In his letter to Titus, Paul described qualifications for church elders that are both positive (characteristics they must have) and negative (characteristics that must not be true of them). As Alistair Begg notes, though, the most foundational element of effective church leadership is wholehearted commitment to biblical truth. Men who hold firmly to God’s Word are quick to refute false teaching, thereby protecting God’s flock from wolves and ensuring that sound doctrine is transferred to future generations.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn to Paul’s letter to Titus and to chapter 1. I think we now know that you can find this in the church Bibles on page 989. Verse 5:
“This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 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.
“For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they[’re] upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach. One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, [and] lazy gluttons.’ [And] this testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.”
Father, help us now, as the evening is upon us and the day has spent. It’s run its course, and many of us are finding our thoughts turning to the challenges and responsibilities of the day that lies ahead. And we acknowledge this, and we pray for your help to be able to think and to respond to your Word by the power of your Holy Spirit. And we pray in the name of your Son. Amen.
Well, this morning we noted the fact that Paul’s very clear directive to Titus in seeking to establish effective and proper leadership in the local church by way of the setting aside of elders focused immediately on the issues of marriage and family life. And we made the observation that that makes perfect sense, because marriage and family life provide the most probing test of a man’s character and beliefs. And at the same time, he is able to argue from the ordering of a man’s family, his marriage, and his children to that individual’s ability in turn to manage the household of faith, the family of God. We tried this morning to stand far enough back from the text so as not to make application of it in a way that was both wooden and unrealistic, but not so far back from it as to denude it in any way of its most striking and telling and obviously challenging commands.
I was reflecting afterwards on something that I had noted a while ago from the Earl of Rochester. I’ve forgotten his name; I think his name was Wilmot or Wilmer. Anyway, he was the Earl of Rochester. His life was a shambles. But before he was married, he had, as a result of some thinking he’d been doing, written a small book to which he had given the title Seven Definitive Rules for Childrearing. He then was married, and they had their first child. He then changed the title to Seven Rules for Childrearing. By the time his wife had produced three or four children, the book was now going to be called Seven Suggestions for Bringing Up Children. And after they had half a dozen, it became The Problems of Parenting, and then finally Help Me, I’m Drowning.
But we recognize, as we said this morning, that the directive concerning the eldership is “above reproach”—unimpeachable—but not faultless and not flawless. And in verse 7, as he begins to articulate something of what it means for an overseer as the steward or the manager of God’s household to live above reproach, he then gives us, as we began to look at them, five must-nots and six musts. We’re not going to delay on them, but we should note them. There’s no real way to get around them except just to at least acknowledge them, as we must.
And we were immediately confronted by the must-not of arrogance or pride: “He must not be arrogant.” And we acknowledged the peculiar challenges that attach to individuals who are put in positions of leadership and responsibility. If one is not careful, it becomes the very occasion of arrogance and pride, which is not to be a feature of the elder.
Nor, secondly, is there to be toleration for quick-temperedness. And this, of course, is another great challenge, isn’t it? Because when you lead people and you want to see things happen in a certain way, it’s very possible that, in losing patience with the ability of the individual to get in line, to understand, to fit in, and so on, that instead of responding as Jesus, the Chief Shepherd, responded and acted, we respond in a way that is a product not of any kind of righteous anger but is a product of selfishness. And we know from James’s writing that man’s anger is a hindrance to the work of God. The anger of man is a hindrance to the work of God. And no matter how we may try and justify our hasty outbursts, they are not to be part and parcel of the stamp, if you like, of leadership. That is not to say that the elder never loses his temper. But it is to say that the loss of temper is not to be a feature, a regular occurrence, an expression of the character of that individual.
So, no to pride, no to temper, and thirdly, no to drunkenness. No to drunkenness: “He must[n’t] be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard.” Now, we’re not going to delay on this question; we can come back to it another time. But it is a call to sobriety. It is a call to stability. It is not actually a call to total abstention. And John Stott always has a wonderful sentence, and his little sentence here simply reads as follows: “Not all are total abstainers; but all are called to temperance and moderation.” “Not all” will be “total abstainers, but all are called to temperance and moderation.” In other words, it is a further indication of a life lived under the control of nothing other than the power of God’s Spirit within. We come to that on the flip side in a moment or two.
Fourthly, no to greediness. No to greed—or “greedy for gain.” What does it mean? Simply, the individual may be tempted to use the position as a means of unfair financial advantage. And leadership confronts that possibility, doesn’t it? And indeed, some of the people that he’s going to have to urge Titus to ensure they are silenced, part of their problem doesn’t simply lie in their insubordination but lies in the fact that their motivation apparently has to do with lining their own pockets.
And so it’s very straightforward. It’s not hard to understand. These are the five must-nots: “must not be arrogant … quick-tempered … drunkard … violent or greedy for gain.” I missed “violent.” That was my bad. I didn’t mean to. I hope you won’t come up and punch me on the nose because I did. Because that’s what it actually means. The word there in Greek means “pugnacious.” It means a brawler or a striker. A striker. That is with an i.
It’s very interesting, isn’t it, when you think about the directives that are given to the elders. There’s nothing extraneous about this. This is vital for Titus setting things in order. And he says, “When you’re gonna lay hands on these men, make sure that you don’t have a bunch of drunks—proud drunks that are always fighting each other and punching people on the nose at the end of the services.” That’s what he’s saying. So you can imagine the kind of material that he was dealing with. Not a nice group like this.
We heard not so long ago of a fellow in Scotland who, at the end of the service, the pastor was confronted by one of the elders, who bopped him right on the nose. He obviously felt it was important for him to receive a little corrective surgery, and that was it. But I think he violated his role as an elder, don’t you? He was pugilistic. He was violent. It’s no good.
Well, let’s go to the other side, to the six virtues. If these things are not to be present, what is to be present?
Well, first of all, “hospitable.” “Hospitable.” Showing hospitality to one another. Remember, Peter says, “Show hospitality to one another,” and then he adds, “without grumbling.” “Without grumbling.” That’s the real kicker, isn’t it? That little “without grumbling.” There’s people who say, “Well, I invited Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So over.” “Oh, you did not, did you?” That’s the grumbling part coming in. Or they accept your invitation that you never really extended to them in the first place, and then you moan all the way home, “I thought they would say no. They said yes.” So what are you doing? You’re showing hospitality, but not really. It’s not heart-level hospitality. It’s the hospitality of Job, who says, “I have opened my doors to the traveler.” “I have opened my doors to the traveler.” Some of us are probably going to have to open our doors to some of these pastoral travelers that are coming in for the conference.
Secondly, “a lover of good.” “A lover of good.” It’s a simple and obvious phrase, isn’t it? He loves good things. If the people of God are going to be zealous for good works—and we’ll see that in chapter 2—then it is absolutely, fundamentally important that those who lead the people of God, the elders, are themselves philagathos: phileo, the verb “to love”; agathos, the word for “expressive goodness.”
Thirdly, “self-controlled.” “Self-controlled.” In other words, these elders need to be of sound judgment. They need to be those who are able to think sensibly. They are able to discuss with reasonableness and without contention.
And fourthly, they are to be individuals who are “upright.” “Upright.” It’s an interesting word, isn’t it? Again, Job says, “I put on righteousness, and it clothed me.” In other words, the righteousness that is to mark these elders is both an objective righteousness, which is provided in the Lord Jesus Christ, but also a subjective righteousness, which is the righteousness that is expressed in asking constantly the question not only “What is good that I must love?” but “What is right that I must do?” so that the basic question in decision-making—one of the first if not the first question—must inevitably be “What is the right thing to do?” Not “What is the expedient thing to do; what meets with the approval of most?” but “What is the right thing to do?” And it’s going to take upright citizens to be asking and addressing things in the right way.
“Holy” is number five. “Holy.” If “upright” concerns our dealings with one another, then “holy” is representative of the man’s dealings with God. It’s kind of unusual. It’s largely regarded as a sort of strange thing to say, that Mr. So-and-So is a holy man. I think probably holiness is used almost as a figure of fun now. Holy has gone the way of piety. If someone is described as being pious, usually we’re using it as an expression of dismissing the person, as if somehow or another they are living in another realm that is entirely disengaged from the real world and so on. But Paul has no problem with this word, and we ought not to have a problem with it either. It would be lovely, wouldn’t it, if at least by the time we reached the end of our earthly journey, our children and our grandchildren would be able to say, “He was upright in his dealings with others, and he was reverent in his approach to God.”
And sixthly, “disciplined.” “Disciplined.” It just sits there, doesn’t it? “Disciplined.” Without stability, without self-control, the elder is an easy prey for the enemy. In fact, Proverbs tell us that, doesn’t it? “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” “A man without [control] is like a city broken into and left without walls,” so that the discipline of life, as it relates to all of life—and there is really no area that we would seek to gain an exemption from, is there?—is to be one of the hallmarks of those who are in leadership amongst God’s people.
So whether it is in what we put into our bodies by way of eating and drinking, we’re to be marked by discipline. Whether it is in the use of the twenty-four hours that are allotted to us in every day—when we agree to meet with people, when we say we will meet with them, when we tell them that our time will conclude. The people say, “Well, you can pretty well set your watch by him, because he is disciplined.” If it comes to the issues of exercise and the care for our bodily frame—discipline once again. It’s quite a challenge, isn’t it? It’s a dreadful challenge, actually. But there it is, and it’s before us in the Bible.
And this same blamelessness, this above-reproachableness that is marked by these eleven characteristics, is also to be there in terms of the understanding and the commitment to orthodox biblical truth. That’s verse 9. This same individual is the individual who “must hold firm[ly] to the trustworthy word as taught,” the apostolic teaching to which Paul refers, which we mentioned last time. He refers to it here as “the trustworthy word” as it has been taught. When you read the other pastorals, 1 and 2 Timothy, he refers to it there as “the faith.” Actually, he does that in verse 14 here as well—or “the truth” in verse 14. He refers to it in 2 Timothy as “the good deposit,” “the faith,” “the trustworthy word.” That which is now ours in the New Testament, that which is entirely reliable, is to be the framework, the guiding light, and the source of authority for the exercise of leadership in the local church.
So Titus, then, is being urged here to ensure that those who are appointed as elders in Crete are those who hold firmly to this trustworthy word and those who actually hold it firmly. They hold it firmly, and they hold firmly to it. When Paul writes to the Thessalonians in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, he’s reinforcing this truth when he says, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” “Hold fast to these things. You have been taught them by us.”
So what we’re being told here is that the leadership in the church are to be men of strong conviction who are able to give the instruction that is sound. You will notice that in the balance of verse 9: who are “able to give instruction in sound doctrine.” That word “sound” simply means healthy. And many of you will have grown up in churches, as I have done, where soundness was a routine word that buzzed around. And certainly, I have always known this designation or description as whether somebody was sound or he wasn’t sound.
I think the funniest illustration I had of it in my own life was years ago, back in the early ’80s, when I went to—it actually may have been a little earlier than that—when I went to Londonderry in Northern Ireland to speak at the Londonderry Young People’s Convention. At that time, the Londonderry Young People’s Convention was under the leadership of a man who was somewhere in his middle seventies: a little man, a single man, never-been-married man, a bank-manager-now-retired man, a man who wore a tweed jacket and a tie—I think also always, even in his bed—and just a fascinating little man. I totally loved T. S. Mooney. You know; I’ve told you of T. S. Mooney, the pastor’s man, and he prayed for me consistently until he died.
But T. S. invited me to this event. I stayed with him in his home, and we traveled together to the event in a Methodist church somewhere in Londonderry. It was a hot, sweaty church, I remember. And we would have a little time of preparation and prayer, and every night he would come in, and he would pray in his Northern Ireland brogue, and “Lord, bless Alistair and keep him and use him and…” He used all the stuff, you know?
And then I got up to preach, and he fell asleep! I mean, he didn’t just like doze off. He was in, like, the third stages of anesthesia. He was gone! And it troubled me on the Monday, it troubled me on the Tuesday, and by Wednesday, I couldn’t resist it. I’m not making this up. This happened like clockwork. It was like he went off; he set his alarm and went off. And we were driving home, and I said to him, “T. S., I have to ask you something.” He said, “What’s that?” I said, “Well, every night, we do the prayer time, and you say these prayers: ‘Help Alistair and make him, you know—help him to do his business and so on.’” And I said, “I’m not preaching five minutes, and you’ve gone to sleep. Every night this week you’ve gone to sleep.” And he was sitting in the car beside me, and he looked across at me, and he said, “Well, it’s just like this. This is what I do. I just stay awake for the first five minutes to make sure you’re sound. And once I know you’re sound, then I go off to sleep.”
Well, I totally loved him for his honesty. And I knew exactly what he meant, and I hope you’ve got an inkling of it now as well. The elders are to “give instruction in sound doctrine.” In other words, they’re able to identify what it is, and they’re able also to identify what it’s not—what it is and what it isn’t.
I used a facile illustration of this in England a few weeks ago when I said we teach our children and our grandchildren to distinguish between cows and horses. Because, I said, “We do not want our children, our grandchildren, trying to milk horses and ride cows.” Well, I shouldn’t have said that, because a fellow came up to me immediately afterwards and said, “I have to talk to you about something in your address.” I said, “What is that?” He said, “You said we’re not supposed to milk horses.” I said, “Yeah, that’s right.” He said, “Well, people do milk horses.” I said, “Oh, where do they milk horses?” He said, “In Outer Mongolia.” I said, “What do you know about Outer Mongolia?” He said, “I’ve been living there for the last forty years.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll drop that illustration directly from my talk.” But since I haven’t come up with another one yet… You can imagine, because I haven’t, in the Chagrin Valley, seen a lot of horse milking going on. And I still think it is important that my grandchildren will be able to distinguish between what a cow is and what a cow is not, what a horse is and what a horse is not. And it is imperative that we understand when it isn’t there.
People ask me all the time about radio preachers, “Well, what is it about Mr. So-and-So? What is it about that guy on the TV? Where does the problem lie?” And in many cases, the problem lies not in what is being said but in what is not being said—in the things that are now exempted, the things that are left out. The elders of the church have to be able to identify when error exists in silence, when something that needs to be declared is left undeclared, either as a result of someone misunderstanding or as a result of somebody who flat out does not believe that.
And the vital importance of the leadership of the church getting to grips with that may be seen if you simply project ten and twenty years out from tonight and imagine that twenty years out from tonight, there is an evening service gathered here in the church, that other generations have now been raised up; others are now here with their children—the absolute crucial necessity of ensuring that the same message of “the truth,” “the trustworthy message,” “the faith” that is held to firmly by the existing eldership of this church is then transferred effectively into the hearts and minds of those who will be raised in turn to positions of leadership so that the work of the gospel may continue.
Elders who are uncertain or who are half-hearted about biblical truth—elders who are uncertain or half-hearted about biblical truth—can never protect the flock of God from wolves, can never guide the flock into better pasture. And that is why the requirements, the qualifications, the natural hesitancy on the part of each of us to ever be put in the position of leadership is all interwoven when we turn to the New Testament.
Elders are not appointed on the basis of business acumen, are not appointed on the basis of intellectual capacity, are not appointed on the strength of their forcefulness in various areas of life but are to be appointed because, as fearful as they may be to assume the role, God has called and equipped them to give leadership in such a way that the work that they do will be a joy and not a burden. And you only need a very slight understanding of church history to know that churches like this church, that once stood for sound doctrine, are now nowhere theologically. Nowhere theologically. And I guarantee you that you can trace the rot to this source: leadership that should never have been appointed—or, when it lost its way, having been appointed, should have been removed, because the issues at stake were of such lasting significance.
What this ought to make us do—and we’ll finish here, because he then goes on to explain why this is so crucial, and we’ll leave that for next time—but what it ought to do is to reinforce again for us the importance of praying for one another, and particularly praying for those who have been prepared to submit themselves to the responsibility of leadership in the local church.
Well, we’ll pause and pray at this point:
O God our Father, we thank you that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Great Shepherd of the sheep, that he is the one who prayed consistently to you; he is the one that gave himself unstintingly to your will; he is the one who, when he was reviled, did not revile in return; he is the one who was hospitable to those who were least and left out. Jesus is the ultimate elder. Jesus is the supreme pastor. And so it is good and right for us to remember him as we come around his table, lest we forget all of his beauty, all of his sacrificial life and death, all of his triumph, and all of his glory. Turn our gaze in the right direction as we move to these closing elements of our time together tonight. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
 See James 1:20.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus: Guard the Truth, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1996), 177.
 1 Peter 4:9 (ESV).
 Job 31:32 (ESV).
 Job 29:14 (ESV).
 Proverbs 25:28 (ESV).
 See 1 Timothy 3:9, 13; 4:6; 5:8; 6:10, 21; 2 Timothy 3:8; 4:7 (ESV).
 2 Timothy 1:14 (ESV).
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.