How to Wreck a Church
January 22, 2006
Satan opposes the Christian church and its gospel message. In some communities around the globe, glaring opposition to the church comes from government regulations, media scorn, and outright persecution. Hardly a day goes by that I don't get word from one source or another of this kind of ongoing attack upon Christians and the gospel. While we see this increasingly in our nation, it comes in tidal surges in other countries. Daily, Christians face the heavy blows of godless zealots who spend their time plotting and hatching plans to wipe the gospel message from the globe.
We tend to breathe the sigh of relief that the decapitations in Indonesia, church bombing in Pakistan, torturing in Sudan, and criminalizing of Christianity in numerous Islamic countries does not take place among us. But should we feel relieved? Obviously, we must have concern for the brethren in other countries; praying for them, supporting them as we have opportunity, speaking out on their behalf, seeking to provide some respite from the deluge of external opposition. Yet there is another sense that we face an equally dangerous, yet more subtle opposition. We do not lose a limb or face jail time or have our building burned or be denied a place to worship. Rather, the adversary assaults us from within the ranks of professing Christians. No knives, guns, or bombs in this case, instead subtle words twisting the gospel, clever substitutes for dependence upon Christ alone, deceitful embrace of legalism, emotional or programmatic substitutes for faith and obedience, stripping the cross from the gospel, redefining the character of the Christian, embellishing the church with trappings of the world. All of these things and more cleverly seep their way into the church. Churches founded upon good principles and sound doctrine, lulled to a daze by success and presumption, soon crash upon the hidden reefs. Some are shipwrecked and don't even know it because their understanding of the gospel and the church have been shaped by everything but the Word of God. How does it happen? How can those that have known the joys of gospel proclamation and Christian practice sink beneath the waves of deceitful, satanic opposition? A church shipwrecks if its leaders and members neglect vigilance in the faith. That was precisely Paul's concern in the Pastoral Epistles with the churches in Ephesus and on the island of Crete. His epistles instruct us in how to guard against wrecking upon the reefs that Satan has planted within the church.
Let me set the stage for our text. Paul reminds Titus that he left him in Crete to set in order those areas still dangling and in need of biblical reformation. To do this, he would establish elder plurality in the churches so that they might model true Christianity and teach sound doctrine, as well as refute those who live or teach in contradiction to a sound faith. The opening word in verse 10, "For," connects this paragraph with what precedes. He has just spoken of solid, gospel-oriented men being qualified to serve the churches as elders. But there were other kinds of men in their churches, men that Paul identifies as "rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers." Evidently, these men had another agenda in the churches-whether knowingly or unknowingly-to turn them away from the gospel of grace and the godly behavior that characterizes believers. They would have to be stopped or the churches in Crete would be shipwrecked. This is apparent by the term Paul used in verse 11, as he described the influence of their teaching and lives. "They are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain." The present tense describes this as an action in progress. They were turning whole families upside down. Confusion began to reign. These men were experts in wrecking a church!
It never should have happened; not then or now! But it does because of three very clear reasons that we see Paul countering in our text. First, by accepting unqualified leaders; second, by failing in pastoral correction; and third, by tolerating a false gospel, churches are wrecked.
I. By accepting unqualified leaders
We've already considered the biblical qualifications for elders in the local church in verses 5-9. Their relationship to their families, their personal behavior, and their relationship with others in the church and community give evidence that the gospel has transformed them. Additionally, they must be engaged in teaching sound doctrine in the church. Their office bears chief responsibility of establishing and maintaining a thorough-going biblical framework for their church. They are not necessarily the only teachers in the church but the elders must labor to ensure that whatever is taught conforms to sound doctrine.
But sometimes there are other teachers that might have influence in the church, teachers that do not bear the same qualities noted for elders, and teachers that use their abilities to turn others away from the truth. I do not think that all in this camp even realize what they are doing. Some are intentional, running a course that gratifies their flesh without concern for the purity of the gospel. Many, probably even some in Crete as I believe is evidenced in the text, think they are serving God as they do things their own way and add their own peculiar twist to the sound words of Scripture. Whether intentional or not, they are dangerous! Churches can be wrecked in short compass when these unqualified leaders gain a foothold in the church.
It happens regularly. I spoke with a pastor recently that has no other spiritual leaders in his church. Two ladies have shown a hunger for God's Word and a willingness to be taught. Otherwise, outside of some children that have interest in the gospel, none of the others do, as far as he can tell. He is even being hindered by church leaders from teaching the children the Word of God. They are not interested in the gospel of God's grace through Christ alone, and a gospel that produces fruitful, godly lives. So, they have permeated the church with their influence, and this young pastor, battles to keep the ship from wrecking upon the reefs. That story is multiplied time and again. But how does it happen? When the church accepts unqualified leaders it opens the door to being shipwrecked. So how can a church recognize unqualified leaders?
1. Evident in their talk (v. 10)
Paul calls them "rebellious men," that is, men that refuse to submit to the authority of God's Word and the truth of the gospel. They rebel against the gospel of Christ and the divine intention in the gospel. In the two gospel passages in chapters 2 and 3, Paul demonstrates that the gospel received will also be the gospel lived. Christ "gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds." Then, after explaining the justifying work of Christ, Paul wrote "so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds." But the "rebellious men" not only rejected the sufficiency of Christ alone for salvation, but also the evidence of good works that follows true faith in Christ. Instead, they put their emphasis on outward show and rituals that gave pretense of spirituality, but had no substance.
Rebels are easily spotted since they are "empty talkers and deceivers," and in this case, "especially those of the circumcision." The adverb "especially" is probably better translated here as "namely," so that Paul is identifying the particular group in Crete that was causing all of the problems. They were "those of the circumcision," that is, "Jewish converts" [William Mounce, WBC: Pastoral Epistles, 396]. We call them Judaizers, which means that they had professed to believe in Christ but they had not left off dependency upon circumcision, dietary laws, and other rituals with Judaism. Theirs was a deficient Christianity based upon a distorted gospel. We find Paul and Barnabas battling against them in Asia Minor, particularly in Galatia where even Barnabas had been caught up temporarily in their deceit; and the church council standing against them in Acts 15. Their talk was "empty" or vain. They used a lot of words but when all was said and done, there was no substance to it. Yet through the smoothness of the tongue, the convincing arguments of human reasoning, or the browbeating manipulation of legalism, they were able to deceive.
2. Evident in their tactics (v. 11b)
These "rebellious men" used a teaching platform to carry out their intentions, which Paul described as "teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain." They wanted to extract something from those under their power and influence, whether money, power, or material goods. "Sordid gain" translates two words that mean dishonest profit. They teach "for the sake of" or by reason of gaining something for self without regard for Christ and His kingdom. They were spiritual mercenaries, fleecing the flock in order to make personal profit. They did this by "teaching things they should not teach." This can be translated, "teaching that which is unnecessary." I believe that conveys something of the content of their teaching. They taught "unnecessary" additions to the gospel. They added to what Christ had done; not being satisfied that Jesus' death was enough to effectively atone for our sins and propitiate the just wrath of God. More was needed in their estimation, such as following dietary laws, observing particular feast days, circumcision, and strict Sabbath regulations.
The same kind of motivation for the sake of grabbing money or power or attention or even sexual favors shows up far too often in our day. Quite a few years ago, a prominent pastor of a large Baptist church in Texas, began to slowly water-down his preaching. No longer addressing the problem of sin, no longer emphasizing the solitary message of Christ's sufficiency, he began to delve more into prosperity, successful living, and self-help preaching, laced with a few Bible verses and familiar phrases. Many loved it because they did not have to face the issue of their sin or come to terms with the crucified and risen Lord or repent of their sinful ways. They could go to church and feel good about their lifestyles of worldly indulgence. Someone got suspicious, and discovered that the pastor used his power to seduce several women in the church, and even maintained regular liaisons with them. He taught things that he should not teach for the sake of dishonest gain.
3. Evident in their testimony (v. 12)
Paul quotes a seventh century B.C. prophet by the name of Epimenides. He was lauded by Plato and Aristotle for being a divine prophet. His assessment of the Cretans, applied especially in this case to the "rebellious men" that were deceiving the churches, Paul considered right on target. "One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, 'Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.' This testimony is true." As Calvin pointed out, "All truth is of God," so, Paul finds a pearl of truth in the midst of ancient paganism [quoted by John Stott, Guard the Truth, 181]. Cretans were known for lying so much so that ancient Greeks used a form of the name Cretan as a euphemism for "liar." Since there were no wild beasts on this island, that by this era had been stripped of its once lush forests, "evil beasts" implied, as Wm. Mounce put it, "in the absence of wild animals, [Cretans] assumed the role themselves" [Mounce, 398]. "Lazy gluttons" literally means "lazy belly," and describes the uncontrolled greed of the Cretans, and especially of these "rebellious men" [ELKGNT, 509]. One writer cleverly expressed this in a poem.
Liars ever, men of Crete,
Nasty brutes that live to eat [Quinn, quoted by Mounce, 397-398].
Just take a look at their lives, Paul recommends. See if the gospel has made a distinct difference in their behavior, in their conversation, in their desires, and in the way they treat others. The testimony of the gospel lives in those whom Christ has redeemed and set apart for leading the flock. "Rebellious men" are just that-rebellious against the gospel, rebellious against God's law as a standard and guide for Christian living, and rebellious against depending upon the grace of God in Christ alone for merit.''
4. Evident in their teaching (v. 14)
Paul summed up their teaching: "Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth." This is very evident by the implication in verse 15, that unclean foods and neglecting religious rituals and associating with anything unclean nullifies the merit of Christ for the believer; that Christ is not enough. "Jewish myths and commandments of men" were superstitions and ascetic practices passed along as truth, and legalistic commands supposedly to gain righteousness. But the fact is that these things cause a person to "turn away from the truth," with "truth" being a technical term for the gospel.
Here is the crux of the issue. When someone teaches that there something other than Christ or in addition to Christ, necessary for salvation, that person is a false teacher.
II. By failing in pastoral correction
The apostle had a mission to instruct Titus who would take action against the false teachers, and thereby give an example for the elders on how they were to care for the churches under their charge.
1. Right use of authority
There is no hesitation on Paul's part to declare a moral necessity on the part of Titus and the elders in Crete to silence the false teachers. They "must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain." "Must" is the translation of the word "necessary" or moral necessity. Titus had to take action to muzzle the false teachers, without excuses or delays.
But how would he do this? He might hurt someone's feelings! He might upset the wrong people in the church! That did not matter. False teaching must be silenced, and those whom God has placed in spiritual leadership within the churches have the authority to take action. Neither Titus nor any of those appointed as elders were to exercise carte blanche authority. There were parameters that warned against lording over the flock or taking advantage of the flock in some way by the inappropriate use of authority (1 Peter 5:2-3). But the words used to identify this church office, elder, overseer, and pastor express the exercise of authority over a particular people.
We've fretted over the abuse of authority over the centuries. It is still abused. But I would also insist that authority to lead God's people in following after Christ and modeling the gospel and disciplining believers is more neglected than abused. Too much is at stake to neglect the wise, humble, and Christ-honoring use of authority to help the church maintain its testimony of the gospel in the world.
2. Proper application of Scripture (v. 13b)
After agreeing with Epimenides testimony about the Cretans, Paul did not say, 'Well, you know Titus, there's just some things we have to live with; there's some things that we just cannot do anything about.' "For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith." Reprove is the same word used in verse 9, "refute those who contradict." It is the same word used 1 Timothy 5:20 for publicly rebuking elders who have persisted in a pattern of sin. It is the same word used in 2 Timothy 4:2 in relationship to effective preaching of God's Word. And if that was not enough, Paul used the word again in Titus 2:15, connecting it with the authority that is wielded by proper use of God's Word: "These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you." Titus was not to give his opinion about the behavior of the false teachers. He was to expose them by the continued teaching of Holy Scripture and right application of the gospel.
That hasn't changed. Every church needs pastoral correction from time to time, the kind of correction that comes out of the Word of God being rightly opened and expounded and applied. As a matter of fact, every person occasionally needs pastoral correction. We do not understand everything about the Christian life or how it is to be lived or how it works out in all of our relationships. So, as we regularly attend to the proclamation of God's Word, as that Word is opened and applied to our lives, those areas needing correction is laid bare by the Word. We are instructed in the ways of God and the Christ-centered focus of Christian living. It is sometimes difficult to hear (as well as often difficult to declare!). It sometimes causes pain. But it is a necessary part of our sanctification so that we "may be sound in the faith."
3. Correct motive and aim (vv. 13-14)
The right use of authority displayed most prominently in properly applying God's Word to the church or to individuals in the church, has a clear motive: that the church "may be sound in the faith." The "faith" that Paul speaks of is not the subjective experience of faith, though that is related, but it is the body of truth that we call the gospel. "Sound" translates a word that means "healthy." Sharp reproofs through the Word are sometime necessary to correct behavior and beliefs that have gone astray, and to turn the believers toward healthy understanding and application of the Word in their lives. Everyone who ministers the Word must weigh his motives when offering reproofs. Is he taking a shot at Christ's church as a display of power or to manipulate them for his own ends? Or does he have the desire to see the body of Christ healthy and holy?
What happens when this is neglected in the church? If a church's focus is on making everyone feel good about himself, or one of the multitude of substitutes for biblical exposition that plague our pulpits, then the door opens for church shipwrecks. The building might still be in tact. The attendance might even appear grand. But something has happened to the spiritual lives of the people. Instead of a holy people "zealous for good deeds," they become self-absorbed, self-centered, religious people. When the church has no testimony of the purity and priority of the gospel in the community, it is shipwrecked.
Is this not the danger in our day? We have so many people professing to be Christians, and yet we have so little impact on our communities. Morals continue to slide. Ethical practices continue to erode. Marriages constantly implode. Work ethic spirals downward. Rather than salt and light in the communities, Christians seem to be joining the world and its lifestyles. Our goal must be soundness in what we believe and how we practice the Christian life, not falling for subtle distractions or men's opinions or the leanings of the religious crowd.
III. By tolerating a false gospel
How closely do most churches consider the gospel proclaimed from their classrooms, youth meetings, evangelistic visits, music, and pulpits? It is no exaggeration to state that the one thing that we must get right in our church ministries is the gospel! Yet, I would propose to you that the one thing that far too many Christians presume is being preached and sung and talked about is the gospel, when often that is not the case. I grew up in a church where I rarely heard the gospel. Only a few people seemed to be bothered that the pastor did not preach the gospel and many of the teachers did not teach it. It was assumed that because we were a cooperating Southern Baptist Church in the South that everything was fine! It seemed that most were lulled into half-sleep without realizing the dire consequences facing the church and community for tolerating a false gospel. Indeed, if the gospel is not rightly preached then it is a false gospel that leads people to putting their trust in something deficient and inadequate rather than in Christ. Titus faced the same problem in Crete. How would he recognize this kind of false gospel?
1. Built on the wrong foundation (v. 15)
Keep in mind that Paul has already identified "those of the circumcision" that had professed to be Christians as the major force for spreading a false gospel. Their reliance upon rituals and ascetic practices rather than Christ established a faulty foundation for their faith. So Paul counters them by declaring, "To the pure, all things are pure." That is, to those who have been made pure by Christ, eating foods deemed unclean or touching people considered defiled in no way affected one's purity before God. Yet the opponents of the gospel of grace that had infiltrated the churches in Crete insisted that Christ was not enough. One must adhere to particular rituals to be made pure before God. But what Paul points out is that in spite of the rituals and ascetic practices, these false professors of Christ remain in their sin: "but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled." "Paul asserts," as Mounce explains, "that those who are morally defiled and do not believe cannot be made acceptable to God even by ritual purity because everything about them is unclean... Their real problem is not ceremonial but moral" . Their hearts remained corrupted because their trust was in what they did to make themselves pure rather than relying upon the righteousness of Christ on their behalf.
Unless the foundation of one's faith is built solidly upon Jesus Christ crucified and raised from the dead, then it is a misplaced faith built upon a crumbling foundation. For so many, the foundation of their faith is in their profession or their baptism or a prayer they prayed or the assurance given by a parent or a pastor rather than in Christ alone.
2. Draws the wrong conclusion (v. 16)
Here's the grave danger that has been promoted even among evangelicals. As long as you profess to know Christ, then all is well. But note Paul's warning. "They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless [disqualified] for any good deed." The emphasis that Paul places upon the gospel is that it is not simply a profession-it is a life. As J. Gresham Machen put it, Christianity "is a life founded on a doctrine [i.e., the gospel]" [quoted by Tom Ascol, Founders Journal, Fall 2005, 5]. We must have the right foundation in the gospel of Christ alone. By the grace of God, a life is built upon that foundation, focused on pursuing the good works that God ordained for each believer (Eph. 2:10).
There's an interesting connection in this epistle concerning good works (1:16; 2:7; 2:14; 3:8; 3:14). The false professors are "worthless for any good deed," or more literally, they are disqualified in their good deeds by reason of the rebellion and unbelief in their hearts. Whatever works they false professors do have no value with God. It lacks the inner quality, innate good, virtue, and beauty of one redeemed by the blood of Christ and divinely fitted and fashioned to glorify God by such works. These works bear the stamp of God upon them, pointing to His glory, done in humility and out of gratitude for so great a grace shown to an unworthy sinner. No merit is attempted or gained in such works, only offerings of praise to Him who alone is worthy of all glory and honor!
There are those that do lots of seeming good things. But doing good things cannot transform a corrupt heart. That work belongs to Christ alone.
I pose three questions to you for reflection:
Is your life built upon the foundation of Christ and His finished work?
Do you receive and accept pastoral correction that aims toward soundness in the faith?
Do you value giving priority to godly leadership in the church?
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