Knowledge of the truth that leads to Godliness (Titus 1)

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au
False Confidence

Have you noticed that one of the most effective ways of failing to achieve something in life is to be given the false impression that you are on the right track, that you’re doing what needs to be done, when that is actually completely untrue?

In the 1990s many people thought that all you had to do to be fit and healthy was avoid fatty foods. And so to help us on our way to good health, the supermarkets were filled with ‘low fat’ versions of everything. Of course, most of them were high in sugar, but that didn’t matter – who cares about sugar?

And so people munched on their low fat muesli bars and put away 3 low fat yoghurts a day… wondering why they weren’t getting any skinnier…

Embracing a false solution – swallowing a lie about what we really need – is worse than having no solution at all isn’t it? Because it gives us false confidence. We feel we have what we need, and so we miss, we don’t bother seeking for, we even reject the real solution. We even make things worse! We undermine our desire to secure something by accepting a false imitation in its place.

And of course, this is never more true than with spirituality – with knowing God.

One of the greatest dangers to healthy spirituality and health as a church is settling for a false imitation of Christianity – a corruption of the real thing.

This is true in the general sense that many people never find, or even feel the need for, God’s answer in Jesus Christ to our real spiritual needs, because they have settled for some man-made religion or spirituality. They feel they have found what they need, they are doing something to sort themselves out, and so they miss out on the salvation that the God who is really there has actually offered us to the problem that we really have.

But it’s also true in a more subtle sense within the church – amongst those of us who identify as Christian and want to follow Jesus. From the beginning of Christianity, since Jesus’ apostles and other followers first took the good news of Jesus to the world, there has been the ever-present danger of that message being corrupted. There has always been the danger of people being fed a false imitation of Christianity, or a church being led astray into a version of Christianity that is really just the surrounding cultural values and religious practices dressed up as Christianity. It’s so dangerous, because it takes the place of the real thing, whilst making us think we have the real thing. We think we’re on the right track, when we’re really headed in the opposite direction.

That’s why it’s always been vital for Christians and churches to be careful who they are influenced by.

Just like you don’t want to follow the advice of health gurus who don’t actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to diet and exercise… you don’t want to be under the influence of leaders and teachers who are feeding you a corrupt version of Christianity or who claim to know God, when that’s really not true at all.

We’re starting a new, short series in the book of Titus today. It’s a short letter from the Apostle Paul to one of his partners in mission, Titus. They had been in Crete, the Island in the Mediterranean Ocean, together, preaching the gospel, discipling men and women as followers of Jesus and forming new churches. Paul then had to move on, but as we see in chapter 1, he left Titus there to ‘finish the job’ of establishing these young churches. Paul is concerned to make sure these churches are healthy and have every chance of staying true to the gospel. In particular, he wants Titus to ensure there is good, healthy leadership of the churches, so that they are not led astray by dodgy people and end up settling for some corrupted version of Christianity that is really no Christianity at all.

But this letter isn’t just relevant to Titus 2000 years ago, and it’s not just relevant for churches looking for new pastors or leaders… it’s relevant to all of us as a reminder to pursue and protect the real deal. Paul’s letter to Titus, and Chapter 1 especially, encourages us to pursue and protect the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness, rather than being deceived by false imitations.

The Big Picture – Knowledge of the Truth that leads to Godliness

Paul opens his letter, not just with a simple greeting – “from Paul to Titus, hope you’re well” – but with some big statements about what God is doing in the world and how his preaching and ministry fits into that. This opening statement paints a picture of real Christianity and paves the way for what Paul talks about in the rest of the letter…

Sent to further the faith of God’s Elect

Paul describes himself as a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, one who’s been sent by Jesus with his authority, for a particular purpose: “to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness in the hope of eternal life.”

And here we have a wonderful, succinct statement of what it means to be a Christian. It begins with God’s gracious election. He chooses by his own mercy and grace to grant people eternal life, not because of anything we have done to deserve it. But these elect need to come to faith to receive this eternal life. They need to have knowledge of the truth about God and ourselves and what God has done for us in Christ. And when this knowledge is combined with personal faith – that these are not just ideas, but truths that will determine my personal future – then it creates the hope of eternal life. God’s elect are gripped by the life changing hope of eternal life in Christ, through his death and resurrection. And so this knowledge of the truth, combined with personal faith, leading to heart-gripping hope, leads ultimately to godliness – the life of love and purity and service that God has created and chosen and redeemed us for. God’s elect have their mindsrenewed through a knowledge of the truth – how to live in a way that is pleasing to God, and their livestransformed as the hope of eternal life inspires and energises them to live in this way. Again and again in this letter to Titus, Paul emphasises that real Christianity is built on a grasp of the truth and it is expressed in transformed living. It’s about belief and behaviour. If they are genuine, then they are inseparable.

God’s Promise, through Paul’s Preaching

And Paul says, this is what his life and ministry is all about, because this is what God is doing in the world and it’s what God is doing through him!

He goes on to explain that this hope of eternal life is something that God promised before the beginning of time, and God does not lie. This is God’s great plan for his people from the beginning. And now, in God’s perfect timing, He has brought it to light – what had been planned and promised is now being revealed. And how is God revealing it? ‘Through the preaching entrusted to me’ says Paul, ‘by the command of God our Saviour.’ It’s God’s plan to bring about the faith of the elect, their knowledge of the truth, their hope of eternal life, and godliness in their lives. He promised it, and he’s bringing it about, through the preaching entrusted to Paul.

And this is really helpful for us, not just because it reminds us that real Christianity is about knowledge of the truth AND living out that truth in personal godliness; and not just because it reminds us that our hope of eternal life is built on the eternal and unbreakable promises of God… it’s because it reminds us that we have accessto this knowledge of the truth and the hope and transformation it brings through the preaching of the Apostles, like Paul, written and passed on in the pages of the New Testament. Real Christianity – real hope and change – is built on the message given from God about Christ through his Apostles. If we want to make sure we’ve got the real deal and we’re not settling for false imitations – we keep coming back to the message of the Apostles, laid down in the Bible. Real Christianity pursues and protects knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.

Leaders that Pursue, Promote and Protect

(Verses 5-9)

After this greeting, which brings up all these big ideas, Paul gets straight to one of the main reasons he is writing to Titus. But what we’ll see is this practical concern is all about these big ideas Paul has just raised…

He explains in verse 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.”

Elders & Overseers

Who or what are ‘elders’?

Elders are men appointed to exercise spiritual care and oversight of a local church. They are responsible, under God, to promote and protect right belief within the church and also to encourage right and godly behaviour. And they are to do this primarily through teaching the truth (which also involves refuting false ideas) and setting an example of godly faith and conduct in their own life.

As we see in verse 7 of this very passage, an elder could also be described as an ‘overseer’ of God’s household. Paul writes some very similar instructions to Timothy about appointing church leaders, and there he only uses the word ‘overseer’, but he’s describing the exact same role with the same qualifications. And really, this is the only official position of pastoral leadership in the early church or the New Testament. As a Baptist church, it’s the only biblical concept of pastoral leadership that we recognise. What we typically call a ‘pastor’ is really an elder or overseer. Our church constitution describes the pastors of the church as elders or overseers of the congregations, referring precisely to passages such as Titus 1. ‘Pastor’ actually means ‘shepherd’ in the New Testament, and it’s used metaphorically as another way of describing the role of an elder or overseer – shepherding the flock of God’s church – watching over them, caring for them, chasing away wolves (that is, false teachers).

Requirements: Belief and Behaviour

And so because the responsibilities of elders or overseers revolve primarily around the belief and behaviour of the church, their qualifications are also essentially a matter of belief and behaviour.

Paul explains to Titus, or probably more reminds him,

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. 8Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.

Behaviour

You can see how everything Paul says through verses 6 to 8 are all about character and conduct. The big idea, stated twice, once for each different title, just for good measure, is the idea of being blameless: ‘An elder must be blameless…’ and ‘Since and overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless…’

Now if that meant morally perfect and completely sinless, you could imagine it would rule out pretty much everyone except Jesus. I would certainly not make the cut. But I’m not trying to keep myself in a job when I say that it’s not about being perfect. The word is getting at the idea of being ‘above reproach’, someone who doesn’t disqualify themselves through observable ungodly behaviour.

You can see this because of how Paul fleshes out the idea with his examples. Paul goes on to describe what he would expect such a ‘blameless’ man’s life to look in terms of home life and relationships with others. If he’s married and has children (as almost all suitable men would have been in this context), then he’ll be faithful to his wife – he won’t be open to the charge of adultery, or being flippant with his vows. Rather he’ll set an example of faithfulness in marriage. And he will have exercised meaningful authority and discipline over his children – they won’t be open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Where the NIV states that he should be ‘a man whose children believe’, the word ‘believe’ can also be translated as ‘faithful’ or ‘trustworthy’, and whilst the idea of showing you have nurtured faith in your own children is relevant to being a pastor, I think it makes more sense of the context to assume Paul is talking about the character of the children and the way they relate to their father. Paul’s saying, if a man’s family life is a mess, he’s probably not suitable to oversee God’s larger, more complicated family.

Then in verses 7 and 8, Paul fleshes out the idea of blamelessness in terms of observable character traits and how they relate to others. And first he describes what an elder cannot be like. Someone who is overbearing – manipulative and bullying towards others is not suitable to be an elder. They can’t be quick-tempered, flying off into abusive and snarky reactions when things don’t go their way or people offend them. They can’t be ‘given to drunkenness, or violence, or pursuing dishonest gain’.

Far from describing a ‘perfect’ person, Paul is making it very clear where the boundaries are – someone who behaves like that, who tends to get drunk or be violent or isn’t able to control their temper is just not suitable to be an elder. Such a person is hardly blameless. Their unsuitability is obvious to all who interact with them! Or it should be. Unfortunately there have been many examples of pastors who fail in all these ways. Pastors who should have never been appointed or should have been removed from office long ago, but their behaviour and characteristics have been overlooked because they are the son of the previous pastor or elder, or they get results so people turn a blind eye, or because everyone is too afraid to stand up to them, or because the church is so saturated with the worldly culture around them, they don’t even realise what’s wrong.

That’s why there needs to be a clear minimum standard. No drunk, violent, greedy, angry, overbearing pastors. That would completely undermine the role. As sad as it is, it needs to be said.

Seems like a low bar I know, but Paul goes on to describe the positive qualities you would instead expect to see in the life of an elder or overseer. “Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” Paul’s painting a picture of positive, godly character. This isn’t an exhaustive list. They’re not the only things that matter. But they describe someone who thinks and speaks and acts in a way that is honouring to God, and respectful, pure and generous toward others. It’s not just very different to the drunk, violent, greedy guy, it’s tangible evidence that the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness has taken root in this person’s life.

Belief

The final requirement Paul describes in verse 9 is all about belief. “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.”

This gets to the heart of what it means to be an elder. Clearly blameless conduct and godly character are vital and essential, but they are evidence of a deeper, more primary requirement and responsibility – personal conviction in God’s word and a commitment to keeping the church community true to this word.

Pastors need to ‘hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught’. Not making up new and clever ideas about God and how to get ahead in life. Not merely studying theology and being able to discuss philosophy and church history. Not necessarily being charismatic and inspiring. They need to hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught. As we saw earlier, that means the hope of eternal life revealed by God through the preaching of his apostles. It means holding to the message given to us in the pages of the Bible. It involves knowing what the truth is and isn’t, and helping the church be clear on what it is and isn’t. They need to encourage others by ‘sound doctrine’, which means promoting ‘knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness’ through faithfully teaching what the Bible actually says. And they need to hold firmly to the truth so they can refute those who oppose it or teach otherwise. Elders help the church stay faithful to Christ by pointing out false ideas and showing how they don’t fit with God’s revealed truth.

This is who elders are and what they do, and this is why Paul reminds Titus to make sure that each church has suitable elders appointed. It’s so that they can promote and protect the truth that leads to godliness, for the health of the church and the glory of God. Paul knows healthy leadership is vital for the church staying on track – sticking with the real deal – and not being led into a corrupted version of Christianity that ends up robbing them of their hope. And that’s exactly what Paul goes on to elaborate on next – the very real presence of people who will corrupt the faith of the church if they are not corrected and their false teaching isn’t publicly refuted.

Implications for Us

But before we consider what Paul says next, it’s helpful to just pause and consider how Paul’s instruction to Titus about elders is helpful and relevant to each of us.

What to look for

First of all, the obvious relevance is to make sure we as a church have suitable leadership and to know what to look for in pastors and leaders as we appoint them. It’s important to appreciate that it is ultimately the responsibility of the church to do this. It’s not up to some individual to decide they fit the bill and so they will be an elder, thankyou very much. It’s the responsibility of the church, based on observing a man’s life and ministry, either directly or by reliable testimony from others, to appoint elders.

Paul wrote this instruction and list of requirements not just for Titus’s benefit, but for the churches of Crete and beyond who would read and preserve the letter. Beyond Titus’ initial involvement, it was the church’s responsibility to ensure appropriate elders continued to be appointed. There’s no hint that Titus was meant to replace himself with some kind of ‘Bishop’ who would do all the appointing. Ideally, elders or someone like a Titus, perhaps from a neighbouring church or network of churches, can help with the process, but ultimately the church needs to ensure they appoint and then submit to appropriate elders.

And this passage is a helpful reminder about what’s important in church leadership. In a world that is very focused on image and results, God directs us to conviction and character. I’m not trying to make excuses for my lack of ‘image and results’ – I need to be reminded as much as the rest of us to remember what’s really important, what the role is fundamentally about. And just as it reminds us what’s important, and so implies what’s not all that important, it also tells us very clearly what to avoid like the plague. There have been some deeply disturbing reports just over the past year of Christian leaders who have bullied and manipulated and even engaged in sexual immorality. And whilst it’s a surprise to the general public, always close to the source are people who knew what was going on, but who covered it up, or turned a blind eye for ‘the greater good’. But it’s always a terrible mistake. There is no greater good when Christian leaders engage in ungodly behaviour or don’t hold to the truth. It completely undermines the very purpose of their role – promoting and protecting the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.

What to Pray for

Secondly, this passage is a good guide on what to pray for pastors and Christian leaders. I might want to see all sorts of things happen in my life and in church life, maybe good and worthwhile things. But what I really need is prayer to hold firmly to God’s truth and to live it out faithfully at home, in my marriage, with my children, and in all my relationships and responsibilities. Even though ‘blameless’ doesn’t mean perfect, it’s still easy to fall short. Honestly, it’s not an adjective I would choose for myself. We need God’s help. Pray for the spiritual health of your leaders, for the sake of your own spiritual health.

What to aim for

And finally, this passage with its list of requirements for elders should be a prompt and reminder for all of us to aim and strive to live blameless lives. God requires godly leaders of his people, because he wants godly people!

Again, it seems like it shouldn’t need to be said, but it does. God wants each of us to be faithful in marriage or faithfully celibate in singleness. He wants us to work hard at discipline in our homes. It’s not ok for Christians to get drunk, to be violent, to greedily chase after money, or to flare up at people in anger or selfishly manipulate others. He wants to see us showing generous hospitality, loving what is good, showing self-control, living upright, holy and disciplined lives. God’s gracious plan is to bring his people to transforming faith – to a personal knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness, built on the hope of eternal life. Our lives, our behaviour, flow from our convictions, and they matter to God. This is real Christianity. Pursue it and protect it in your life and for those around you. Don’t fall for false imitations.

Beware of the danger of corrupt Christianity

And that brings us back to the final section of Titus Chapter 1, where Paul goes on to elaborate on why healthy leadership is so important – it’s because there really is an ever present danger of people corrupting the faith through ignorance or arrogance.

After stating that an elder must hold firmly to the truth so he can encourage and also refute those who oppose it, Paul explains,

10 For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. 11 They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain.

Paul was aware of people who were leading whole households astray through false teaching, and they needed to be silenced. The church needed to know what was true and what wasn’t. The knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness needed to be protected. Because these people were profoundly misguided, and there was no hope down the path of their influence.

The Religious Influence

And from what Paul says here about the problem in Crete, we can see two main themes. Firstly there’s a religious, particularly Jewish, element. He names the ‘circumcision group’, which is a common label for people who’ve kind of half-way converted from Judaism to Christianity, and end up mostly trying to turn Christians into Jews. Paul wants these people rebuked so that they won’t ‘pay attention to Jewish myths or the merely human commands of those who reject the truth’. These are people who ‘claim to know God’ – they’re not telling people to forget about God, they are saying they know God and know what God wants from us. But, Paul explains, ‘by their actions they deny him’. They don’t have knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness. Quite the opposite.

And Paul’s point in verse 15 is that their religion is worthless – it achieves nothing. “To the pure, all things are pure,” he explains. If we have purity through faith in Christ, all things are pure. We have what religion promises us. “But,” he goes on, “to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.” The religious ideas and practices – the myths and human commands that promise purity are the very things that take them away from Christ and rob them of any real purity or knowledge of God.

So one danger was this religious influence – people corrupting true Christianity by meshing it together with old religious beliefs and rituals that actually undermined the gospel of Jesus.

The Cultural Influence

And then there was also a broader cultural issue. In verse 12, Paul quotes a Cretan poet (or prophet) who wrote (about his own people!) that ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ And Paul is happy to agree. Seems like a bad strategy for getting the Cretan church on side… But I think Paul’s point, as he says in many places, is that when we come to Christ, we leave behind an ungodly way of life. We are called to live differently, and there will be and should be some stark points of contrast with the surrounding culture. We are in one sense part of this culture, but also not part of it. The church needs to be wary of just absorbing and reflecting the cultural values and norms that it is surrounded by.

There’s a great quote about church and culture, that describes the church as a boat and the surrounding culture as the sea we are floating on: “The boat is in the sea, but woe to us if the sea gets into the boat!” We are in the world; we are called to live and witness as part of the world. But God has granted us knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness! We’re meant to be different. If we just soak up our culture and look the same, we’re sunk. The boat has nothing to offer anymore.

Beware of Corrupting Influences

Whether it’s religious ideas and rituals that are mixed up in our cultural background, or the values and norms of the ‘secular culture’ we are part of, we need to be wary of the sea getting into the boat. We need to be careful that our faith is not corrupted – that we are not led astray into a corrupt version of Christianity, a false imitation. Whether it’s ideas and practices that lead us away from trusting in Christ as our salvation, or values and ways of behaving that deny God in our lives… you don’t want to go there.

Pursue and Protect

As individuals and as a church community, we want to pursue and protect the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness. Know what God wants for you, pursue it and protect in your life and for others around you. Be careful and thoughtful who and what you are influenced by. And do what you can now and in the future to ensure the church has healthy leadership – for all our sake.