Practical Issues of Pastoral Ministry — Part One
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Practical Issues of Pastoral Ministry — Part One

Titus 3:1–11  (ID: 2333)

What marks an effective pastoral ministry? The book of Titus emphasizes teaching that is grounded in Scripture and living that commends the Gospel to a dying world. Such devotion allows no room for foolish controversy among God’s people, who are set apart and established for His service. Alistair Begg urges pastors to remain fixed on God’s mercy toward all as they lead with a heart for the lost.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 4

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23004

Basics 2003

Men of the Word Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23503

Sermon Transcript: Print

Titus and chapter 3—I’d like you to turn to it, if you would. And as you follow along, I’ll read these first eleven verses for us here:

“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward[s] all men.

“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.

“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”


Now, I was reading there from the NIV, unlike our brother last evening who was translating directly from the Hebrew. I think some of you may have picked that up. It’s quite impressive, wasn’t it? Well, it was impressive to me, anyway. I have a bad enough time reading the English, let alone reading the rest. It was always a great peril when we did that in class as we read the Greek New Testament and did the translation. I always tried to sit next to somebody who was particularly bright, which in my case was really, sit next to anybody. And they always helped me through, and I’ve struggled on with the English ever since.

But anyway, my brief today is to tackle a couple of areas of practical pastoral ministry. That’s what it says in the outline, at least. We put that in because I hadn’t a clue what I was going to do. And frankly, I’m not sure even now. But anyway, it’s before us as a challenge—a challenge for me and perhaps an even greater challenge for you.

But I was struck by something in the last two weeks that I couldn’t shake off. And it turned me again and again to the Pastoral Epistles and particularly to the emphasis on avoidance and the avoidance of controversy. And I was going to deal with that expressly, and then I thought, “No, it might be too narrow.” And so I thought that what I would do is endeavor to walk through these eleven verses without dillydallying at any point at all.

I might begin by saying that I admire people who have orderly garages—or garages, whatever you want to call them. But I admire it when the door goes up and you pull in, you have this feeling of just awe and wonder, because it’s all really nice. I don’t know if you know anyone like that. I have a couple of friends like that; you could eat food off their garage floor, quite literally. And actually, I don’t think I admire them; I think I envy them. Actually, I don’t think I envy them; I think I resent them. Yes, I resent them.

Every pastoral ministry should be a teaching ministry.

And so, on an annual basis, my wife instructs me in the exercises of cleanliness as it relates to the garage, and we go through this time-consuming, sweat-producing—producing a form of orderliness and denying the power thereof—an exercise which in the end proves absolutely futile. I’ve done it now for a number of years; you are instructed, you take everything out, and then you put everything back. You may move it around just a wee bit, but by and large, nothing has changed. And then you say, “Well, until next year, when we can do the same thing again.”

Now, I mention that because I think it’s a fitting metaphor for the daunting challenge of pastoral ministry. Anybody like to stand up and say that they’ve got it all orderly and put together? Anyone want to stand up and tell us just exactly how it is—that given that, in terms of the nature of the beast, we’re building with bananas rather than beautiful linear blocks of material—that any of us have actually managed to finally, after a period of time, just lay it all out, and then we can invite people to come in and to see the orderly nature of all that has happened. None of us are prepared to stand and say such a thing. It would be foolishness, and it certainly would not be true. Because the nature of pastoral ministry is—by dint of what we understand in the Bible and also what we know by experience—it is a task that is never finished.  And just when you think that you’ve propped enough things up against the wall to stabilize this shelf, something rocks and rolls and knocks it down—if not at the end that you had stabilized, at the other end that you thought was there and was in perfect condition. Just when you have tackled an issue that has been pressing on the minds of the leadership over a period of time, something immediately arises elsewhere.

Now, we ought not to be unduly daunted by this, because it is clear—again, as I say—from the reading of the Bible that this was the experience, certainly as it’s outlined in the Pastoral Epistles. And here in Titus—and many of you know this book well from your own study—you will remember that the express responsibility that was given to Titus in 1:5—and we need be in no doubt about this, because he states it very succinctly—“The reason,” says Paul, “I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished.” “Straighten out what was left unfinished.” In other words, “There is unfinished business here, and you need to get at the business of it. And that’s why I’ve left you there.”

Some of us may have been given the privilege and responsibility of pioneering a work, but most of us have followed on from others, and others will follow on from us. And no matter how particularly good an opportunity may look on the outside, no matter how others may speak of it, when you go into any church, to any local congregation, you discover very quickly that there is a tangled mass of material that is hidden behind the credenza or whatever else it is. You know, there may be books all along the shelf, but if ever you try and plug your laptop in and go down behind the desk, you find old pizza boxes and wires that go to places that apparently have no destination to them at all. And you pick up this mass of material, and that as itself serves as a metaphor again for the great challenge that is now before you to straighten out what remains unfinished.

Now, Titus is absolutely jam-packed, then, with practical information about how to do this: to deal with the routine problems in any local congregation—certainly in a developing church.  And I want to draw my thoughts under three headings, which are all in the text this morning. And they are, first of all, the opening phrase in verse 3, “remind the people”; and then, secondly, the phrase which comes in verse 8, “stress these things”; and then, finally, in verse 9, “avoid foolish controversies.” So, “remind the people,” “stress these things,” and “avoid foolish controversies.”

“Remind the People”

First of all, then, “remind the people.” This is a teaching ministry that Titus has been given. Every pastoral ministry should be a teaching ministry . If you doubt that, you only need to allow your eye to scan chapter 2. The verb comes again and again. “You must teach,” in 2:1; and then, “Teach the older women”;[1] and then, “Encourage the young men”;[2] and then, “Teach [the] slaves”;[3] and in verse 15, “These, then, are the things you should teach.”

Now, you’ll notice as well that Titus, along with every believer, is himself the recipient of instruction: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. [And] it teaches us.”[4] So taught by grace, we then exercise a teaching ministry.  And indeed, if we’re not taught by grace ourselves, then we have no right at all to be exercising any kind of ministry, certainly not one that is seeking to teach others the truth of God’s Word.

Now, what is he to do? Well, he is to “remind the people,” and he is to remind the people, particularly, if we might summarize it in a phrase, to behave themselves—remind the people to behave themselves. And the whole emphasis here in chapter 3 is actually not upon belief, but it’s on behavior. There is belief which undergirds his exhortations, but in terms of the practicalities of how this congregation is supposed to live and operate within their environment, it is going to be in their behavior that the reality of the gospel message is going to become apparent—certainly if Titus does the job that he’s been responsible to do, as outlined in 1:5.

The congregation that he has under his care need to know that if they’re going to be set aside as naive or even as weird, that will be actually okay, but they must not then be discredited or dismissed in the community for being bad, intolerant, rebellious, disrespectful. Bad, intolerant, rebellious, disrespectful. There is something, isn’t there, about evangelical Christianity that tends to the side of bad, intolerant, rebellious, disrespectful, controversial? It all stems, as I think we’ll see this morning, when we attempt to avoid what we shouldn’t and when we avoid what we are called to attempt. 

Crete was under the control of pagan authorities, with everything that goes along with that. The political context in which these believers were living was a difficult one. And therefore, Titus, if he is going to see this congregation established in the community, if there’s going to be the practical outworking of the gospel, then certain things are going to have to be true of his little church. And these are the things that are to be true of every little church—that the community that is under the tutelage of God’s Word should be marked by these things. I don’t want to belabor them; I simply want to point them out.

“Remind the people,” number one, “to be subject to rulers and authorities.” In other words, remind them to uphold the rule of law. Remind them to uphold the rule of law. Of all people, Christians should understand this, after all, because God has established the rule of law. That’s the whole import of Romans 13, as well as 1 Peter chapter 3. There’s to be no anarchic element within the framework of the congregation that Titus is pastoring. And the very prevalence on the part of some to immediately go to the illustrations from the early chapters of Acts where, you know, Peter and John said, “You judge whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey God rather than man,”[5] and so on—the reason that we go so very quickly to that is because we’re such a recalcitrant group of people most of the time. And we’re using that as a proof text to try and justify actions and reactions which, when placed under the scrutiny of God’s Word, do not pass muster.

Secondly, they are to be eager people in rendering service, “ready to do whatever is good.” In other words, they’re to be do-gooders. Now, for all of my life, I’ve been raised with the notion that a do-gooder is a bad person. It’s a strange paradox, isn’t it? All the way through the journey of life in Glasgow and then on through there, even into the contemporary world in America, I hear people, usually within the evangelical community, condemning people for being do-gooders: “Oh, they’re just a bunch of do-gooders.” Is there something wrong with doing good? “Oh no, you don’t understand; it’s a theological issue.” I do understand. I do understand. And the very fact that others who do not share our theological presuppositions and convictions would be able to lead us by the nose in terms of the framework of life is an indictment on us rather than an indictment on them.

How good is your congregation? Do you have a good congregation? It’s one of the tests of whether the gospel is taking root. Not that we are producing people with fat heads and big notebooks, walking around with large Thompson Chain-Reference Bibles, hammering people on the back of the head with them and explaining how much they’ve learned recently. Tadpole Christians: huge, big heads and tiny little bodies. You imagine them going out into the stream of life, every Sunday … big heads, tiny little bodies. How much good are they doing, just banging their big heads around out there? Eager to render service.

Thirdly, the congregation is to be distanced from insulting and abusive language—distanced from insulting and abusive language. “Your people,” he says to Titus, “make sure they’re slandering nobody.” Slandering nobody. They’re not slandering their wives, they’re not slandering Bill Clinton, they’re not slandering their schoolteacher, they’re not slandering the local magistrate. They are just not the kind of people who are marked by insulting and abusive language.

Now, you think about this, in terms of making the gospel attractive. How do we expect our congregations to gain an edge in the community? By their ability to convey systematic theology in a very erudite fashion, to a community that believes that God is whatever you choose for him to be? Or are they going to gain an edge, gain a hearing, open up the corner of a possibility, as a result of the distinctive nature of the way in which the gospel has unleashed itself within their hearts and lives?

Also, that these individuals are “to be peaceable,” amachous—not fighters, not pugilists, not always looking for a rumble, not always sniffing out theological heresy, not always charging around doing theological nitpicking, like monkeys at a zoo picking each other and looking for bits and pieces that they can hold up and show to the people who are coming by to look at them in the zoo. No, not like that at all, but peaceable folks, filled with a spirit of consideration, sweet reasonableness. A reasonableness, particularly, towards the fallen. A reasonableness, particularly, towards those who have adopted a lifestyle that is so contrary to the law and purposes of God. A consideration that doesn’t make light of sin but recognizes that the only thing that separates the believer from the unbeliever is the grace of God—which, of course, did not come about as a result of them calling a 1-800 number or graduating at the top of their class, but came about as a result of the great mystery of God’s work within their lives.

And so, humility. A true humility towards all men. The kind of humility that is patient in bearing wrong and that is eager in doing right. And not a selective humility for our own little group, for the little company in which we like to move, for our own little zone where we have decided that these are the people that we are prepared to be considerate towards and make sure we don’t slander, but, of course, anybody who steps out of this little group, they’re fair game, and we can fire from the ramparts at these creatures any day we want. “No, no,” he says, “Titus, don’t let your congregation think that for a moment. Make sure that they are showing true humility towards all men. Because after all,” he says—verse 3, arguing if you like from his own personal experience and from the reality of the truth as he’s found it—he says, “the only thing you need to do if you find you’re getting on the wrong side of this is to remember what you were”—“remember what you were.”

“You see, we used to be foolish”—anoetos. Like 1 Corinthians 2:14: “Those who do not have the Spirit of God, they can’t make sense of anything at all;[6] we were once like that. We also were once disobedient; we listened to no one. We didn’t listen to our conscience, we didn’t listen to our mums and dads, we didn’t listen to anybody who had anything sensible to say. That’s what we were like,” he says. “We were deceived. We were enslaved. All kinds of passions flowed through us; pleasures consumed us. We lived in malice and in envy; we hated people, and people hated us. And the only hope that we had is in the gospel.”

Now, as we move on from here, let me just say this: if we do not live in a way that commends the gospel, we may feel ourselves to be doing a great job in exposing the fact that people are in the wrong and establishing the fact that we are in the right. But that’s more of the spirit of the Pharisee, isn’t it? “I thank you that I am not like other men, especially not like these people here,[7] who are acting in this way and doing these things.” The spirit of the Pharisee is an ugly member of too many of our congregations, and most of it starts from ourselves. As it goes with us, so it goes with our congregation. If we have a heart for lost people, they will. If we have a spirit of censoriousness, they largely will, unless they dump us—which, in that case, they ought. “I thank you that I’m not like other men.” What does that have to say about the grace of God? No, we need to begin every day in the spirit of the publican: we would not barely lift our eyes to heaven to acknowledge, “God, be merciful to me; I’m the sinner. I’m the sinner.”[8] I loved that last night, didn’t you? The pastor’s heart: desperately wicked. It was such a helpful insight; the whole thing was tremendously helpful. If we take ourselves too seriously at any point in our lives, we’re done; we really are done. That’s why we need our wives, we need our children, we need a couple of good friends.  

Whenever the spirit of the Pharisee invades a congregation, they have forgotten that all they are and all they have and all they may offer is as a result of the grace of God.

Bernard Weatherill was for a time the Speaker in the House of Commons in London. If you ever want to watch that, it’s C-SPAN at 9:00 eastern time on a Sunday evening, and you can watch all the baying and the nonsense from the House of Commons, and the poor soul who sits up in the seat who’s really got no control over anything at all, but every so often he shouts out, “Order! Order!” And nobody really pays any attention, but it justifies his existence. He gets to live in a lovely house, he meets heads of state, he moves around on a daily basis underneath some of the finest paintings that the Western world has ever seen, and so it goes. It elevates the individual, including Weatherill, to a position of great prominence. And the visiting dignitaries of foreign countries will often come to the Speaker’s house for a meal, or stay there, and so on.

And in reading Bernard Weatherill, I discovered that his father was a tailor and that his mother had given him one of his father’s thimbles, a small silver thimble. And she said to him, “Bernard, keep that thimble in your pocket every day for all of your life, and no matter who comes from whatever country in the world to meet you and to greet you, if you find your spirit rising within yourself, if you find that you’re forgetting who you are and where you’ve come from and what you are, put your hand in your jacket pocket and pull that thimble into the palm of your hand. Don’t forget.”

Whenever the spirit of the Pharisee invades a congregation, you have a congregation that has forgotten that all they are and all they have and all they may offer is as a result of the grace of God.  

“Stress These Things”

So, remind them. “Remind the people.” And then, “stress these things.” Well, “stress these things” comes down in verse 8. It really should come up a little earlier if we were doing a good sermon, I suppose, but we’re not, so it doesn’t really matter. And he brings the point of emphasis after he has gone through this material. And of course, what we have here from verse 4 through verse 8 is just a wonderful statement of the comprehensive nature of the gospel: “When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared”—wonderful statement—“he saved us, not because of righteous things [that] we had done, but because of his mercy.” The writer to the Hebrews, in a similar statement in Hebrews 9, says, “He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.”[9]

And bridging this emphasis here—this call to reminder and then the call to avoid—the fulcrum of it all is the grace of God and the wonder of the gospel. And at the heart of his exhortation—because this kind of thing can so easily become moralism, can’t it? “Well, try and get your people to do this, try and tell them to do that”; it can sound as if, “Well, come on, boys, let’s just do our best.” But no, what he’s saying is, it is the grace of God, once it begins to impregnate a life and a congregation, that will manifest itself in this way. And indeed, if it doesn’t do so, then it calls in question whether the gospel has really taken root in the lives of the individuals.

God has spoken uniquely and finally and savingly in his Son : “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by grace, we might [be the] heirs [of] the hope of eternal life.”

“Your congregation might be the most hopeful group in the whole of Crete!”—that the reason that people will be attracted to them is because of their behavior and because of their hopefulness. And this is the reason that they may come and listen to you preach. Because when they move out amongst the community, there is a dynamic about them, the energizing power of the Holy Spirit invading their lives, transforming them, making them new, and causing men and women to say, “What in the world happened to you?” As opposed to “I go to such-and-such a building for such-and-such an hour.” You know, “I used to go bowling, and now I go singing.” They think that what’s happening in here is that a group of people who have some weird predilection with a certain framework of existence, a certain kind of hymnody, or whatever it might be, all get together in a kind of collective consciousness and jazz one another up so that they can get through another week.

Well, of course, there’s a legitimate reason as to why they might feel that way, because that’s so often the way it’s presented, isn’t it? “We’re just the same as you; the only difference is this.” That’s a flat-out lie. We’re not the same as other people! We’re radically different. We’re “peculiar.” If you doubt that, get a mirror! We are “a peculiar people,”[10] we have been made peculiar, we have been set apart, we are not what we once were as a result of the grace of God .

And so he says, “I want you, Titus, to take this trustworthy saying”—I think verse 8 simply reaches back and gathers up 4, 5, 6, and 7, and takes it to itself; that’s “a trustworthy saying.” He says, “I want you to speak with regularity and with emphasis upon these things.” Upon what? God’s kindness and his love—you look and see whether this is an accurate précis—God’s kindness and his love, the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and in renewal, and the grace of the Lord Jesus.

It was said of Dr. Jowett, the great and famous English preacher, that he was constantly going back again and again and again to grace and gospel. To the grace of God, to the gospel of the Lord Jesus. They said that he seemed to choose all of his best illustrations, all of his classic statements that somehow or another coalesced in constantly bringing the gospel before people, so that they may understand “that God’s kindness leads [them] to repentance”[11]—so that they might realize that when they made a royal hash of things, that the reason the prodigal goes running back up the road is because he’s drawn by the notion of mercy. Oh sure, he’s confronted by his guilt, but he could have been confronted by his guilt and lived as a miserable wretch in the pigsty, couldn’t he? I mean, he could have said everything he said: “I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight and I’m no longer worthy to be called your son.”[12] He could have simply had the prayer meeting there and stayed there for the rest of his life. But why does he run up the road? He runs up the road because of the recollection of his father! And when we preach and when we teach our people—and I say this to myself first and foremost and to you if you care to listen—we must constantly be reverting again to the wonder of God’s grace  and to the nature of the gospel and to the profound impact that it has.

And you read Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening, you find that he’s there all the time. Oh, he gets there by circuitous routes, he chooses some interesting texts, he launches off with flights of amazing fancy. All good stuff. But if you laid it all out—and trust me on this—if you laid it all out, if we took all of the sheets and laid them all across this room, and we said, “Is there an overwhelming emphasis here?” the answer is, the overwhelming emphasis is on the grace of God—that God is an amazing God. That we who are so deserving of his judgment should be the recipients of his mercy is an amazing truth. Paul understood that, so he reminds Titus.

“[Now,] I want you to stress these things,” he says. Why? Well, “so that those [who’ve] trusted in God”—so that the believers—“may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” “So that your congregation will be a bunch of do-gooders!” Isn’t that what it says? “I want you to devote yourself, I want you to stress these things—stress the nature of the gospel…” He doesn’t say, “first of all, so that everybody may understand the gospel,” but clearly that is inherent in it. But he says, “in order that they might live the gospel. Because these things are excellent, and they’re profitable for everyone.”

“Avoid Foolish Controversies”

Well, let’s just go to the final statement, and that is “avoid foolish controversies.” “Remind the people,” “stress these things,” and “avoid foolish controversies.”

Incidentally, how do you pronounce “controversy”? Do you say “controversy”? You say “controversy.” So, in Britain do they say controversy? Who says controversy? Brits? Do they? Do the Irish say controversy? Controversial. The Welsh? Ah, let’s blame the Welsh; there’s not a lot of them here. Yeah, yeah. Well, don’t let’s start a controversy over this. Okay, that’s fine.

But it is a recurring emphasis, isn’t it? Just let’s do two or three verses, not to be belaboring this. But 1 Timothy—let’s just go to 1 Timothy for a moment, verse 3: “As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith.”[13] Go to 6:4; it describes people teaching false doctrine and says this individual “is conceited … understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions … constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth”[14]—“and who now have fastened onto the idea that you can make a buck if you spin this story in the right way.”[15] Second Timothy 2:23: having warned him to “flee the evil desires of youth,”[16] he then immediately says, straight up, “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels.” And that’s only a little snippet of it; there is more in the Pastoral Epistles here, as you will discover if you go and look for it.

Now, let’s just pause for a moment and notice what he’s not saying. In saying this here in verse 9, he’s not saying, “Fudge the truth, be a nice person.” Clearly, he’s not saying that. And the reason we know—we don’t need to go outside the letter, because if you go back to chapter 1, you will remember that he was very, very concerned in 1:10 about “rebellious people,” people with big mouths, “deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group.”[17] He identifies this hybrid of Christianity and Judaism that is, in these early days, struggling and challenging the nature of the freedom in which the believer is set free in the gospel. And he’s saying there, “These individuals who are saying these things, they’ve got to be silenced. And the reason is, they’re ruining households by teaching things they ought not to teach.”[18]

Okay? So don’t let’s be misunderstood in this: “Avoid foolish controversies.” The adjective is very important. He’s not saying, “Avoid controversy.” Paul didn’t avoid controversy.  Even within the framework of the apostolic band, he didn’t avoid controversy; they had discussions over the nature of John Mark and so on, the issues of the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15—these were controversial issues. And so the same individual who has said, “You need to silence these people because of what they’re doing,” he now comes at the back end of it, and he says, “But I want you to make sure, Timothy, that when you take the totality of all that I’m saying to you in relationship to your responsibilities, that you make sure that you’re not known as a stupid controversialist.” And don’t you think what he’s saying here is, “Titus I don’t want you to get distracted. Because you can so easily get distracted from your primary calling, especially if you allow foolish stuff to tickle your mind and to trouble your spirit.”

Now, let’s be very honest for a moment here. In terms of in-house, intercollegiate, intramural conversation, how many of our late-night conversations would be best left alone, sidelined as a result of the clear exhortation here in verse 9? “Avoid stupid arguments and foolish genealogies, and concoctions of man rather that convictions of truth, and mythology rather than theology,” and so on. I mean, evangelicalism has a terrific history, doesn’t it, of bothering itself with the peripheral and losing sight of the central —of exalting issues that are secondary and defaulting on the issue which is primary.

When we preach and teach our people, we must constantly be reverting to the wonder of God’s grace.

Now, again, we ought not to flagellate ourselves unduly over this, because here is Paul writing to Titus in the pristine context of this fledgling church, and he has to say to him the same thing that we need to learn. These things—and I’m not going to unpack the four words; you can go do your own Greek; I did it, but it’s boring to go through it—the “foolish controversies,” the “genealogies,” the “arguments,” and the “quarrels about the law,” they all add up to something that is “unprofitable and useless”—“unprofitable and useless.”

Is it in 1 Timothy? I don’t know. I hope it is; I’m going to go and look. I think it is. Yes! Oh, good—1 Timothy 1:7: “They want to be teachers of the law, but they don’t know what [they’re] talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” “They want to be teachers of the law, but they don’t know what they’re talking about.” It doesn’t stop them talking! Oh no. … So, doesn’t matter. No, they can go on for a great length. He says, “This is pathetic! They’ve wandered away; they’ve turned to meaningless talk.”

Now, my friends, listen to me carefully. I’m going to be an old man soon. I’ve listened to this stuff for forty-five years of my life within the framework of conservative evangelicalism. I’ve heard more “meaningless talk” in the hallways of churches than I’ve heard on the balustrades of the pagans. Tremendous waste of breath. It’s ultimately futile and useless. It does not build up, it does not exalt Christ, it does not magnify the grace of God, it does not establish itself in the character and lifestyle of our congregations.  It’s fun, and if we are of a pugilistic nature, it helps to get us up in the morning; we can go again on our view of whatever particular little idiosyncratic perspective it is.

It’s all like theological Loch Ness Monster stuff. If you come from Scotland at all, they always want to know, “Have you seen the Loch Ness Monster? I went to Inverness,” they always tell me.

“How was it?”

“Well, I think we saw her.”

“Saw who?”


“Who’s Nessie?”

“The Loch Ness Monster.”

And the amount of money that has been spent by National Geographic, and American and Japanese money… There’s no Scotsman going to spend a penny going down there in that… We have invented this thing so that you will come. We know—I can’t tell you what the truth is—but we know what the truth is. I can’t… I’m sworn to secrecy on it. But it doesn’t stop people sitting in bars and coffee shops all over the Highlands of Scotland: “Oh, the Loch Ness, I think, the subterranean channels to the North Sea,” and so it goes.

And you go get yourself a coffee: “And the subterranean channels to the book of Malachi and back through 2 Kings and over to Chronicles to Revelation 7. Take away the number you first thought of and add the gene—.” And it appeals to foolish people.

Say, “Now, I want to tell you about this amazing story about God who, incarnate in his Son, bears your sins.”

“No, I don’t have time for that.”

“Well, I’ve got a best seller here in the bookstore that I just saw the other day in Chicago on the brother of Jesus.”

Selling like hotcakes!

It’s speculative mythology. This is what we’re up against. Therefore, we dare not use a single breath, an iota of our gray matter, to get involved with one another in areas that are disruptive rather than helpful.

Meaningless talk does not build up, it does not exalt Christ, it does not magnify the grace of God, it does not establish itself in the character and lifestyle of our congregations.

Lengthy debates about dates and definitions—things that are intriguing but not edifying. I’m not talking about scholarly debate. I’m not talking about the ability to dialogue over the diversities of things. I’m talking about what he’s talking about: foolish controversies that were tied to Old Testament genealogies, that were then strung out and, in the Jewish context, thrown into the Haggadah, and then they would be teased out of there, and people could then quarrel about all these different things. “Avoid that,” he says, “they’re unprofitable, and they’re useless.”

Steve was saying last night at dinner that Dick Lucas, whom some of you remember was here last year, was sitting eating dinner—I hope the person isn’t here again, I’ve forgotten the nature of the question—but somebody said to him as they were eating dinner, he said something like, “Dr. Lucas, could you please comment on Mr. So-and-So’s view of eschatology?” And Dick looked up from his chicken, and he said, “No.”

Now I’m looking forward to coffee; let me just try and wrap this up by going to two of my heroes. But notice: consider how many ministries have ceased to edify because the pastor has failed to pay attention to this. I’m not saying that they’ve ceased to influence or they’ve ceased to gain notoriety, but they have actually ceased to edify—oikodomia, to build up the saints—instead creating communities of disruption, disharmony, disunity, with little concern for the kalos element, as opposed to the agathos element, of goodness as manifested in the community—intrinsic goodness, as in the fruit of the Spirit flushing out into a community, causing people to say, “What is it about these people that their love for one another is so deep and their concern for us is so significant?” And when you trace it back, you will often trace it back to a pulpit where a man, because he presumably hasn’t had a decent wife to watch out for him or a good colleague to bang him on the back of the head, has become increasingly distracted from the issues of the gospel and has become now the proponent of whatever it might be.

Now, that begs the question, of course, what is… And we understand the nature of “foolish controversies” here in terms of the express issue that Paul is tackling when we come into the twenty-first century, and we say, “Okay, well, if there are secondary things and primary things, who’s going to decide which is primary and which is secondary? How are we going to do that?” And we’ll then disagree over that, and some will be into tertiary, and so on.

I have found—and despite the picture on the front of this little book What Is an Evangelical?—I have found Martyn Lloyd-Jones to be tremendously helpful in this little book, which I hope is in the bookstore. And he, having stated the great danger of schism and then the danger of ecumenism, concludes this little book—there was an address at Swanwick in the ’40s, I think. He concludes the little book by identifying what he says are secondary truths that are not essential to unity. And I’ll just tell you what they are if you don’t know them, and it will give you something to argue about over coffee. That was just a joke—not a very good one, I admit, but nevertheless.

Let me mention a few things which I put into the category of nonessentials. Ready?

Number one is “the belief in election and predestination”: secondary, not primary. Now, some of you are already rocking in your chairs. Rock on.

Number two, “Another matter I would put into the same category is the age and the mode of baptism.” Little more shaking.

Number three, “the question of church polity. … I find it very difficult to say that, and yet I must say it. I am so opposed to this tendency today to insist upon bishops.” And then he has a little tirade about bishops, still wanting to argue of course that he regards it as secondary.

Fourthly, “In the same way, clearly, we must not divide on the question of prophetic interpretation: pre-, post-, a-millennialist, and so on. Not one of them can be proved, so [you] must not put them into the category of essentials. You have your views; hold them.” Let us discuss them, but that’s enough.

Fifthly, “I would put into the same category the whole question of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and the charismata, [or] spiritual gifts.”[19]

I think he’s right. You take any one of these things, be it baptism, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, our understanding of the grace of God… You understand that Lloyd-Jones has a conviction on all of these things. He’s a Calvinist. He’s not debating that. But he says, “I’m not going to use election and predestination as a touchstone for evangelical orthodoxy. I’m not going to use eschatology for it. I’m not going to use polity for it. I’m not going to use our view on postconversion experiences of God the Holy Spirit.” Why? Because the New Testament provides ultimately no basis for doing so. And while these are not the “foolish controversies” to which Paul refers here, nevertheless, they have become in the last hundred years a basis of many a foolish controversy that has robbed the people of God of their joy and diminished their effectiveness in seeing the gospel unleashed in the community.

So, from Lloyd-Jones finally to Spurgeon. On the nineteenth of November—my son’s birthday, as it happens—his text for the morning is “Avoid foolish controversies.” Actually, “Avoid foolish questions.” And this is what he says:

Our days are few and are far better spent in doing good than in disputing over matters [which] are, at best, of minor importance. The old scholars did a world of mischief by their incessant discussion of subjects of no practical importance; and our churches suffer too often from petty wars over obscure points and unimportant questions.
After everything has been said that can be said, neither party is any the wiser, and therefore the discussion promotes neither knowledge nor love, and it is foolish to sow in so barren a field.
Questions [upon] issues on which Scripture is silent, [upon] mysteries [which] belong to God alone, [upon] prophecies of doubtful interpretation, and [upon] mere modes of observing human ceremonials are all foolish, and wise men avoid them.
Our business is neither to ask nor answer foolish questions, but to avoid them altogether; and if we observe the apostle’s precept … to be careful to maintain good works, we will find ourselves occupied with so much profitable business that we will have no time to take much interest in unworthy, contentious, and needless strivings.

And then, as he’s so able to do, he turns the searchlight on the reader’s heart. And this is what I found so challenging. He said,

There are, however, some questions [which] are the reverse of foolish, which we must not avoid but fairly and honestly meet, such as these: Do I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ? Am I renewed in the spirit of my mind? Am I walking not after the flesh but after the Spirit? Am I growing in grace? Does my behavior adorn the doctrine of God my Savior? Am I looking for the coming of the Lord and watching as a servant should do who expects his master? What more can I do for Jesus?
Such inquiries as these demand our urgent attention; and if we have been given at all to frivolous arguments, let us now turn our critical abilities to a much more profitable service. Let us be peacemakers and endeavor to lead others both by our precept and example to “avoid foolish controversies.”[20]

Father, we pray that as we allow your Word to settle in our minds and as we think about the charges that you have granted to us in pastoral ministry, we pray that you will give to us afresh a ministry of reminder—to remind our people of the importance of living out that which you are working in by your grace; to make sure that our teaching ministry is riddled with the grace of God, the love of the Lord Jesus Christ. And save us, Lord, from distraction, from becoming champions of the esoteric, spiritual nitpickers, losing sight of our focus, replacing the best with the good.

Help us; we so desperately need your help. We move the furniture around, and it challenges again the very next week. We manage to clean something up, straighten one piece; it collapses, it looks a mess again. Were it not for the fact that you had called us and promised us your grace, we’d run a hundred miles in the other direction. But because you are God, because your Word is true, because the Holy Spirit fills our lives, we continue for another day, and we do so seeking you always in and through the Lord Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.

[1] Titus 2:3 (NIV 1984).

[2] Titus 2:6 (NIV 1984).

[3] Titus 2:9 (NIV 1984).

[4] Titus 2:11–12 (NIV 1984).

[5] Acts 4:19 (paraphrased).

[6] 1 Corinthians 2:14 (paraphrased).

[7] See Luke 18:11.

[8] See Luke 18:13.

[9] Hebrews 9:26 (NIV 1984).

[10] 1 Peter 2:9 (KJV).

[11] Romans 2:4 (NIV 1984).

[12] See Luke 15:11–32.

[13] 1 Timothy 1:3–4 (NIV 1984).

[14] 1 Timothy 6:4–5 (NIV 1984).

[15] 1 Timothy 6:5 (paraphrased).

[16] 2 Timothy 2:22 (NIV 1984).

[17] Titus 1:10 (NIV 1984).

[18] Titus 1:11 (paraphrased).

[19] D. M. Lloyd-Jones, What Is an Evangelical? (1992; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 89–92.

[20] C. H. Spurgeon, “Morning—November 19,” in Morning and Evening: Daily Readings, revised and updated by Alistair Begg (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003),

Copyright © 2024, 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.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.