This article is part of an ongoing study. The writer’s intention is to look at each phrase and statement in the letter and to glean a simple understanding of what Paul was writing to Titus about. There will not be a lengthy introduction to each article so it would be advantageous to read the previous articles either in the printed edition of the magazine or online via www.preciousseed.org.
Paul had left Titus in Crete to complete some unfinished business. He had been on the island at some stage with Titus and had moved on leaving him behind. It is not really clear from scripture when Paul had visited the island; the only record is in Acts chapter 27 but it seems unlikely that this is the occasion that he is referring to as he was on his way to Rome. What we do know is that he was there and Titus had work to complete on Paul’s behalf. As we work our way through the rest of the letter we will come across the different loose ends that had to be tied up. Titus was instructed to ensure that the new believers understood the truth that would enable them to be healthy Christians. Teaching and good practice are emphasized in this epistle; one is not promoted at the expense of the other. Paul addresses social issues, relationship issues, truth about God and His character, church government and leadership. The apostle also focuses on problems of wrong doctrine and seemingly impressive preachers, the dangers and pitfalls of cultural and ethnic norms, family structures and order. As the letter progresses, Paul considers Christian behaviour in the workplace, doctrine about the Lord Jesus Christ, the Christian’s civic obligations, the doctrine of salvation, the testimony of a believer and their influence on society. There seems to be very little that he does not cover in this short letter. All this truth and information was for passing on to new believers yet, in our generation, many believers have a very basic diet compared to the one we see outlined in ‘Titus’.
The second reason for writing was the appointment of elders in every city. Reading this letter in isolation without any other New Testament letters may lead us to ask ‘should there be elders “per city” as opposed to “per church”?’ However, when referring to the other passages in scripture that deal with elders, we always find that they are linked to a local church and not a city.
Therefore, it is safe to assume that each city had an assembly. As we follow the progress of the gospel in Acts chapters 14 and 15, we see cities being visited, souls being saved and churches being established in each of these towns and cities. In Acts chapter 15 verse 36 Paul and Barnabas decide to go back and visit every city (these could be small towns) to see how the brethren were getting on.
The second thing we notice here is that Titus was to appoint elders in every city not over every city. The ecclesiastical system of ‘bishops’ over cities is not biblical; the elder was a man of maturity who cared for the flock of God but did not dominate it. The word used for a ‘bishop’ was adopted long ago by the ‘church’ world to serve its ends in building an ecclesiastical hierarchy. In the New Testament, the word simply means an overseer, one who has responsibility to watch over the people of God and to lead and direct them in the fear of God. We will see more of this as we go through the features of an elder in this passage. The word ‘appoint’ is sometimes replaced with the word ‘ordain’. Strictly speaking, this only means ‘to point the finger’, i.e., to identify.
Identifying and recognizing elders in a local assembly can be problematic. Human nature being what it is, there will always be a tendency for individuals to see the work of an elder in terms of power and position. Individuals may seek this position and relatives, friends and families may be keen to see someone from their group take this role. It is very clear from the teaching of the New Testament that being an overseer is a work and not a position of power. The significance of how the writers of the New Testament define the work of an overseer, outline the qualities that must be found in one who is called to this work, and describe how they are called and/or identified must not be lost on us.
Let us have a look at how different parties in the New Testament played their role in identifying elders:
Evangelists and Teachers – in Acts chapter 14 verse 23 we see Paul and Barnabas returning to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. While they are there they strengthen the souls of the disciples and encourage them to go on for God, despite the impending persecution that they will face. Before they leave, they chose elders ‘in every church’, praying and fasting as they commend them to the Lord.
The local believers – In two different verses in Hebrews chapter 13 we are taught that believers in the local assembly should know who the elders are. Chapter 13 verse 7 says, ‘Remember them which have the rule over you’, and verse 17 states, ‘Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls’. In both instances you cannot follow or obey if you do not know who the elders are. So the believers in a local assembly should be able to identify who the elders are.1
Other existing elders – When addressing the honour and material provision that the local assembly should make for an elder, 1 Tim. 5. 17-25, Paul also addresses a couple of other issues. One of these is that a man should not be brought into the number of elders suddenly but carefully, v. 22.
The Holy Spirit of God – When Paul meets the elders from Ephesus, as recorded in Acts chapter 20, he gives them a warning about future difficulties that they will face. It would be easy to give up and be disheartened when things got tough. Paul reminds them that the work of the overseer was given to them by the Holy Spirit of God. He says ‘over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers’. The work of the elder is a divinely appointed work. It is also the work of feeding God’s people and there is a great necessity to remember that the church (the people of God) was personally purchased by the blood of Christ and is therefore precious to Him.
In Acts chapter 14 verse 23, Paul and Barnabas are on a return visit to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch. They are spending time establishing the new believers in their faith and encouraging them to ‘continue in the faith’, despite the fact that the path they are on will be hard. Before leaving these towns and the individual churches in each of them, we are informed that they ‘appointed elders in every church’. The idea in this expression is that they chose them; they pointed them out; they identified them. On what basis would they be chosen? On the preference of the visiting preachers or by a more independent standard? The criteria are set out in our passage in Titus chapter 1 and in 1 Timothy chapter 3, which we will come back to.2
When we come to the record in Acts chapter 20 verse 28 where Paul meets the elders from the church in Ephesus, he makes this statement: ‘Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood’. This passage is teaching us that men are ‘made overseers’ by the Holy Spirit. It is a work that God calls men to and fits them for; it is a spiritual work. It is not an administrative role or a management role but it is a role involving spiritual leadership. The terms used to describe the work are significant. In Acts chapter 14 the men are called ‘elders’, indicating that they are spiritually mature, see also 1 Tim. 3. 6. In addition to this, in Acts chapter 20 they are called ‘overseers’ which describes what they do – they care for God’s people, they watch over and oversee the condition of the church of God. They rule, guide and lead appropriately to meet the needs of the saints. In this passage the local elders are also reminded that their responsibility is to ‘shepherd the church of God’.
First Timothy chapter 5 deals with the responsibility of the local church to provide for and respect, give double honour to, elders who ‘labour in the word and doctrine’. That is, there will be among the overseers men who are teachers of the word and their hard work in this respect may, at times, deprive them of other means of income. There is no precedent in the New Testament for one man to be employed by a local assembly to preach and teach. There is, however, a responsibility on a local church to meet the financial and material needs of those who have made sacrifices to feed the church of God.
In the next article we will discover the character of the men whom God will raise up to be elders.
‘The church of God’, 1 Tim. 3. 5; ‘in every church’, Acts 14. 23; ‘with the whole church’, Acts 15. 22; ‘called the elders of the church’, Acts 20. 17; ‘the elders of the church’, Jas. 5. 14.
The same point is made in 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 verses 12, 13.
It is clear from reading the accounts in the book of Acts, 11. 30, 20.17, and the epistles, Phil. 1. 1; Jas. 5. 14, that ‘the elders’ were a clearly identifiable group of men. It should not need to be stated, as it is obvious from an honest reading of the New Testament, that elders were always men. Leadership has been placed in the hands of men which is not a popular concept in the modern world.
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