Steer Clear!
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Steer Clear!

From Series: Get It Right!, Volume 2

Titus 3:9-11  (ID: 2885)

Disagreements and conflicts sometimes arise in the local church, as in any group. How should church leaders respond? In Titus 3, Paul provides pastors with clear directives regarding issues to avoid and whom to confront. In addressing these matters, Alistair Begg cautions that the shepherd’s voice must be gentle enough to comfort the wounded and frightened but firm enough to warn and rebuke those who would sow division.


Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me to Titus and to chapter 3—page 998 and 999 in our church Bibles. We’ll just read the full chapter, chapter 3:

“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.

“When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.

“All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith.

“Grace be with you all.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Gracious God, we humbly pray that what we know not you will teach us, what we have not you will give us, and what we are not you will make us. For your Son’s sake. Amen.

Well, we’re coming close to the end of these studies in Titus, and it’s important for us to remind ourselves that Titus had received a very clear assignment from the apostle Paul, and this letter was a follow-up to that assignment. The assignment we can read of in 1:5, where Paul says to him, “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.”

All of us who have any part in any kind of organization at all understand that delegation is an essential extension of effective leadership. It is really impossible to be a leader of any use whatsoever unless one is willing and able to delegate, and to delegate in such a way that people are able to serve effectively. And Paul, we see from all of his letters, is someone who was more than willing to do that. He was not only willing to do it; he was able to do it. And you don’t see it any clearer than what we find in these Pastoral Epistles—in writing to Timothy as a young pastor, and here, also, writing to Titus.

He not only provides Titus with a very clear job description, but he also gives him helpful and careful instruction so that he is enabled to complete the task. And the chapters of Titus are essentially the helpful and careful instruction so that Titus can be about the business of exercising pastoral leadership in the congregations here on the island of Crete. We noted last time that the role of Titus is that of a pastor and of a teacher, and he, like Timothy, therefore needs to be the kind of individual who is studying to show himself approved to God—this is 2 Timothy 2:15—a workman that doesn’t need to be ashamed because he is “rightly dividing the word of truth,”[1] so that when his people listen to the instruction of God’s Word, they’re able to read it for themselves, they’re able to parse it, they’re able to cross-reference it, and they’re able to adjudicate on whether this individual is actually a servant of the Word or not.

And we saw last time that this involved, first of all, being prepared to affirm what is profitable. And we noted that Titus had a reliable message (it was “trustworthy,” verse 8); that he himself was to be a resolute messenger, insisting on these things, putting his foot down, as it were; and then, in turn, that the congregations in Crete would be a responsive congregation; and that the result would be that they devoted themselves to good works. And we tried to think a little about what that might mean.

Now, from verse 8 into verse 9, he moves, if you like, from the positive to the negative—or he gives instruction about what should not be taking place. If verse 8 is what Titus is to affirm, then verse 9 is what Titus is to avoid. And we’re going to notice in verse 9 just the issues that are to be avoided, and then, in verses 10 and 11, the kind of person who is to be confronted. All right? So that’s the layout for the time that we have. Verse 9: What are the kind of issues that are to be avoided? And then, in 10 and 11: What is the kind of person who is to be confronted?

The Issues That Are to Be Avoided

Well, first of all, the issues he outlines for us: “Avoid,” he says, “foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law,” and then he tells us why: “for they are unprofitable and worthless.” So essentially, he’s saying, “I don’t want you to waste your time on this stuff, Titus. Don’t waste your time, and don’t waste anyone else’s time.”

Now, for cross-references in relationship to this, I commend you—and I’m not going to turn all the way through this all the time—but to 1 Timothy 1:3–11, where, in the context of Ephesus, Paul is giving instruction concerning false teachers; and then, in 2 Timothy 2:23–26, you will find that this a fairly familiar refrain for Paul. This is a concern that is not unique to Crete. It’s not a concern that was unique to simply a time in history or to a place in geography, but it is an ongoing concern for any and all who become pastors and teachers. And so the pastor is to “flee” the “youthful passions” and to “pursue righteousness,”[2] and then, in 2 Timothy 2:23, he is to “have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies,” because he points out in that context, “Because you only know that they breed quarrels, and that’s no good, because the Lord’s servant is not to be quarreling.”[3]

All right, well, I think that’s fairly straightforward, isn’t it? Here are the issues that are to be avoided. But there are two questions that emerge. The first is: What does he mean by this? What does he mean by this? He is clearly not ruling out all controversy. Paul himself is not unfamiliar with controversy. You only need to read the opening of the book of Galatians to realize how concerned he was about the issues of the gospel—how prepared he was, on one occasion, to take Peter on to his face, although he was also an apostle, and at the very heart of it all was the issue of the gospel. And as we’ve already seen in chapter 1, here, of Titus, he is concerned that those who are false teachers would be “rebuke[d] … sharply” in order that they might be “sound in the faith.”[4] So, we have to immediately recognize that this is not a blanket condemnation of controversy.

Difficult questions should be encouraged, because difficult questions may prove to be a legitimate avenue from ignorance to faith and to obedience. How do we find things out if we don’t ask questions?

When I was in England in March, one of the people at the conference gave an address on the benefits and dangers of controversy. The benefits and dangers of controversy. And I never really thought much about it until I sat and listened. And he pointed out how theological controversy gave rise, for example, to the creeds—the Nicene Creed and so on—as people recognized that there were controversial views of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, and that controversy gave rise to the creeds. Those controversies have given rise to catechisms, in order that people might understand what it is that we affirm. And it was controversy, of course, which gave rise to the Reformation itself, as the flame of the gospel was lit in the heart of Martin Luther and as he realized just how controversial it was going to be for him to challenge the papal authority, for him to uphold his discovery of a righteousness that was not his righteousness making him acceptable to God but a righteousness that was in Christ, that was by grace through faith in Jesus alone. And out of that controversy the history of the church has emerged.

In the sixteenth century in England, it was controversy which allowed Ridley and Latimer to, remember, light a flame such as may never be put out. And why was that flame lit? Why, in 1555, were they chained up to stakes in the center of Oxford and burned at the stake? Because the issue was the doctrine of justification: How is a sinner put right with God? Because the issue was the atonement: What does it mean that there is a sacrifice once and for all? And how quickly they were followed by Cranmer. Within six months, Cranmer was also put there. And you perhaps don’t remember the words of Cranmer. You remember better the quote from Latimer to Ridley: “Be of good cheer, [Master] Ridley; and play the man. We shall [today], by God’s grace, light … a candle in England, as I trust, will never be put out.”[5] And here we are all these years later.

Cranmer, who was wrestling with the beginning of Titus chapter 3—“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities”—found himself in the most difficult of situations, because Mary, the queen, insisted on him exercising his jurisdiction within the framework of Roman Catholicism. And so he then, in trying to be a good citizen à la Titus chapter 3, wrote letters of submission to Her Majesty’s authority. Every one he wrote, except the last one he tore up—wrote it once and tore it up, a second time and tore it up, a third time and tore it up, a fourth time and tore it up. And the fifth time, he sent it to her: “I submit to your authority, even though you’re asking me to violate the gospel.” And the queen said, “You don’t even believe what you wrote in the letter, and I’m still going to burn you at the stake.” And when Cranmer was burned at the stake, he said, “I have sinned in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe with my heart.”[6] And the hand with which he signed the letter he placed first in the flames and let it burn.

So, let’s be really clear here: Paul is not saying, “Any kind of controversy is out.” That’s why it’s important to look carefully at our Bibles. And you will notice that the adjective is the thing that keeps us on track. He says, “I want you to make sure that you avoid foolish controversies.” “Foolish controversies.” In other words, where theology is replaced with mythology, where biblical convictions are challenged by human concoctions, where the discoveries in the Bible that people want to point us to are right up there with the sightings of the Loch Ness Monster—absolutely hopeless and worthless stuff. And some people rejoice in that! I get lots of letters, as you know, and some of them are just completely fascinated and want me to engage in all kinds of foolish controversy. But I’m able to tell them that I can’t because it says in the Bible that I mustn’t. Gets me off the hook quite a lot. It’s wonderful. Not everybody agrees that the controversy is foolish. Most of them don’t think it is, but it is enough that the Bible covers it for us.

And what about the genealogies? Are we not supposed to pay attention to the introduction that we have in the Gospel of Luke and in the Gospel of Matthew?[7] Aren’t they there for our benefit? Of course they are! Now, why do we have the genealogies? Well, the genealogies are present there in order that the readers of them might know that Jesus is a very man, that he is a true man, that he is a real man—that this Jesus is the seed of Abraham, that Jesus is the great King who sits on David’s throne. So we read the genealogies in order to discover that Christ is the Redeemer promised in the Old Testament.

But that’s not what these people were doing. No, they found in the genealogies all kinds of speculative ideas and concepts, and they managed to fiddle with them in such a way as to wrest them to their own destruction. Says Calvin, the Holy Spirit does not provide the genealogies so that we might wander into heedless speculations.[8] And you know what it is. It happens every year: somebody says, “Have you read the hidden Gospel of Thomas? Did you know that there were three other people whose name was X, and if you multiply them, and then spin them around three times, and turn them upside down, and read your Bible backwards, you will discover that this is everything that you’ve ever needed to know about the Bible?” It’s such nonsense, isn’t it?

I had a fellow start on that stuff with me this week. I had to bite my tongue every time he mentioned it. He was telling me an elaborate story about someone with an unpronounceable name, and I just wearied for him from it. I said, “Dear, dear.” But it wasn’t my place to set him right at that point. You can only do so much when you’re playing golf with people. But anyway… He’s trying to get me off my game, you see?

But “avoid foolish controversies, genealogies”—and what about these “dissensions, and quarrels about the law”? “Dissensions, and [battles] about the law.” Well, I think this is where you need to go back to 1:10 to help us to discover that this element here is present, and it was unsettling folks in Crete. Notice: “There are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers.” You see that adjective again: they talk—a lot of talk—but it’s “empty” talk. They want to engage in controversy. They want to get you all tied up in genealogies. They want to quarrel about the matters of the law. And “especially,” he says, “those of the circumcision party.”

So, the inference is that these individuals treated the law of God—the Old Testament in its entirety, perhaps the Jewish Law in particular—as a kind of happy hunting ground for their speculations. And Paul says to Titus, “Make sure that you don’t get embroiled in this stuff. Make sure that your people don’t become masters of this. You will have folks who are able to provide plenty of speculative hot air, and you will have people who have itchy ears that twitch every time there is the sound of this nonsense in the air.” It’s like a little rabbit listening: “Whoa!” And there are people just like that. Speculative hot air is now in the breeze. “There we go! There’s some good stuff coming now!” Avoid! Avoid these things. That’s what he means.

Well, why does it matter? He tells us why it matters—the reason it matters: because when you have the inventiveness of these false teachers matched by the curiosity of naive listeners, it may create the impression that there is a sort of meaningful debate and wonderful discovery being made. But not so, says Paul, because these sort of things are “unprofitable and worthless.” They’re worse than quack remedies for physical ailments. Don’t you tire of that stuff on the radio? Do you ever hear these people selling everything? It’s usually in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning, when all good people should be asleep or at work. And, you know, I hope you don’t buy that stuff. And maybe you do. Maybe you sell it. Then I’d feel even worse, I suppose. But I always find myself saying, “Does this fellow really expect me to believe this?” And especially when he tells me that I will get the third bottle for nothing, you know? “It’s so wonderful that we’re giving the junk away.” But if you rub it wherever…

No, but I mean, that stuff—those quack remedies for physical ailments—we can handle. We can fiddle with them if we want. They’re just absolutely useless. They’re usually not harmful. I haven’t discovered anybody growing a second nose with it or anything unusual like that. Usually they just—they’re either self-verifiable, or they just get put in the bottom of the medicine cabinet. But what he’s saying here is that this kind of stuff is actually harmful. You see, this harms people. When people begin to get a mindset that treats the Word of God, the truth of God, as some kind of gigantic jigsaw puzzle whereby they can move the pieces around to suit their own satisfaction, then they will be chaotic. And so these things are to be avoided, because they lead nowhere and they settle nothing. They lead nowhere; they settle nothing.

The Person Who Is to Be Confronted

Secondly, if those are the kind of issues to be avoided, who is the kind of person to be confronted? “As for a person who stirs up division…” “As for a person who stirs up division…”

Now, we need to be careful with this as well, don’t we? We need to make sure that we are not attributing to others the characteristics of this unique individual. This is not simply the kind of person who asks a lot of difficult questions. All right? Although we do need to beware of those individuals who constantly are asking questions about things that can never be resolved. But even that person is not in view here. In fact, those difficult questions should be encouraged, shouldn’t they? Because those difficult questions may prove to be a legitimate avenue from ignorance to faith and to obedience. How do we find things out if we don’t ask questions? How do we make progress if we don’t take the things about which we are unclear and come and ask people, “Well, what does this mean? And how does that fit with that?” That’s not what he’s talking about. Clearly not.

Nor is he simply talking about the kind of person who opposes the pastoral ministry of Titus simply because he or she doesn’t like him. Calvin, who was not unfamiliar with this kind of opposition, notes, it wouldn’t be right to condemn those who simply dislike us.[9] It wouldn’t be right to condemn those who simply dislike us. And you remember, we’ve said all the way along that part of the challenge of pastoral ministry is: Do you want to lead people, or do you want the people just to like you? If you’re simply driven by having them like you, like you, like you, then probably you’re going to adopt a certain posture in order to achieve that as an objective. And inevitably, if you don’t, there will be people who dislike you. They disliked Paul; they disliked Titus. Some liked Apollos better; some liked Cephas better.[10] That’s the way it goes. You can’t be in pastoral ministry without understanding that. But that doesn’t give Titus the prerogative to condemn to the darkness an individual who just doesn’t like him and who, apparently, opposes him.

No, once again, the English language will help us here: “As for a person who,” notice, “stirs up division…” “Stirs up division.” In other words, this is an individual who is not only unsettled themselves but who becomes an unsettler of others—somebody, presumably, who has deliberately chosen to follow the false teachings and practices that Paul has just referred to in verse 9. It would seem that there’s a logical progression of thought there, isn’t it? “Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, quarrels about the law. They are unprofitable and worthless. However, the kind of person who doesn’t pay attention to me when I tell you this and who engages in all of these things is the kind of individual who stirs up division—the kind of person who refuses to consent to the truth of God’s Word and, as a result of that, separates themselves from the faith and in turn separates himself from the faithful.”

Now, this is not someone who has simply a problem with, let’s say, some area of theological understanding or some disagreement with a theological perspective. Because if we’re going to hold to the notion that the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things, then we’re going to have to recognize that in a congregation such as our own, there will be divergent views on certain areas of theology—hopefully not in the central verities of the faith, but in relationship to the age and timing of baptism, in relationship to the doctrine of eschatology and the nature and timing of the return of Christ, and other things too.

We warn an individual with a view to his restoration. We’re not, if you like, warning him with a stick. We’re warning him with an embrace.

So, this individual is not an individual who is just addressing, perhaps piecemeal, some area, but this individual is the kind of individual whose very theological house, if you like, has collapsed on itself. This kind of individual is someone who is not simply bringing a question to bear, and he still has within him the fear of God; therefore, he is still open to the instruction and tutelage of the Bible; therefore, he is still, if you like, reclaimable; therefore, he is still teachable. That’s not the kind of person that Paul is addressing here. Paul is describing a different character. This is a character whose theological presuppositions have now collapsed as a result of his commitment to things other than the gospel itself. And this individual is committed to stirring up division.

Do you understand what I’m saying there? Remember, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “The person who hears my words and puts them into practice is like a man who built his house upon a rock. And when the winds came and the storm flew and everything, it stood firm. The person who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built his house on the sand. And when the storms came, his house collapsed.”[11] The description here of this kind of person is the kind of person who has now built his whole edifice… His entire life now crumbles because he hears the words of God and flat-out refuses to put them into practice, and he stirs up division, and he curries the favor of those who are naive to these things, and he creates disruption among the fellowship.

“So,” says Paul, “let me tell you how this individual is to be treated. He is to be warned once and then twice.” Now, let’s remind ourselves of something even in this: the Bible asks the question, “Who knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of a man that is in him?”[12] Right? So, when we’re confronted by, let’s say, the stirring up of division in a fellowship, it would be wrong for us, I think, immediately to go to Titus 3:10–11. Because in the first encounter, how can any of us know whether this soul is reclaimable or not? How can we know unless we give to him the warnings that are described for us here? This is not dissimilar, incidentally, to what Jesus teaches in Matthew chapter 18 concerning the nature of church discipline.[13] And so when we warn the individual, we warn such an individual with a view to his reclamation, with a view to his restoration. We’re not, if you like, warning him with a stick. We’re warning him with an embrace. We’re saying, “Sir, do you realize what you’re propounding here? Do you realize that that is not true to the Bible? Do you realize that you are the creator of division amongst the people of God? Is that really how you want to spend your life?” And we warn him a second time.

But if he continues to despise God openly, if he continues to disrupt and to divide—if he continues, as Calvin says quaintly, to go forward in his naughtiness…[14] (Shows you how a word changes over time, doesn’t it?) If he continues to go forward in his naughtiness… In other words, here is the individual who hardens his heart to a gentle reproof. Here is an individual who displays a spirit of bitterness. Here is an individual who shows no fear of God and no signs of repentance. Now that individual, says Paul, we may safely assume is warped and sinful, standing self-condemned by his own actions and by his attitude. Such a person is not a sheep but a wolf.[15] And when you think in those terms, you realize that it is not compassion and tenderness which invites the wolf into the presence of the lambs under your care. It is, one, to disobey the Bible; it is, two, to pretend to be wiser than God, which is always true when we disobey the Bible; and it is, three, to wreak havoc within the congregation.

Now, you’re sensible people, and you’re going to have to think this out. But if you remember, when Paul leaves the Ephesians, in that wonderful scene described by Luke in Acts chapter 20—when he is going to leave them now and he knows that he will never see their faces again this side of eternity,[16] and they pray together on the beach, and he leaves them—remember what he says to them? He says, “For all these years—for three years—I’ve not hesitated to tell you the whole show. I’ve been teaching you. I’ve been preaching to you. I’ve been trying to show you how everything fits together in the Lord Jesus Christ. And you’re going to be fine.” No! He says, “I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you and savage and destroy the flock. Therefore,” he says, “elders, stay alert.”[17] “Stay alert.”

So that the pastor-teacher, the shepherd-teacher, must have in his voice the gentleness of welcome to the bruised, battered, beaten-up sheep who are going their own way—the gentleness of the welcome that explains that the Lord has laid on his Son, Christ, “the iniquity of us all,”[18] so that those who are aware of the fact that they’re in a just disgraceful and royal mess, that they have turned their backs on God—that the welcome, the tenderness of that welcome, is a real welcome. So that the gentleness of the voice that welcomes… But the shepherd-teacher also needs the loudness of the voice that warns. And some of us are more prone to lean here, and others of us more prone to lean here. That’s why Jesus is the perfect Shepherd: because he always got it right, reserving stinging rebukes for religious hypocrites, granting forgiveness to the least and the last and the left out.

Let me just finish in this way. I’m quoting from Cranmer and Latimer and Ridley in the sixteenth century, right? In the Anglican Church—the established Church of England, which gives us the Episcopal Church in America. What a long journey from Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer to the triennial general convention of the Episcopal Church this week in Indianapolis. I don’t say this in a spirit of judgment but with deep sadness of heart. That is one of the largest legislative bodies that exists in the world—a thousand of them—the house of deputies and the house of bishops gathered together discussing topics like “whether to develop funeral rites for dogs and cats, and whether to ratify resolutions condemning genetically modified foods.”[19] Did Cranmer burn for this? Did Ridley die at the stake for this? And genetically modified foods and burial rites for cats and dogs took second place to the approval of the blessing of same-sex relationships and the renewed antidiscrimination language for transgender clergy candidates and church members.

Loved ones, read your Bibles. Think. Cry out to God. The decisions, the convictions that underlay the sixteenth century in England no longer hold sway. The church in Crete that Titus pastored—who knows much of the church in Crete today? Build your house on the solid rock. Stay away from the sandy stuff. “Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, … quarrels about the law.” Stick with the gospel. Keep the main things the plain things. Tell people about Jesus. He saves people. He loves saving people. And he’ll save them. And he’ll save you if you will turn to him.

Gracious God, we thank you for your Word. It is a lamp that shines out on our pathway.[20] It turns us again to the wonder of your Son. And so we pray that the love of the Lord Jesus might draw us to himself, that the peace of the Lord Jesus might guard and keep our hearts and minds, that the joy of the Lord Jesus might be our strength so that we might stand as soldiers in the battle of our day, holding high the cross of Christ. Hear our prayers, O God, and let our cries come unto you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.


[1] 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV).

[2] 2 Timothy 2:22 (ESV).

[3] 2 Timothy 2:23–24 (paraphrased).

[4] Titus 1:13 (ESV).

[5] Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1563), chap. 16.

[6] Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, chap 16. Paraphrased.

[7] See Matthew 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38.

[8] John Calvin, sermon on Titus 3:8–15.

[9] Calvin, sermon on Titus 3:8–15.

[10] See 1 Corinthians 1:11–12.

[11] Matthew 7:24–27 (paraphrased).

[12] 1 Corinthians 2:11 (paraphrased).

[13] See Matthew 18:15–20.

[14] Calvin, sermon on Titus 3:8–15.

[15] See Matthew 7:15.

[16] See Acts 20:25.

[17] Acts 20:29, 31 (paraphrased).

[18] Isaiah 53:6 (ESV).

[19] Jay Akasie, “What Ails the Episcopalians,” Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2012, https://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303919504577520950409252574.html.

[20] See Psalm 119:105.

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.

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.