Elders in Every Town
Series: Titus: A Church That Lasts
For any living thing to survive, it needs to be fed and protected from predators. For a church to really last, God directs that elders be appointed in it to feed it and protect it from predators.
The Letters to Timothy and Titus, Philip Towner
Last week we started a new series through the book of Titus, and we’ve given the series this subtitle: A church that lasts. A church is a community, and often communities don’t last. They get formed around a common interest, a cause, or an exciting idea, and such new communities have a kind of buzz about them. But over time, that glorious growth has to be ordered for it to continue. Here in Philly people sometimes try a little gardening with their limited outdoor space, and sometimes you can get plants to spring up. But you learn quickly that unless someone takes responsibility to water those plants and protect them from predators like squirrels, they aren’t going to last. The book of Titus was written after Paul and Titus had been in Crete, preached the gospel there, and seen rapid growth of new communities called churches in each town of Crete. But today we’re going to see that Paul wanted Titus to stay in Crete in order to bring order to those churches, so that they would be churches that last. And the first way he tells him to do that is to appoint elders in every town. They are the ones who are to care for these churches and protect them from predators. We learn from this that for us today to have a church that lasts, you must Appoint elders in your church, for the sake of good order, who are above reproach, and who are able to teach.
For the sake of good order
Our text begins in verse 5 with this command to Titus to put what remains into order and appoint elders in every town. Paul felt their work wasn’t done until elders were appointed in every town. He saw them as necessary to the good order of the churches in those towns. This was his pattern throughout the book of Acts as well, where we read that after preaching the gospel and planting churches, Paul “appointed elders for them in every church” (Acts 14:23). Elders are not optional for a church. Paul doesn’t say, “Appoint elders in some towns, but if you get to other towns and sense they don’t need them, or that another leadership structure would better suit the unique needs and preferences of that town, no need to appoint elders there.” He says, “Titus, appoint elders in every town,” and then specifically adds, “as I directed you.” For the sake of good order, then, every church should appoint elders.
I corresponded with a couple recently who used to be members here, but moved to Lancaster a few years back. They struggled to connect with a local church when they moved, so they joined a Bible study with some friends. That was great for them: They knew the people in it, connected well with them, and were able to schedule it in a way that was convenient for them. It was great, until it wasn’t. One time someone from the Bible study brought in a Bible teacher they appreciated who taught them that bodily healing was the right of every Christian, and if anyone would just accept their healing by faith, their bodies would be healed. This former Citylight couple thankfully sensed something was off about that and reached out to me, one of their former elders, to ask about it. I explained to them why this was false teaching, but there wasn’t much they could do about it. They expressed their concerns to the group, and it brought a lot of disorder to the group. Eventually it became clear the differences were irreconcilable, and they left the group. There was a lot going on there of course, but one of the things going on was that their Bible study wasn’t a church, and they didn’t have elders. There was no one the community appointed to teach sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it, so when someone did contradict it, disorder ensued, and the community didn’t last.
I’m not saying Bible studies are bad; we just did one here and even Bible studies outside of your church can be beneficial, as long as you are also part of a church with appointed elders. In Scripture, there is no church, and therefore no Christian, who doesn’t need elders. So they must be appointed in every church, as Paul directs here. Now he doesn’t tell us exactly how to do this in this letter, so we must make our best inferences from what we do have in Scripture in order to decide today how we will appoint elders. In our church, the elders first seek input from the congregation on potential elders, a nominating committee of members nominates an elder candidate, that candidate then goes through a development and assessment process with the existing elders, the elders will then recommend that elder candidate to the congregation, and the congregation has a chance to raise any concerns. If the congregation raises no concerns, the man is appointed an elder, as Michael was here at Citylight Center City last year. If the congregation were to raise concerns, we would put it to a vote, and only if the majority of the congregation affirmed a man as an elder would we appoint him as one.
So you all have a role to play in this by praying for God to give us more elders, suggesting men for eldership, and evaluating those the elders put forth as candidates. You’ve probably noticed by now that I’m assuming elders will be men, and that’s because the Bible does, but I know that may be new or unsettling for some of you. You’re not alone if you feel that way; please come talk to me after the service if you have concerns or would like further explanation. But for the sake of good order, let’s engage in this to appoint more elders in our church. And in order for those elders to actually ensure good order, not just any guy will do. We have to appoint elders as God has directed us in Scripture, and the basic way God directs us to do that is to appoint men who are above reproach and able to teach.
Who are above reproach
So verse 6 begins with the words, “If anyone is above reproach,” and the next couple verses go on to describe what above reproach looks like. Above reproach doesn’t refer to literal perfection, or else we can be sure that Titus would not have been able to appoint elders in any town, let alone every town. It does mean the characteristics that follow are genuinely true of the man; nobody can look at him and legitimately say, “Yeah but he’s not the husband of one wife. Yeah but he’s got a bit of a temper. Yeah but he’s pretty stingy with his time and money,” and so forth.
And the first place Paul does identify that a man must be above reproach is in his faithfulness to his wife. He is to be the husband of one wife, or literally, a “one-woman man.” There should be nothing reproachable in his interactions with other women, nothing that makes you say, “Is he flirting with her?” It’s not saying he must be married; Jesus wasn’t married, nor were His first disciples, but it does assume that in most cases he will be, and if he is, he should be above reproach in faithfulness to his wife. Furthermore, he will ordinarily have children, and those children should be believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination, verse 6 says. Obviously parents can’t cause their children to be born again; only God can do that. But the idea here is at least as long as the children are within the household, they should submit to the religion of their parents and not live outwardly immoral lives.
Why would a man’s marriage and parenting be important qualifications for his eldering? When you think about leaders of other organizations, how often is this really considered? A partner in a law firm, a CEO, a board member, even President of the United States aren’t typically required to be husbands of one wife or evaluated on the basis of how their kids are doing. This is one of many indications in this passage that a church is something fundamentally different from a law firm, company, non-profit, or state, though it has some things in common as a society of people. It’s actually most like a family. So verse 7 describes an elder as an overseer and “God’s steward.” The word steward is a household term; the church is viewed here as God’s household, God’s family, and the steward is one that God sets over that household to manage it and ensure its good order. Elders are not owners of the church any more than members are. God is the owner of the church, which He purchased with His own blood, and the elders manage what is ultimately God’s. That is why they must be above reproach. And it makes sense, then, why the first place an elder must be above reproach is in his management of his household. If he can’t manage his own household well, we certainly don’t want him managing God’s household.
Furthermore, if he can’t manage himself well, we don’t want him managing God’s household, and that’s where the text goes next. The other ways he must be above reproach begin with what he must not be: arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain. If he can’t manage his pride, he won’t function as a manager of God’s household; he’ll function as an owner. He’ll rely on his wisdom instead of the wisdom of God’s word, and call people to obey his will rather than calling them to obey God’s will as it is revealed in Scripture. One of the things elders often manage is conflict and disagreement, but if he can’t manage his own temper, he’ll hurt God’s sheep rather than caring for them. If he can’t manage his use of alcohol, how can he manage God’s church? If he’s in it for the money, how can he best trusted to manage the church’s finances, God’s money?
On the flipside, he must be other things: Hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. The work of eldering is people work, so the man must be hospitable, a lover of people, someone who lets church members and strangers into his home and life. He must be a lover of what’s truly good; the things that get him out of bed in the morning are an eagerness to meet with God in prayer, to meditate on His word, to love his family, to shepherd his people, not to waste his life with his hobbies and entertainment, though he’ll enjoy those in moderation in his spare time. Self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined all convey something similar, though it’s worth noticing that Paul uses 4 different words to do so, which shows us how important this is. This is a guy who says no to his desires in order to give himself to what is most important. He’s not impulsive; when he says he’s going to do something, he does it; when he says he won’t do something, he doesn’t. When God tells him to do something, he does it; when God says not to do something, he doesn’t. He manages himself and his passions well, so we can trust him with the greater responsibility of managing God’s household.
It’s also worth noticing what’s not on the list. I did a quick google search for qualifications of an ideal leader; you know there’s a massive industry now around leadership development. I stumbled across Tony Robbins’ 13 characteristics of an ideal leader. And some of them did overlap! But here are some on his list that have no obvious parallel to the list before us: vision, positivity, decisiveness, ability to inspire, and creativity. Can you see again that we’re doing something different here? It’s our job to appoint the leaders God directs us to appoint, and these are the qualifications God has given us. Even potentially good desires we have for what we want our leadership to look like need to be submitted to what God has told us our leaders ought to look like, and this is the list He has given us. Let’s trust that God knows better than Tony Robbins or you or me what qualifications a church leader should have, and let’s trust that our church will be best ordered when those are the men we appoint to eldership, men who are above reproach in how they manage their households, men who are above reproach in how they manage themselves, and men who are able to teach.
Who are able to teach
I’m using the phrase “able to teach” as a summary of verse 9: He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine, and also to rebuke those who contradict it. There are three components there: First, he must hold firm to the trustworthy word. The ability to teach is not merely a skill. Though the English text puts a period at the end of verse 8, the Greek text does not. Holding firm to the trustworthy word as taught is part of being above reproach. What you believe is part of your character; it’s not a mere intellectual exercise separate from you. The ability to hold firm to truth is a virtue in Scripture. Today we place a high value on open mindedness, but as G.K. Chesterton once said, the purpose of an open mind is to close it on something solid. The word we’ve been taught in the gospel is a trustworthy word. We saw last week, it’s rooted in a promise God made before time began. It is an eternal truth, one that does not change, and therefore one that must simply be held on to, not modified. And that is actually an incredibly hard thing to do.
It’s incredibly hard because the world around us is always changing. Give the world a decade, and the things that seem obvious to everyone today will seem ridiculous to the people of that time. Over time, continuing to believe what God says, and continuing to hear from others that it’s wrong, irrational, intolerant, bigoted, hateful, or whatever else the world accuses the Bible of now, wears on you, and it just becomes easier to say, “Ok; maybe they’re right.” You don’t want an elder like that. If you believe the gospel is true, then you want elders who will hold firm to that gospel. You want a godly stubbornness in them. The gospel doesn’t become false because it becomes unfashionable. And false teaching doesn’t become true when it is fashionable. So you want elders who don’t care what’s fashionable, but hold on the trustworthy word as taught.
It’s the elders with that kind of character who will be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it. Of course, gifts of the intellect and of communication help with that, but the emphasis here is on the man’s steadfastness. Is he confident that this word is true yesterday, today, and tomorrow? If so, the implication of verse 9 is he’ll be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it. You need elders who do both. If they’re just angry all the time and “calling out” others, your soul will never be nourished, fed, and cared for with what’s true. But if they can’t distinguish what’s true from what’s false and rebuke the falsehood, it’s evidence they don’t actually understand the truth, and you’ll at least be very confused, if not led astray into falsehood. Remember Tony Robbins had positivity on his list of leader qualifications, and we do see here how necessary positive teaching of sound doctrine is. But an elder also needs a healthy negativity, in that he must be able to say not only what’s true, but to recognize and rebuke what’s not.
Every Christian needs elders, every church needs elders, and the elders we are to appoint in our church are men who are above reproach and able to teach. So who of you reads this list and upon understanding it says, “Yeah that’s me”? If you do, you probably shouldn’t be an elder. Remember, he must not be arrogant. This is the second time I’ve preached on this passage now, and I’ve used it along with the parallel passage in 1 Timothy 3 many times to evaluate other possible elders. But every time I do, I have a moment where I stop and think, “Should I really be an elder? I’m not sure I’m qualified.” Ordinary as this list is, in a sinful world, it appears extraordinary. For this reason, it’s important to realize that the list isn’t given for the purpose of self-evaluation. It’s given for others to use to evaluate possible elders. In those moments where I feel disqualified, I lean on you all to tell me, “Do you see these things in me?” and as a long as you do, assuming I’m not hiding anything, I’ll take your word for it.
But this is also all the more reason we most hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught. Because where can we really find an elder, an overseer, like this, who is truly above all reproach? There’s only ever been one who was, and it’s Him we hear of in the trustworthy word we’ve been taught. Jesus Christ is the husband of one wife, the church, to whom He’s been so faithful as to lay down His own life for her. He is not arrogant, but though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant. Though he suffered from sinners such hostility against Himself, He is patient and gentle with His people, and angry only in an entirely self-controlled way at injustice. Instead of executing violence, He suffered violence on our behalf. He happily multiplied wine at a wedding feast, but was never drunk. He is hospitable, welcoming us into God’s household when we were strangers. He was so self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined, that though tempted in every way as we are, He was without sin. He is the one who was truly above reproach, but on the cross He bore the reproach of our sins, in order to bring us into God’s household with Him. Then He rose from the dead, ascended to the position of head over the house, and we were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the shepherd and overseer of our souls.
Jesus is the overseer, the elder we all need. Trust Him today, and may all of us who follow Him aspire to be above reproach like Him. As we do, He will call some of us to be elders. Imperfect though we will remain, Jesus is so perfect that He can use even us. So recognize who those men are by using the directions God has given us, and appoint them to this office, so that this word we’ve been taught would continue to be taught, and so our church will last.