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.
As 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.
- Local church life and ministry must be backed by God’s authority.
Paul 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- NT local churches require biblically qualified elders.
Much 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).
- 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.
- Biblically qualified elders are appointed by other qualified leaders.
Potential 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.