“Elders: The First Priority” – Titus 1:5-9
It never ceases to amaze me how little attention professing Christians give to the Word of God. The structure and purpose of Christ’s church is so plainly and simply laid out in Scripture that it is utterly impossible to mistake God’s meaning. And yet, too few congregations truly embody and put into practice what our Lord has commanded. One of the first places this indifference comes to the surface within local congregations is seen in church governance.
Ever since the heresy of theological triage has become a mainstay in evangelical circles, church government has been bumped down to a second or third tier issue. In other words, how a church is governed and who governs it is not worthy of discussion and lies somewhere between the debate of pews vs. chairs and the color of the carpet in relative importance. This is an opinion one can only come to by ignoring the clear, complete, and sufficient Word of God.
In these first instructive verses of Paul’s letter to Titus, we will not only see that church government (particularly the appointment of elders) is important but that it is of first importance. There are three things that this text makes abundantly clear concerning elders in the local church.
Elders are Necessary (v. 5)
“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you might set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you.”
The account that Luke provides for us in Acts makes no mention of Paul’s trip to Crete with Titus. Therefore, it’s best to assume that sometime after Paul’s release from Roman house arrest and before his re-arrest which led to his execution, Paul and Titus visited Crete to preach the gospel and to establish churches. For reasons unknown to us Paul left Crete before this task was complete, but he charged Titus to finish the work that they began. We should take notice what Titus is here commanded to complete.
A Church without elders is an incomplete church (v. 5a) – Paul plainly states that he left Titus on Crete, as opposed to taking Titus with him, for a single purpose: to set in order what remains. Literally, to put right what is lacking. There were several things lacking in these young churches in Crete. Paul was never one to evangelize the lost and then move his circus tent to the next town without providing these new converts with a healthy and stable church body. The rest of this letter provides a working list of all the things that these Cretans need to know and learn before Titus’ work is done, but what tops the list (because it is of first importance) is the appointment of elders.
It is strange to look out over the landscape of what is known as evangelicalism and see that most churches do not even have elders. There are whole denominations that have few common threads to bind themselves together other than the fact that they reject a plurality of elders to govern the local flock. Ironically, Paul considers these churches to be woefully lacking and incomplete. They can hardly be called a church in the same sense as a group of children without parents could be called a family. Of all the things which were lacking, appointing elders is at the top of the list.
Every church requires a plurality of elders (v. 5b) – Notice the plurality of “elders” that are to be appointed in the singular “every city.” It may be hard to imagine a Christian landscape without dozens of church buildings within every municipality, but there was a time when a city had a single body of believers that all gathered together (yes, actual gathering of the saints) and believed the exact same thing. It’s best to understand these elders (again, note the plurality) not as governing the city, but the single church in the city. In every city where there is a body of believers, those believers need a plurality (yes, that means more than one) of elders. A body of believers without a plurality of elders is incomplete and therefore is lacking. Titus’ mission is to shore up this insufficiency.
Elders must be Qualified (vv. 6-9a)
There are some who read v. 5 and realize their church is in desperate need of elders. But will anyone who is willing do? Should we simply look for willing and warm bodies to fill this necessary role? Paul begins by stating that the elder must be above reproach (ἀνέγκλητος). The idea is that there is no name that one could slander him that would actually stick. He is unimpeachable. What follows is a short description of what above reproach means.
The Elder as Patriarch (v. 6) “namely, if any man be above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.”– Unfortunately this needs to be said, but there is no such thing as a female elder. Some English translations read “if anyone be above reproach…” But such a translation is dishonest and unhelpful. The indefinite pronoun τίς here is masculine (any man) not neuter (anyone) and certainly not feminine (any woman). Besides that, only a man can be the husband of one wife.
This verse takes a look at the perspective elder and his home life. First, we read that he must be the husband of one wife or more literally a one-woman man. The requirement goes well beyond prohibiting polygamy and gets to the very heart of fidelity. This requirement does not exclude a single man but simply requires that man to have only one woman in his life. God created man to have only one helpmate. If our prospective elder has been blessed to have met her and marry her, then he must be singularly devoted to her. If our prospect has yet to wed, then he must be one with eyes that do not wander, hands he keeps to himself, and a heart he does not yet give out. He must be a man who is faithful in word, thought, and deed to his wife, even if he has not yet met that wife.
In addition to his wife, the elder in question must be faithful as a father. The NASB translates the Greek τέκνα ἔχων πιστά as having children who believe, but we could just as easily translate this phrase as having faithful children. Which is it? There are three main reasons for translating the adjective πιστά (πιστός) as faithful/trustworthy/obedient rather than believing.
First, the term itself certainly allows for it. The adjective πιστός is used in the NT some 67 times. There are only a few places (here and perhaps Eph. 1:1) where the meaning of the term is in dispute but at least 56 of these uses (that’s 83.5%) are rightly translated as faithful/trustworthy. Two of these uses are in this same letter (1:9; 3:8). This does not prove anything other than to stress that faithful/trustworthy is a legitimate translation.
Second, there’s the issue of time. How long has there been Christians on Crete? For Paul to mandate that elders must have believing children then the church must be two full generations old at a bare minimum. The context focuses on the prospective elder’s handling of his family. Therefore, these believing children would be the product of faithful shepherding their whole lives. This is an impossible mandate if Paul and Titus planted these churches within a year of this letter being written. In support of this view, some note that Titus does not receive the prohibition against appointing an elder who is a new convert with the assumption that almost all Christians in Crete are new converts. If, however, these Christians have been around since shortly after Pentecost (about 30 years earlier) this mandate would be possible, but only just barely.
Third, there’s the most basic (and important) issue of context. The requirement is not on the children themselves, but on their father as a prospective elder. The question is simple: does he handle his family well? The concluding phrase makes this clear. If a man’s children are rebellious and rightfully accused of debauchery, then he obviously has no control over them. There is nothing here, nor in what follows, that is not required of every Christian man. The Lord does not require of us that our children believe, for only He can grant saving faith. Yet every Christian man is commanded to raise his children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, to use the rod in order to correct, and to maintain order in his home. Simply put: the perspective elder is a faithful patriarch in his obligations to both wife and children.
The Elder as Pastor (v. 7a) “For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward” – Paul takes a breath to repeat the mandate that the overseer must be above reproach. Did you notice that Paul has changed from elders (πρεσβύτερος) to overseer (ἐπίσκοπος)? As we argued in our study of 1 Timothy 3, the pastor/elder/overseer are three names for the same office. This office must be held by one who is unimpeachable because he acts as a steward for the house of God.
A steward (οἰκονόμος) is slave or servant who has been chosen and selected by his master to manage the master’s home, estate, or business in his absence and with his full authority. Unless a man is blameless, above reproach, and unimpeachable he cannot claim to be chosen by God for this task. God makes clear whom He has called and chosen for this office of stewardship. To place an unqualified man into this position will only bring reproach upon our Lord, the Master of the house.
The Elder as a Person (vv. 7b-9a) “not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching,” – Moving from the prospective elder’s example as a patriarch Paul turns to his personal character. What follows is a list of five forbidden vices followed by seven foundational virtues. As we view these characteristics, it’s important that we keep two things in mind. First, this list does not call for perfection. Second, this list must be taken seriously. The question is not one of sinlessness but of character. A single question must be asked of each characteristic: is this man known to possess this trait? We will notice similarities between this list and the one found in 1 Timothy 3.
All five of these forbidden vices can be summed up with a single common thread: control. Self-willed (αὐθάδης) literally means self-pleasing with the idea of prideful arrogance. The self-willed man is controlled by his desire to get what he wants at the expense of all else. Quick tempered (ὀργίλος) describes one who is controlled by his passion. His temper is easily ignited when his desires are not met. Addicted to wine (πάροινος) is better understood as one who is much with wine. The idea is not so much drunkenness so much as it is describes one who is often associated with wine. How often does he have a drink in his hand? Is he controlled by the substance? Pugnacious (πλήκτης) describes one who is a striker or one who is quick to throw blows. Is he one who looks for a fight? Is he controlled by violent/aggressive language or behavior? The final vice may be the most important one. Fond of sordid gain (αἰσχροκερδής) is a prohibition here, in 1 Timothy 3:8 referring to deacons, and in 1 Peter 5:2 in Peter’s exhortation to elders. Greed cannot mark a man whose been given charge over God’s house. The elder/overseer/pastor cannot be controlled by the flesh and its lusts.
Notice the contrast beginning in v. 8, “but.” The seven foundational virtues that are polar opposites of these vices. Hospitable (φιλόξενος) literally means love of strangers. This man must not be controlled by prideful self-love, but a genuine concern and love for the brethren. This is quickly followed by love of good (φιλάγαθος). One might immediately think of Philippians 4:8 and the list of good things one must set their minds upon. The one who loves strangers will love what is good for them. Sensible (σώφρων) is sometimes translated as prudent. There is a sense of control here where one stops and considers his actions before speaking or acting. Just (δίκαιος) and devout (ὅσιος) go somewhat hand in hand. To be a just/fair/righteous man is to be one whose actions are pleasing to God in word, thought, and deed. To be devout/pious/holy man is to be one who obeys the decrees and ordinances which God has prescribed. Self-controlled (ἐγκρατής) describes one who is strong/self-mastered and works to negate all the vices described in v. 7. If one is self-controlled, then he is not controlled by any other influence (greed, wine, pride, anger, etc.). But there is one final virtue that must mark this man of God.
The capstone and climax of virtue that must mark this man of God is that he holds fast to the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching. He must cling to the Scriptures which are faithful/sure/steadfast/trustworthy. He must cling to the Scriptures as they are in accordance with all that has been taught. This point differs from the rest in that it describes his practice of orthodoxy rather than his practice of holiness. Yet both are required. Either link missing, orthodoxy or holiness, disqualifies a man from consideration. Without holiness, a man would make a poor steward and a horrible representative. Without orthodoxy, a man would be unable to fulfill the purpose of his office.
Elders have a specific Purpose (v. 9)
“that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”
Elders are not board members who look at bank statements and balance sheets. Overseers are not committee members who hire others to do the work of ministry and fire those who displease them. Pastors are not public speakers who give worldly advice and motivational speeches. The office of pastor/elder/overseer has but one duty: to preach, teach, and proclaim the Word of God. This proclamation goes in two directions. One to the sheep and the other to the wolves.
Feed the Sheep (v. 9b) – By holding tightly to the Scriptures, the pastor/elder/overseer will be able to exhort in sound doctrine. The term exhort (παρακαλέω) means to call alongside. The standard that he reveals, the place to stand, the line to which he calls others to come is here referred to as sound doctrine or healthy teaching. Teaching falls into one of three categories. The first category is dangerous. It is false, inaccurate, heretical teaching that poisons and damns. The second category may not be false, but it certainly isn’t helpful. It is fluff that has all of the nutritional value of cotton candy. It is sweet to the taste but cannot sustain life. The third is teaching that builds, edifies, and strengthens because it is true. This is what is healthy/sound/needful if the sheep are to grow. At times this teaching is unpleasant and unwanted, but it is no less needful. Only the man that holds tightly to the Scriptures will be able to deliver this steady stream of healthy teaching to the sheep.
Rebuke the Wolves (v. 9c) – By holding tightly to the Word of God, the pastor/elder/overseer will be able to rebuke the wolves who howl and bay at the flanks of the fold. Paul is not referring to Christians here, as he calls them “those who contradict” or “those who deny” or better still “those who talk back” (τοὺς ἀντιλέγοντας). These are men and women who seek to undermine sound teaching, who question sound teaching, who refute and reject sound teaching. Only the man who clings to Scripture will be able to refute/rebuke/convict them. The term here comes from the Greek ἐλέγχω and means to expose/bring to light/convict. There is nothing here that suggests that these naysayers will confess and repent after being exposed, but then that is not the point. The man of God would rejoice at such an outcome, but his primary duty as pastor/elder/overseer is to feed and protect the sheep.
John Calvin is often quoted as saying, “A pastor needs two voices, one for gathering the sheep and the other for driving away wolves and thieves.” That statement was made in his commentary on Titus 1:9.
The manner and way that the Church of Jesus Christ is to be governed is no more up for grabs or a matter of opinion than the establishment of the family. God has decreed that the family is to be headed by one man who is aided by one woman who together rear children. The church is no different. The church must have elders who are able and capable of shepherding Christ’s sheep and serving as God’s stewards. Any church that is missing these elders is incomplete. Titus’ mission is to complete what is lacking in these churches. May all congregations who make up Christ’s body and bride train up men to complete what is lacking, for their own good and God’s glory. Soli Deo Gloria!