Paul and Titus traveled the island of Crete, preaching Jesus. God blessed their evangelist zeal, converting many and creating churches in towns scattered across the land. But caring for these new Christians proved difficult, in part due to the character of the people. Cretans were known for their immorality and debauchery. The philosopher Epimenides, himself a citizen of Crete, described the citizens as “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Even those truly born again struggled with godly living because of their rough background, and Titus, asked to bring order in the church, had his hands full.
The Apostle Paul continued his mission trip, but he heard of Titus’ struggles. So he writes this letter, counseling the young pastor on faithful ministry in a fallen culture.
First, Paul says, look for other mature, godly men to help in the ministry. Since these elders are to shepherd and disciple, make sure they are worthy of imitation, men of godly character. Additionally, they will be called on to counsel the truth and confront those who contradict it, so they must hold firmly to sound doctrine – the word which is “sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16.24).
Second, Titus must teach not only the content of the gospel, but also its proper and practical application: what accords with sound doctrine. Jesus brought both salvation and sanctification – grace trains true believers in godliness. God’s people are to adorn their profession of faith with good works. Rather than be influenced by the culture, believers are to witness to it with their lives as well as their words.
Today we finish the book with a warning – do not be distracted by controversies! Problems do not come only from the outside, do they? Quarrels and division threaten to distract – even destroy. These must be both avoided and replaced with healthy behaviors. Let’s read Titus 3.9-15, then we will see five marks of a healthy church.
[Read Titus 3.9-15. Pray.]
If we could give homework assignments, I would ask each of you to write a letter to the church. Imagine you, like Paul, have traveled abroad for months, but have now heard of our congregation’s struggles. Your heart hurts for our troubles, and you must give counsel. What would you say? You do not have phone or internet, because you are in the remotest parts of the world on a mission trip, but you know someone to hand carry your letter back to us. You get one piece of paper – what would you say?
One more thing – because you are a dearly loved member of the church, known to be full of wisdom and grace, your letter will be read to the congregation. How would you mix correction and encouragement and teaching?
In January the men running for office will do something like this. Each one will stand before us during a Sunday school class to explain his hopes and dreams for the church as well as the challenges and opportunities for leadership he sees in this congregation. But we should probably make this a regular feature of church life, not just an exercise for potential officers. What would you say to us?
The Apostle Paul writes a brief letter to a pastor and church facing difficult challenges. The worldliness of the culture encroaches, threatening to conform them to its patterns. Additionally, conflict threatens to break the unity they should have and distract them from the work of ministry. How does a healthy church thrive in such a mess? Please note five ways from our text.
1. A Healthy Church Handles Controversy Well (Titus 3.9-11)
I think we all might wish that church would be without quarrels. In Matthew 18.20, Jesus promised that “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them,” but our history confirms that where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, there an argument will break out – especially if one of them is Presbyterian! We seem unable or unwilling to cut out controversy and work together on ministry.
Charles Schultz drew a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy demands that Linus change the TV channel, threatening him with her fist if he did not. “What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?” asks Linus.
Lucy responds: “These five fingers. Individually they are nothing but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold.”
“Which channel do you want?” asks Linus. Then turning away, he looks at his fingers and says, “Why can’t you guys get organized like that?”
Why can’t we get organized?
Henry Scougal wrote The Life of God in the Soul of Man in the latter half of the 1600s. He had this to say about our controversies: “There is scarce a more unaccountable thing to be imagined, than to see a company of men professing a religion, one great and main precept whereof is mutual love, forbearance, gentleness of spirit, and compassion to all sorts of persons, and agreeing in all the essential parts of its doctrine, and differing only in some less material and more disputable things, yet maintaining those differences with zeal so disproportional to the value of them, and prosecuting all that disagree… with all bitterness of spirit. They… raise great prejudices against such religion, as made up of contradictions; professing love, but breaking out in all the acts of hatred.”
Not only is this contradictory, we must also realize how detrimental are our disputes.
John Calvin points out one of the negative results: “Paul tells Titus not to waste much time in debating with [a person who stirs up division], because one battle will always lead to another, and one dispute give rise to a second. This is the cunning of Satan, he entangles good and faithful pastors so as to distract them from their concern with teaching. Thus we should beware not to let ourselves become involved in quarrelsome arguments, because then we shall never be free to devote our labor to the Lord’s flock.”
When I interviewed for this job four plus years ago, I asked the elders what they felt was a particular struggle. They said dealing with conflict – they had not been able to answer it and put it to rest without it consuming the life and vitality of the church. Unfortunately, we may not have made much progress through four more years of problems. How can we change? Paul gives three principles.
First, Titus is to focus on teaching what is right – sound doctrine and the practical behavior that accords with it. This theme appears throughout this letter, and here we are again reminded that proper preaching and teaching is useful for growth in godliness. The people of God do not need detailed discourses on theological minutia – the priority of preaching must be putting off sin and putting on Christlikeness – healthy doctrine!
Second, the pastor (with the help of the elders) must discern what is unprofitable, so that conflicts can be avoided. Few debates are about growth in godliness. They are distractions which only breed more arguments. Yes, there are doctrines that must be defended, but these people desire division. As one pastor noted: “There is in some a habit of mind utterly out of harmony with the Word of God. It is not that dogmas, or creeds, or ceremonies are despised and forgotten by them, as they usually are by the… world. On the contrary, these things are often in their minds and upon their lips. But they handle everything, not with a view to growth in goodness, not with a view to the formation within of a humble, pure, and holy character, but merely as matters of disputation. They raise questions, the solution of which has no bearing upon our duty to God or man, but which only give occasion for strife of words, and utterly unprofitable contentions” (A. C. Hervey, The Pulpit Commentary: Titus). Leaders must categorize; then avoid that which is unprofitable and worthless.
Third, if the person who wants to engage in these conflicts persists, they are to be warned once, then a second time, in an effort to restore them to a proper relationship with the pastor and the teaching of the church. If after two warnings they refuse to change, they must be ignored (or possibly told to leave). Of course, the goal is not to squash sincere questions from those who are trying to understand the faith. The problems come from those who claim they already know the faith – and want to argue with the pastor. They must not be allowed to derail ministry – which happens so often in the church.
I think I can say without fear of contradiction that we have failed in this regard. We have too often tried to answer those who quarrel, hoping that with good responses we could bring unity to our congregation. Instead, we have wasted time and talent, and the church has suffered. Please forgive us and know that we must improve in this area.
2. A Healthy Church Thrives Under Constant Pastoral Care (Titus 3.12)
Clearly, Crete was not to be Titus’ final place of ministry. As an evangelist and church organizer, he was needed to start new congregations. Paul wants Titus to join him soon, which if he can come quickly, will be in Nicopolis, where Paul waits until the Spring brings better travel conditions.
But notice that Paul’s desire for Titus’ help and encouragement does not trump the need for pastoral leadership and ministry in Crete. Titus must not leave until Artemas or Tychicus arrive. There must be continuity of pastoral care for the congregations, and one of these men must fill in before Titus can depart.
God’s people are vulnerable; we need oversight and shepherding and guidance and pastoral care. We are threatened constantly from within and without. We need someone who daily watches over our souls.
This may seem silly in our day and age. With bibles and books and commentaries at your fingertips, and friends and family and preachers on the radio, television, and internet, do we really need a pastor? Would we not be fine, even better off, if we were left alone?
We would not. God made the world so that we need one another, and every group of people needs leadership, and every leadership team needs a pastor. Your pastor is the only person in your life that God has specifically ordered and authorized to look out for your soul, to tell you things you may not want to hear, to exhort you to faithfulness to God. No church, and no Christians, are to be left without pastoral leadership and care.
3. A Healthy Church Commits to Kingdom Ministry (Titus 3.13-14)
We might wonder what there is to do in church if we quit arguing about minor points of the law. Here is the answer: throw yourself into supporting the work of ministry. Make sure those who are involved in mission work lack nothing, and get busy yourselves in good works.
Several years ago, Barbara Bush revealed that while she was the First Lady she had serious bouts of depression. When an interviewer asked what helped, she said that it was devoting herself to service of others: “You know, as I threw myself into serving others, I found that it helped me get out of myself. I wasn’t spending all day thinking about myself and my problems. I was giving myself away. And the funny thing, as I gave myself away in serving others, I felt better!”
Paul says something similar to these Christians: “You have false teachers troubling you and you live in an immoral culture. So get busy with ministry! Make it a priority! Sacrifice. Give of yourself, determined that you will not allow the advancement of God’s kingdom be hampered.”
Matthew Henry: “It is not enough that Christians be harmless, but they must be profitable, doing good, as well as eschewing evil.”
4. A Healthy Church Enjoys Christian Fellowship (Titus 3.15)
Notice that Paul is not alone; he lives in constant contact with fellow believers, and he writes to those who love him. I’m afraid that our modern life, with texting and facebook and blogs produces Christians who do not like being together. People are problems – we prefer to be alone and communicate behind masks. Almost all our conflicts have been fought via email.
Peter Brown wrote a biography of Augustine, the North African theologian of the fourth century. Chapter Six is entitled, “Friends,” and the first sentence is: “Augustine will never be alone.” The chapter chronicles his friendships from conversion through death, and points out that Augustine was always surrounded by gospel friends, whose fellowship encouraged him and caused him to thrive. If our church is to be healthy, we must love being together.
5. A Healthy Church Begins and Ends with Grace (Titus 3.15b)
Dr. Paul Kooistra has been a pastor, college and seminary professor, President of Covenant Seminary, and Coordinator of the Mission to the World (the PCA mission agency). Someone once asked him why he preached so much on grace. He said, “There is nothing else to preach.” Some of those listening did not like his answer and an intellectual argument at once ensued. Several claimed, “There are many other things to preach in terms of our obligations, relationships, and personal character.”
Of course there are other things to talk about, from the color of the carpet to the budget for the coming year. But everything comes from grace. This is why Charles Spurgeon entitled one of his books, All of Grace.
It is you know – all of grace. From first to last. Grace and peace from God, and grace be with you all. Amen.