Titus 1:5-9 (part one)

We continue in our series in Titus, which began yesterday. Having given a preview of what the letter will be about (what it means to be a faithful, godly servant of God our true saviour) Paul begins by telling Titus his main reason for writing: to authorise him to appoint faithful, godly servants of God as elders in Crete. Although the letter is addressed to Titus, it’s clearly intended to be “overheard” by the entire community of believers in Crete, giving Titus a mandate to do what Paul is instructing here. Read it now:

Titus 1:5-9 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.

As you read that, did you hear a metallic, scraping sound? That was the sound of the top of a can of worms being slowly peeled back. Let’s try to sort out at least some of those slimy critters now (form a line, fellas):

I say “fellas” because the first worm is male, just like the elders in this letter, which makes perfect sense in world in which, for the most part, only males were seen as leadership material. Does it still hold in our world, today? I don’t think so,* but that’s part of a much broader debate in which the gender of the elders in Titus 1 is not a key battleground. I’ll leave the gender of elders today to that wider debate.

The next is a worm in Baptist circles, because Titus is told to appoint them – rather than some kind of democratic vote. The fact is, there was a variety of ways in which the early Church decided on their leaders (e.g. group choice in Acts 6:1-6; the Holy Spirit in Acts 13:2; and even the casting of lots in Acts 1:26). Having godly leaders is a consistent pattern; the way they are selected varies. I think that means there’s some freedom in the “how.”

The blamelessness of an elder is hardly contentious. It also seems to be an adoption of the synagogue practice of appointing elders who, by general consensus, were morally upright and led by example. Sometimes, I think, churches need a reminder of this. They look too quickly to the skill set someone brings, rather than their godly character. That’s why, just to give one example, Bill Hybels talks about “character first” when appointing leaders (Hybels, Courageous Leadership, p.81) before looking at “competence” at the job and “chemistry” with the rest of the team. Notice how all the items on Paul’s list of qualifications are to do with character (other than, perhaps, an ability to engage in argument and rhetoric, implied in verse 9). Update: OK, so this was written in 2017. It hasn’t aged well, has it?

Another worm rears its ugly head (or it could be the other end, you can never tell with worms) in the phrase faithful to his wife, which may surprise you at first, particularly given the NIV translation. We don’t want elders who are unfaithful spouses! Older translations had “the husband of one wife” (e.g. KJV), which led people to argue that elders must be married. (As far as we know, this would have ruled out Paul himself.) Others see this as excluding those who (through bereavement or divorce) have been married more than once. This may be the case, as in some circles in the first century it was considered virtuous to remain unmarried if your spouse died. (This was more applied to women than to men, an example of the usual double standards.) But elsewhere Paul explicitly encourages younger widows to remarry (1 Cor 7) so this is unlikely, unless he wants to hold elders to a “higher” standard, perhaps testifying by their one marriage to the permanent union of Christ and his people (Quinn, The Letter to Titus, p.87). But I think the most literal translation yields also the most plausible interpretation: “a one-woman man.” This isn’t primarily to rule out polygamy, which wasn’t widely practised in Graeco-Roman culture, but someone who is sexually faithful in marriage – ruling out, in particular, the sexual double-standards of the day which often turned a blind eye to the extramarital activities of the male heads of households. And with that we’ve come full circle, and can see that the NIV translation, “faithful to his wife,” is probably what the text means!

There are more worms begging for attention, but they’ll have to wait until tomorrow. For now, think about how your church appoints/decides/votes on its leaders: is it yielding elders with the kind of character Paul speaks of in Titus?

* If your response is “but it says they are men in the inspired text, so elders are men” then you’d better make sure all the women in your church have some kind of head covering (1 Cor 11) in order to be consistent in your approach to applying Scripture. In reality, almost everyone agrees that we need to take cultural practices into account when interpreting Scripture; the issue here is (in simplistic terms) whether the principle of male leadership is cultural or timeless. There are good arguments, in my opinion, on both sides of the debate, although on balance I come down on the “cultural” side. But my rationale is for another time…

On another note, I should point out that yes, I know earthworms are hermaphrodites.

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