Elders: The First and Last Line of Defense – Titus 1:10-16
At no point in the past 2000 years has the church of Jesus Christ been safe from either persecution or infiltration. If one reads history, he will find that the church has spent most of this past century being lulled to sleep in a false sense of security due to a lack of persecution. Yet all the while the church has been infiltrated by false teachers. While persecution is usually at the forefront of Christians’ minds, infiltration has always proven the more effective method to transform a once faithful body into lukewarm spittle. This is reflected all over the New Testament. While there are portions of the New Testament that exhort and encourage believers on how to deal with persecution (Heb. 10:32-39; Jam. 1:2-4; 1 Pet. 4:12-5:11), whole books were written in order to expose and exhort against false teaching and false teachers (1 Tim; 2 Peter; Jude).
It should not surprise us that the enemy uses undercover agents to infiltrate more often than outright persecution in order to disrupt the church. When we rightly understand the church’s mission as making disciples by preaching the gospel for conversion and teaching the Scriptures for sanctification (Matt. 28:19-20), false teachers would be a more direct means of attack. By preaching a different gospel, there would cease to be converts. By teaching things other than what is found in Scripture, there would cease to be any maturity within the church. This is why the primary function of the elder/pastor/overseer is to preach and teach the Word of God. Or, as Paul wrote to Titus, “to exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict” (1:9). The elders are not only used to propagate and nurture the church, but they are also her first and last line of defense.
The verses in front of us are connected to Paul’s exhortation to Titus to appoint elders in every city (1:5) by giving us a very pressing reason. Titus must appoint elders in every church in Crete because the enemy is many and active. As the first and last line of defense, Paul here gives two orders to Titus and the men whom he will appoint. The first is for direct confrontation with the false teachers while the second is for direct correction of those who have been misled.
Direct Confrontation of False Teachers (vv. 10-12)
These verses speak directly of the false teachers on Crete as well as the Cretan society in general. Here we see who these false teachers are, what they are doing, and what Titus is supposed to do with them.
The Enemy Described (v. 10) “For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision” – Note first that there are many of these false teachers. The situation in which Titus finds himself is not against one or two rebels floating around the island. He faces many rebels, likely in every city roving around every body of believers. They are here described as rebels (ἀνυπότακτος), the same term used to describe what the elder’s children must not be (accused of rebellion – v. 6). They are non-conformists who refuse to submit to the Word of God or His messengers. The fact that they are empty talkers (ματαιολόγος) and deceivers (φρεναπάτης) gives us a look at what they do. They speak volumes yet their words have little meaning with the only effect of misleading.
These empty talkers have the opposite goal of exhorting in sound doctrine. As Calvin writes, “they indulge in frivolous speculations that contribute nothing toward godliness and the fear of God. This is what is found in scholastic theology.” The fact that they are especially from the circumcision indicates that at least most of these empty talkers are Jewish.
While the details of this brand of false teaching are not given by Paul, there seems to be a strong correlation between these false teachers and what Timothy was confronting in Ephesus. At least Titus is not rooting these wicked men out of church leadership, as Timothy was forced to do. We will address the nature of this heresy later on, but it is sufficient to say now that these heretics are many and are dangerous. So, how must Titus respond?
The Mission Given (v. 11) “who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach, for the sake of sordid gain” – Simply put, Titus is to gag these individuals. The term silenced (ἐπιστομίζω) is quite forceful and means to silence by means of bridle or gag. This is not a passive idea. I doubt very much that Paul is asking Titus to physically gag these men, but nor is he asking Titus to remain polite. Titus is to refuse these men the opportunity to speak in the assembly for any reason. For obvious reasons, a plurality of trusted and qualified men will become necessary to carry this order out. But what are these individuals doing that requires such a boorish response?
Through their false teaching, they are upsetting whole households. If just one member of the family buys in to false teaching it will upset the whole apple cart. Again, Paul does not go into details as to what they are teaching but that can actually be to our (21st cent. Christian) benefit. Any teaching other than sound, healthy, biblical, and Scriptural teaching has the design, or at least the potential, to cause this kind of upheaval. Why would they go about such a nasty business?
Paul clearly states their motives: greed. They do all this destruction for the sake of filthy lucre. There’s a reason why the moral requirements for an elder are so restrictive and thorough. Men who are attracted to money will say and do anything to keep that flow of cash coming. Shepherding Christ’s flock comes with very little monetary reward. While the worker is indeed worthy of his wages, he must prove himself to be a true worker. These men are already wreaking havoc in the church and Titus must muzzle them. Titus certainly has his work cut out for him, but the battle may be more uphill than we originally thought.
The Context of the Mission (vv. 12-13a) “One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true.” – When Paul says, “One of themselves” he is referring to a certain Cretan. The quotation where is from Epimenides’ (a Cretan poet from the 6th cent. BC) who is writing in regard to his own people. The context of this quote seems to be in ridicule to the Cretan claim that the tomb of Zeus is found in Crete. But this reputation of Cretans in the ancient Mediterranean goes further than boastful claims to fame.
The Greek historian Polybius (2nd cent. BC) writes, “So much in fact do sordid love of gain and lust for wealth prevail among them that the Cretans are the only people in the world in whose eyes no gain is disgraceful.” Cicero, a Roman statesmen and scholar (1st cent. BC) seems to confirm this opinion when he said, “Moral principles are so divergent that the Cretans…consider highway robbery honorable.” Clearly, Cretans have a poor reputation. Paul does not argue this point, but simply says that this is a fair assessment of Cretan society. In other words, this was a hard place to do ministry.
Direct Correction of False Thinking (vv. 13-16)
It is here that Paul moves from confrontation to correction. Titus’ only interaction with the false teachers is to silence them and cut them off from influencing the assembly. But that leaves the job only half done. Now he must correct those who have already been influenced.
Course of Action (vv. 13b-14) “For this cause reprove them severely that they may be sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth.” – The pronoun them (αὐτοὺς) here refers to Christian Cretans under the spell of the beguiling false teachers, not the teachers themselves. These individuals need to be woken from their stupor. It is almost as if the influence of these false teachers are lulling the Cretans back into their lying, beastly, and gluttonous former lives. They must be reproved sharply.
It is one thing to correct someone who is confused. There is no need for a sharp answer to an honest question or an uninformed mistake. But these people are playing with matches next to a gas can. There is no time for niceties. The rebuke must come swiftly with a biting edge so that they might become sound or healthy in the faith. Paul has already said that the elder must be able to both exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict. In a chiastic like structure, we have just seen Paul bring this purpose statement into practice. The wolves need to be confronted and the sheep, though straying, need to be corrected.
Paul places sound in the faith (i.e., healthy and wholesome in the gospel) in opposition to Jewish myths and commandments of men. In other words, these things do not mix. Upon reading Jewish myths our minds may go back to 1 Tim 4:1-8 (and rightly so) and particularly to the old woman tales in v. 7. As we’ve said already, the same heresy that plagued Ephesus is present on Crete as well.
By stating that the trouble seems to be coming from the circumcision and that it consists of Jewish myths as well as commandments of men, we can infer that the heretics are preaching a kind of asceticism with a Jewish flare. This is not actual Judaizing as Paul found in Galatia, but more akin to the proto-Gnostics which attempted to infiltrate Colossae. In short, these men wove fictitious and fanciful tales (myths – 1 Tim. 1:4; 4:8) into Biblical genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4; Titus 3:9). They practiced a strict kind of asceticism (purposefully abstaining from specific foods, activities, and relationships) in an effort to prove or earn cleanliness or purity (1 Tim. 4:3-5). These commandments were loosely based on the OT instructions to Israel but were ultimately man-made constructs that had zero biblical backing.
This brand of purity cannot be found in Scripture and is actually destructive to the body. Elders must be appointed to shake these lazy gluttons from their stupor before any more damage is done. Had they given heed to the healthy and wholesome Scriptures in the first place, none of these homes would have ever been upset.
The pagan who is saved out of a context of godlessness has no trouble seeing how his former life is utterly incompatible with his new life in Christ. But to the one who was raised in religion, religion that even uses the same holy book and shares much of the same language and history, it can be difficult to let the old life go. But that does not mean the two are now compatible. People who are saved out of apostate forms of Christianity like Pentecostalism or Roman Catholicism often struggle with bringing their old heresies into the church. But they cannot. For if they do, they will only end in upsetting whole households.
Explanation (vv. 15-16) “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient, and worthless for any good deed.” – Paul has used some strong language up to this point. It is no small thing to rebuke sharply nor to call the society one finds himself ministering liars, beasts, and gluttons. But here he explains himself.
“To the pure” describes not those who deem themselves as ceremonially clean by rite of washing or abstaining from foods, but one who has been made pure through faith in Christ. To the believer all things are pure. The Christian is not under the dietary restrictions of the Mosaic Law nor bound to its festival calendar. There is no merit in ceremonial washings and certainly no benefit for a self-imposed monastic lifestyle. As Paul already wrote to the Corinthians, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). To the pure, all things are pure.
This is of course not true to the reprobate. Paul here makes sure Titus understands that by defiled he does not simply mean immoral but that they are unbelievers. To those who have not been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ through faith there is nothing pure. All that they set their hand to is cursed in the sense that they cannot please God. It matters not how often they wash or what they abstain from, they cannot please God. Their very mind (intellect which drives the will and action) and conscience (moral compass that distinguishes between right and wrong) is defiled and therefore unable to guide them. It matters not what they profess with their lips or how loudly they profess, their deeds give them away.
They may have the soundest and most theologically precise confessions. They may affirm the trinity, penal substitutionary atonement, the virgin birth, and all five points of Calvinism; but to no avail. Actions always speak louder than words. What did our Lord say? You will know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16). What are their fruits?
They are detestable (βδελυκτός – repugnant/abhorrent). They are in reality those whom one would look upon and hiss. They are disobedient (ἀπειθής - unpersuaded). No matter how many times they are corrected, they remain fixed on their path of rebellion. And they are worthless (ἀδόκιμος – unapproved/tested and found wanting) for any good deed. No matter what they do, they are never pleasing to God. Their words are meaningless, but the actions speak volumes.
For the church in Crete to flourish, nay, for the church to survive, Titus must silence these wolves and slap those who give them attention out of their stupor. If qualified elders were in place from the beginning, this travesty may never have happened. Titus must get this first and last line of defense in place, and soon.
The church in the United States has much in common with the 1st century church in Crete. We too live in a culture of liars who cannot trust anyone to give a straight and accurate answer. We too live in a society of wild beasts who slaughter babies, burn businesses, and then claim to be the victim. We too live in a society of lazy gluttons who have no desire to go out and earn a living when we can simply wait at home for our government to send us a check stolen from our laboring neighbor.
Many churches have likewise been infiltrated by rebellious empty talkers bent on deception. The gospel of Christ and the grace of God has been replaced with self-righteous virtue signaling. Righteousness is no longer based on the value, virtue, and work of Christ but is earned based on conformity to arbitrary standards that change with the tide.
Every local assembly desperately needs elders to take a stand. These empty talkers must be gagged so that the sheep are free of their influence. Those who are tantalized by these rebels’ spell need to be slapped into an upright position. If the church has been set adrift, it is only because pastors are asleep at the helm. May these words to Titus awaken Christ’s church from her slumber. Soli Deo Gloria!