February 24, 2016

Titus, Church Planting, & a Local Church Refresher

by Eric Davis
Island_of_Crete,_Greece (1)


Imagine the scene. A guy gets dropped off on a 140 by 30 mile island. With beautiful weather, rich agriculture, calm beaches, and mountainous landscape, it was, externally, a great place. However, as he spends time there, reality sets in. The island is inhabited by stiff-necked, unsaved religious people and liars, evil beasts, and lazy gluttons. There is no worse combination. The place is so debauched that even Greeks cringed at the thought of it. Later, he receives a letter which says, “I want a good church going in every town on the island.” And, at that time, it’s likely that there were about 100 towns.

This was the situation in which Titus found himself near A.D. 60 on the island of Crete, and for which Paul wrote the New Testament letter.

Though Crete prided itself on once having advanced societies such as the Minoans, history records it was so bad in Titus’ day, that to be called a “Cretan” was to be called something like a liar or drunk. Even so, and, perhaps, especially so, Paul and Titus did not see it as off-limits for evangelism and planting strong churches. The book of Titus was written, in part, to make this happen in Crete, and, places like Crete thereafter.

For this reason, I’ve found the book of Titus to be a helpful and strengthening study as a younger church plant. I suppose, also, it would be an equally helpful study for anyone in the throes of a church revitalization. In some sense, Titus is a God-breathed church planter’s and revitalizer’s manual. Why? Consider Titus’ task: among other things, he was to plant strong churches in the sense of gathering existing, unassimilated believers, into NT kind of churches in the midst of a godless, gluttonous, religious culture.

2013-04-14_12-45-42_11As I had the opportunity to stroll around the island of Crete a few springs ago, I was stunned and sobered at the daunting task facing Titus: “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). Sadly, today on Crete, there seems to be little of the book of Titus happening. In downtown Heraklion, there sits one of the larger “churches” (which was closed on Sunday!). Outside was a tiny plaque which gloried in the claim to possess the skull of Titus. And, while chatting with a guy at the Greek yogurt shop, instead of telling me about the Apostle Paul or Titus, he told me about Zeus.

In Titus’ day, things were likely worse. And to equip him for setting in order what remained, Paul handed him the short, 46-verse letter.

This is not an attempt to say all that there is to say regarding church ministry from Titus. Rather, these are a few observations simply from Titus 1:5 pertaining to church planting, revitalizing, and local church ministry in general.

  1. Local church life and ministry must be backed by God’s authority.

20160224_002020Paul left Titus in Crete to set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city. But, if Titus was to faithfully carry out the commands in the letter, he’d need to have more than his own authority. That’s why the Apostle Paul wrote. As an apostolic delegate, Titus had the authority of Christ behind setting things in ecclesiological order. Insofar as he stuck to Paul’s instructions, everything he did was under God’s authority. We can do the same today as we stick to the book of Titus.

  1. Church ministry and doings are not arbitrarily determined.

God’s kind of order was the best way to bring God’s care to God’s people, hence the command, “…set in order what remains…” The phrase, “set in order” is translated from a word which carried the idea of standing straight or putting something on its feet; to make straight something which has shifted from its correct position (TDNT, 5:450).

God wants the local church—the members, doctrine, leadership, disciple-making—to be done a certain way, hence books like Titus. Generally speaking, Paul is saying to Titus, “We started something according to God’s word and by his power. We need to finish it according to his word and by his power. Don’t worry too much about being creative, just be faithful to do what I wrote.”

  1. Regeneration merely begins the work of local church ministry.


Likely Paul and Titus had seen a number of Cretans come to faith in Christ. Contrary to some approaches to missions these days, Paul never says to Titus, “Great, we have a bunch of people who made a profession of faith in Christ, our work is done here!” Conversion is not the end of the matter, but the beginning. When a baby is born, the parents do not say, “No more work to be done here!” The work of the ministry is no more finished with people getting saved than parenting is with a baby being born.

Since God had miraculously granted spiritual life to the former evil beasts and lazy gluttons, the work had begun. Things needed setting in order. These spiritual newborns now needed to be brought in for care into a NT kind of local church.

Sidenote: if Cretans could come to faith in Christ, then the difficult people in our towns can too.

  1. All Christians are to be assimilated into local churches.

So here is Titus, on Crete, with a few situations before him: new converts to Christ, not knowing exactly what to do and older converts not knowing exactly what to do. They needed to be assimilated into a local church because God’s best and God’s kind of care for new and old believers is the NT local church.

In light of Paul’s command to appoint elders, there were likely loosely affiliated believers with no biblically qualified leadership to exercise God’s local church care. The way to do that was nothing more or less than getting every single believer assimilated into NT local churches.

Sheep need organized shepherding; every sheep expressing his God-given, sheep-identity by visible commitment and belonging to a NT church. When people are saved, they are saved into the flock of God (vertically). Horizontally, that is expressed by assimilation into a local church.

  1. God desires strong, enduring local churches.

God did not, and does not, want flash-in-the-pan local churches. He is too good and cares too much for people to throw up proverbial lean-to ministries. These instructions show that Paul wants churches set in place for the long-haul.



His command, “set in order,” describes, generally, making something strong which was not so much. Paul wanted churches that would stand and withstand the winds and storms of the world, flesh, and the devil.

Further, strong, enduring churches as the goal is evidenced from the many different commands. Strong leaders (vv. 1-9) makes for strong churches. Competent handling of false teachers and teaching makes for strong churches (vv. 10-16). Sound, biblically mature older men and women, and younger men and women, makes for strong churches (2:1-8). And things like good employees in the workplace (2:9-10), people strong in the gospel (2:11-14), and good-works zealots (2:14), would be ingredients for enduring churches.

To “set in order what remains” is a blueprint for churches in every place; churches that would be less like mushrooms and more like oaks. Such churches would ensure that God’s kind of care would be extended to additional generations.

  1. Christianity as a whole is to be local-church based.

In other words, there is not a superior or alternative organism through which and in which the Christian’s Christianity is to be expressed. Whether evangelism, corporate worship, using our spiritual gifts, or the one anothers, the local church is where the equipping, strengthening, and launching for each takes place.

Paul is not telling Titus and the Cretans to find, or start, alongside-church ministries just in case his plan in the letter didn’t quite work out. Churches were to be planted in the sense of getting biblically qualified leadership in place and following the other commands. As that happened, converts assimilated into the local churches in order to grow in godliness and learn to be good witnesses in a godless, gluttonous culture. For Paul, the local church was God’s ordained organism to accomplish those things. God wanted every Christian expressing his Christianity in and through a church. Today, it is no different.

  1. NT local churches require biblically qualified elders.

2013-04-14_10-13-19_757Much of “setting in order what remains” was to appoint elders in local churches. Part of the definition, then, of order in NT kind of local churches, is the presence of “elders.” The qualifications for an elder were explained clearly in Titus 1:6-9. And, despite Crete being a drunken, gluttonous island, Paul believed that God could nevertheless hatch elders there.

Elders are men qualified by God to lead the local church. In his book, Biblical Eldership, Alexander Strauch writes that “elders lead the church, teach and preach the word, protect the church from false teachers, exhort and admonish the saints in sound doctrine, visit the sick and pray, and judge doctrinal issues…[and they] shepherd, oversee, lead, and care for the local church” (16).

  1. God desires a team of elders in every church.

A plurality of biblically qualified elders in each church is God’s plan. Paul practiced the same in other churches (Acts 14:23). Alexander Strauch writes, “Paul did not consider a church to be fully developed until it had functioning, qualified elders” (Biblical Eldership, 37). God’s desire for every NT local church, and his best for humanity, is a team of elders.

  1. Biblically qualified elders are appointed by other qualified leaders.

2013-04-14_16-02-23_968Potential elders, however, were not self-appointed or self-recognized. Instead, Titus was commanded to find guys, raise them up, and recognize them as elders. The Greek word for “appoint” (v. 5) has to do with setting in an elevated position. Someone else who is already in a place of biblical leadership was to identify them formally for the exalted task.

And Paul will not leave the criteria up to Titus. The qualifications for elders are not arbitrary, but very specific, as expressed in 1:6-9.

Once saved through faith in the Person and finished work of Christ, God’s people get brought into the most glorious organism in the universe; the church. Though often messy and seemingly mundane, the NT kind of local church is God’s best, no-alternative plan for humanity this side of heaven. In and through such churches, God brings his perfect care through his perfect sovereignty, saving and sanctifying even Cretans like us.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • The local autonomous NT congregation / assembly of Christians with qualified team of elders prevents mass apostasy. For example, if one congregation falls away, the others remain true. This wouldn’t hold true with headquartered churches. If the HQ changes the doctrines, all branches have to follow suit. Good article.

    • Eric Davis

      Agreed, Thomas. Thanks for the comments.

    • Karl Heitman

      That’s a great point. Never thought of it that way.

  • Ted Bigelow


    I’m sorry, but I’m afraid your article misses the point by assuming Titus was church planting on Crete. He wasn’t. He was repairing existing churches there that had gone horribly astray.

    Here’s three points to consider.

    1) Nothing in the letter hints at church planting. There’s no mention of it, once, which is strange if that is what Paul is telling him to do.

    The only possible idea supporting your thesis are the words, “set in order” in 1:5. But even your explanation above shows that isn’t teaching church planting since it requires straightening something already in existence, not something about to be started, See, you admit as much: “God’s kind of order was the best way to bring God’s care to God’s people, hence the command, ‘…set in order what remains…’ The phrase, ‘set in order’ is translated from a word which carried the idea of standing straight or putting something on its feet; to make straight something which has shifted from its correct position (TDNT, 5:450).”

    On the other hand, everything in the letter shows Paul expected Titus to ‘set in order’ the practices of both existing churches and believers.

    2) You missed Acts 1:11 which states that men from Crete were at Pentecost. Your article, which states that Titus was nely planting churches on Crete, requires these men never took Christianity back to Crete, or if they did, they failed in establishing churches. But if they failed in these way, why would Luke mention them as the fruit of Pentecost?

    3) You misinterpret Titus 1:5 when you write, “A plurality of biblically qualified elders in each church is God’s plan (Titus 1:5).” That isn’t what the Spirit inspired to write, nor is it then what Paul meant, unless what Paul meant was one church in every city. Paul wrote, “appoint elders in every city.”

    • Eric Davis

      Hi Ted – thanks for the comments. I know this is a passion of yours as we have interacted about church planting issues before and appreciate the interaction. Agreed that the letter does not mention church planting per se. However, here is why I think it’s safe to assume something like it happened. When those handful of believers came back from Crete and after Paul and Titus’ evangelistic efforts later, there were converts on the island. However, Paul commands the setting in order what remains. So, some work (converts) had started in various places, but, the work had not been brought to maturity, in the sense of NT functioning churches. Maybe there were people gathering for Bible studies. Things were disorganized. Believers needed to be assimilated, brought under the plurality of NT elders, taught, cared for, and equipped on how to live so that the word of God would not be dishonored, but that the doctrine of God our Savior would be adorned (2:5, 9). It’s similar to a when a group of believers is gathering now and then for prayer, study, and worship, but realizes that they need trained leadership, so, they get connected with a place which trains and sends such men. Now, as you rightly point out, this is not starting from complete scratch: it’s not like planting a tree from one seed, but more like cultivating and strengthening a struggling sapling in the wild or something. Did Titus ever start something from complete scratch? Perhaps there was a situation, for example, in a town where there was one or two believers. Perhaps they were equipped by Titus, then did some evangelism (as Titus certainly would have done and known how to do, travelling with Paul), saw people come to Christ, then, eventually, a church was started like that. That is not outside of the bounds of possibilities from what we read in the letter.

      You and I have interacted previously regarding your belief that there is to be only one church in every city. While I disagree with your assertion there, here is what I think was happening in Crete: there were something like unassimilated believers scattered around the island and not NT churches in place. Things needed to be set in order, beginning with raising up qualified elders. What would the beginning of that look like? An actual church going in every town. Once there was a church going in every town, believers could get the care they needed and unbelievers could become a part of God’s plan this side of heaven; mature, God-glorifying NT churches.

      Praise God for his grace extended in such places like Crete! And what a daunting task Titus had in front of him! May God use the letter of Titus to encourage us all in our respective ministries.

      • Ted Bigelow

        Hi Eric,

        Thanks for the pushback.

        Allow me just to say quickly that there is no indication in the letter of the type of disorganized and undeveloped environment you mention. Quite the opposite, especially in 1:10-16, 2:1-8, 3:1, 3:10-11, 3:14. Paul was simply asking Titus to reorganize the churches in in every city of Crete (likely over 100, cf. Acts 27:8) and still return to him in Nicopolis in Greece in the very near future (3:12). How could Titus plant churches in every city, appoint elders in them all, an activity that takes years if not decades, and simultaneously leave Crete altogether?

        As you know it takes years to plant churches and even more for qualified elders to develop, the only kind Paul allowed to be appointed. This is important since Paul required that no new converts could be elders (1 Tim. 3:6).

        And as you also know, new churches are made up of new and immature believers. But to ask Titus to appoint some of these believers as elders, as your article claims is being taught in 1:5, has Paul violating the principle he gave to Titus by inspiration from God to Timothy in Ephesus.

        It renders Paul a man who not only breaks God’s word for the sake of expediency, but his own as well. In other words, a double tongued man. He also does not care for churches as he ought, since he would command, not merely allow, for unqualified men to lead Christ’s own. Therefore, his words in Titus are not to be trusted. Yet, he claims to be writing as an apostle of Jesus Christ in 1:1.

        So either the apostle was disqualified as a servant of Jesus Christ and is a dangerous leader of churches after writing the letter of Titus, or the church planting thesis of the book of Titus is flatly wrong.

        • Eric Davis

          Hi Ted – thanks for bringing up those points. Paul certainly was not a dangerous leader. Also, agreed, that the work on Crete would have been enormous, taking even years. I do not think, however, that the scope of the work necessarily negates my previous point. Elders were raised up fairly quickly (much faster than I could!), for example, in the churches during Paul’s missionary journey in Acts 13-14 (cf. Acts 14:23). So, it could be done in a shorter time. And, I do not think that Titus’ potential trip to Nicopolis necessarily negates the point either. Perhaps it was a strengthening trip for Titus and he would return to Crete for a time. Perhaps Titus may have had other ministry assistants in place who could have helped him carry out Paul’s commands as he was away. Also, Paul called Timothy, for example, in 2 Timothy 4:9 to pay him a visit despite many strenuous ministry commands, including raising up leaders (cf. 2 Tim. 2:2). This did not mean that Timothy would abandon the work.

          Also, the presence of commands, as you indicated, such as 1:10-16 and 2:1-8 do not automatically mean that there did not exist a very disorganized, grass-roots situations in some locations. Paul’s commands regarding false teachers, old men and women, and young men and women, does not necessarily mean that there existed a large demographic of each in every place. As those demographics came to Christ and come to Christ, God’s will is laid down for them, whether or not they all existed in every town at the time the letter was written. And we are blessed to have the whole counsel of God for the building and strengthening of strong churches today. Praise God for his care for his churches!

          • Ted Bigelow

            Hey Erik,

            Again, thanks for interacting with me here.

            But I must reiterate how foreign your ideas of the background of the latter to Titus are to what is written in it, and on appointing new convert elders.

            Your idea that Paul’s demand that Titus leave Crete and go to Nicopolis once the lawyer Zenas shows up as a temporary trip for strengthening, or for temporary personal ministry to Paul, is simply that, an idea. But it is without any support in the letter.

            More serious is the idea that you allow for new converts to be appointed as elders in direct contradiction to Paul’s requirement in 1 Tim. 3:6. The qualification is not “not a new convert, unless trained by an apostle” or “not a new convert, unless spiritually mature.” It is “not a new convert.”

            This qualification is necessary for healthy churches and healthy men, so that new converts, no matter how gifted, will not “fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil.” Our landscape of churches is littered with the adulterous, the money-grabbers, and the shamed who were placed into eldership for giftedness and on-the-surface-maturity while still new converts. I know. I’ve appointed some of them into eldership, to my shame (1 Tim. 5:22). Saints are embittered and wounded, and the name of Christ is dishonored.

            As for Acts 14:23, the men appointed into eldership could NOT have been new converts, else 1 Tim. 3:6 is violated. Period.

            How then to understand their elder appointment when the churches in those cities were new and the gospel only there for less than a year? The men appointed had been regenerate under the Mosaic dispensation in their several synagogues prior to the gospel reaching them – hence their immediate reception when Paul proclaimed Christ to them. Thus they were not new converts as regards regeneration, or spiritual maturity. They were also likely experienced in spiritual leadership of God’s people in the synagogues they came out of, and by the time Paul and Barnabas came back they were solid in the gospel and able to think rightly about the New Covenant in Christ, and shepherd the saints with their years of experience. If one wishes to disagree, then I don’t see how Paul escapes the claim he broke 1 Tim. 3:6.

            Last, there is no way for an apostle to make another man spiritually mature in shorter time than another, as you assert. A study of Paul’s churches he spent the most time with proves this (Ephesus, Corinth). But even if one could, or a Titus could, and they appointed new converts into the elder office they would still violate 1 Tim. 3:6.

          • How can new converts be elders? 1 Tim.3:6 says that an elder should not be a novice or new convert. Can a babe be called an elder or lead in any way? Would they be able to teach and guide people to heaven? (Just some thoughts.)

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