For starters, in v6, he tells Titus to be on the lookout for “anyone above reproach”. Basically, the elder type is someone who does not fail openly and flagrantly with respect the checklist of virtues in vv6-9. He is to be a man of good reputation, with no obvious moral blind spots or blemishes, and therefore blameless in the eyes of the watching community.
The elder candidate is to be the “husband of one wife”. One might initially think that what Paul is against here is polygamy. However, the custom of having multiple wives was not common practice in the ancient Greco-Roman world. So what is Paul’s concern here? If we understand that Crete was a context in which the widespread norm was for married men to enjoy sexual favors from concubines and mistresses, then I think it makes sense that what Paul requires here is sexual expression within the confines of monogamous heterosexual marriage. In other words, an elder candidate should not be known for steamy encounters with women at the Roman baths, or be one to slink off at dinner parties for desert in the bedroom. It should be added that this requirement does not exclude single men running for the office. Such men should be known for their sexual purity as they wait for marriage.
The next virtue that Paul lists is found in the second half of v6. According to the ESV, elder’s “children are to be believers and not open to debauchery and insubordination.” Unfortunately, this translation obscures the meaning of the underlying Greek text. A better possible translation is: elders are to have “faithful children”. Understood this way, the sense is that Paul is not necessarily expecting the children of elders to have all have exercised faith, but rather that they are members of good standing in the church. This interpretation of Paul’s words is in keeping with the Biblical doctrines of covenant and baptism. They lead us to believe that God will ordinarily make good on his promise of salvation to believers and their children. No doubt there will be instances where the children of potential elder candidates or current elders are rebellious and reject the gospel. In such cases, the church should subject both the elder and the child to loving church discipline, with hopes of restoration. The bottom line here is that the elder must be able to manage his household well, which is like a testing ground for ruling in the church.
In v7, Paul reiterates again that the elder must be blameless: that is not perfect and not above having private failures, but rather a man of respectable public character. “He must not be arrogant (which is self-willed) or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but (v8) hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.” In other words, he should be free of those vices that would disqualify any member of society from respected positions of leadership. And, in turn, and putting it positively, he should be one who opens his house to strangers. He should love that which is virtuous and of good repute. He should be a man who treats his neighbour with the civility of justice and fairness. And he must be a man who fears God.
Brothers and sisters, the men Titus was to look for, the kind of men we are to look for as elders are not those who are too holy for this world, but those who are respected in the broader community and who can peaceably fit within it. But, just because the church is called to be in this world does not mean her message belongs to it! This world is fallen in sin and is passing away, but the Word of God perfect and endures forever. This is why Paul commands, in v9, that the church must elect faithful men who will hold fast to the Word of God, who are able to teach it and who can defend it against error.
Here, at the end of the list of elder qualifications, I think that Paul has in view in particular the teaching elder who is ordained to office of minister of the Word. Remember that the designation “elder” in the NT consists of two distinct, and yet complementing, offices of ruling elder and teaching elder. The teaching elder is the one gifted, called and equipped by God to correctly divide the Word of truth for the spiritual welfare of the church.
His ministry is not ultimately about virtuous and upright living. For this would make his message no different from the orders of a Roman military commander or the pious platitudes of Cicero. But rather, beloved, the ordained minister’s mandate is to proclaim the whole counsel of God, which at its heart reveals the gospel of free grace. He is to safeguard this message from false teachers who would like to pull Christ’s heavenly message down to earth, and contaminate it with sinful human works.
Let us, therefore, hold fast to Christ’s Word that is preached to us each Lord’s Day. For in it God promises to save us despite our moral imperfections because he is satisfied with the righteousness obedience of his Son, which is ours by faith. It is with this assurance that we are united to Christ and our sins are forgiven that we can live in this world with wisdom, and especially without fear. For nothing in this world, no matter how tempting or how evil, can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, which has been shed abroad in our hearts by his Holy Spirit. Amen.
Simon Jooste, RCSS morning service (January 6, 2013)