5 The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. 6 An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.7 Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. 8 Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.
(Titus 1:5-9 NIV)
In our previous passage, Paul uses a lengthy introduction to encourage Titus and remind him (and the churches where Titus would read this letter) of their calling by God, their purpose for God, their hope in God, their promise of eternal life in God, and their reality of God in them.
Paul’s introduction is a great summary of the good news of the Gospel that Paul has entrusted Titus to pass along in word and example to the churches in Crete.
I must confess that today’s passage has been a bit of a struggle to process, particularly to know what to share. The overall message of today’s text is quite clear – the inward and outward character traits that God’s people must possess before they can lead their local congregations as elders. These prerequisites are not tied to physical maturity as the title “elder” might indicate. Rather, these are marks of spiritual maturity that one must possess before stepping into a leadership position.
So my struggle has not been with Paul’s commands to Titus (the content). It would be easy to take a clinical view of today’s text, examine each character trait Paul lists, ask ourselves how well formed that character trait is in us, and move on. But if we limited today’s study to just that, I think we would be missing a key part of the story.
After several day’s studies, and also hearing a sermon on part of today’s text, I realized the missing piece of what I need to write about – the context of Titus’ ministry in Crete.
As we introduced the book of Titus, we noted that this was a particularly tough assignment for the young pastor Titus. Crete was a rotten place to live, with drunkenness, idol worship, immorality, and perversion of every sort. But where sin abounded, God’s grace abounded even more.
To help set the context, we need to understand how the good news of Christ came to this island in the first place. Acts chapter 2 describes the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles gathered in Jerusalem. As only the Lord could orchestrate, there were also God-fearing Jews gathered nearby. As the Holy Spirit filled the apostles, each of the gathered Jews heard the good news of Christ in their native language. Among those gathered were people from Crete (Acts 2:11). These people from Crete were among the three thousand that came to Christ on that day.
So fast forward several years from the Day of Pentecost. People from Crete had come to Christ in Jerusalem, then eventually made their way back home to their island nation. The Lord had called Paul from persecutor and prosecutor of Christians to preacher, evangelist, church planter, and encourager of all to live for Christ.
Paul certainly had been made aware that people on Crete knew Christ. Paul also knew of the terrible reputation of sin on the island, and that Christ followers there needed training and encouragement. Hence, Paul sent Titus to help.
In verse 5, Paul tells Titus to “put in order”. Part of the Greek word that Paul uses is “ortho”, meaning “to straighten”. From this Greek word, we get the English words “orthodontist” (one who straightens teeth), and “orthopedic” (one who straightens or mends broken bones). This “straightening” is done with great skill and care, to make the “patient” better and heal properly.
In today’s text, we see the process of discipleship at work. Paul did not tell Titus to teach these truths at each and every church on the island of Crete every Sunday; that was a physical impossibility, as Crete is approximately 10 miles wide and 160 miles long. Rather, Paul told Titus to find Christ followers of character and integrity who could lead others to more Christ-likeness.
Remember that discipleship is both taught and caught. We can learn from Scriptures, from the writings of others including those who have already gone on to be with the Lord, but learning and head knowledge are not enough. We must also practice what we know through our attitudes and actions. Learning fuels pride and arrogance; living it out (and making mistakes along the way) humbles us and makes us more like Christ.
Discipleship begins in our inner world and is manifested in our outer world through our actions. Paul emphasized both the inner and outer worlds of would-be leaders as he described these character qualities. Paul knew that church leaders are responsible for their own lives as well as the lives of those church attendees that they lead. Leadership requires skill (teaching of doctrine) as well as practice (example by behavior).
Paul knew that Titus had a tough assignment. Titus had to be able to know and teach God’s word clearly and also put in order (“straighten”) some wrong or misguided teachers that were leading the Christ followers down the wrong path.
Paul knew that Titus had to do all this in love. The Christ-followers on Crete were doing the best that they knew how to do, but there were some fundamentals still lacking that Titus could help them grow into. Titus needed to accept the people where they were in their spiritual journey of following Christ, then help them back on the path of following Christ and sharing Christ with their fellow islanders and all who would hear. Sometimes, as Paul reminded Titus in verse 9, this process of discipleship would require tough love, but it was still to be done in love.
May we grow in our walk with Christ, both in knowledge and in practice. May our Christ-likeness be exemplified through our thoughts, our words, and our actions, reflecting these character qualities that Paul reminds Titus of in today’s text, even if we don’t hold the office of a church elder.
And most of all, as we invest in the lives of others, may we do so with love and care.