In the first chapter of his letter to Titus, Paul describes the qualities of a good church leader. He warns that some people try to lead believers away from the truth. Even in the 21st century, Paul’s advice is still needed.
Paul begins by announcing his role and his purpose: "Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness…" (Titus 1:1).
In the Roman world, a slave in charge of the emperor’s business had a higher social status than many free people did. Paul, as slave to the ruler of the universe, had tremendous importance and status. He was sent by Christ as an apostle or official messenger with two major purposes: 1) to bring God’s people to faith and 2) to teach them truth to help them live godly lives.
Our beliefs and behavior are built on a solid foundation: They are "resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time" (v. 2). Our hope is more than a wishful thought — it is as secure as God himself. Our eternity is secure because God has power over time itself.
This promise of eternal life was announced in the gospel: "at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior" (v. 3). Paul here combines a term usually used for the Father with a term usually used for the Son, and it is not certain here which one he means.
After describing himself and his mission, Paul begins: "To Titus, my true son in our common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior" (v. 4). Titus was a Gentile (Gal. 2:3), but Paul calls him a "true son," who faithfully continued Paul’s work. Earlier, Titus had successfully dealt with a difficult problem in Corinth (2 Cor. 7:6-7).
Qualities of a good leader
Paul then announces the purpose of his letter: "The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you" (Titus 1:5).
Titus already knew what Paul had told him, and he already knew the points Paul made in verses 1-4. But Paul includes these things in his letter because the letter would be read out loud in the churches in which Titus worked — and in this way the members in Crete would accept what Titus was doing, and then Titus could move on.
For the benefit of the congregation, Paul lists the characteristics of a good elder: "An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient" (v. 6).
If we take Paul too literally, we might think that elders must be married, or that they cannot be remarried even after death has released them from their vows (Rom. 7:1-3). If we read this as a list of legal requirements, then Paul himself could not be an elder! However, his purpose is more general — he is saying that elders, if married, should be faithful in marriage (in that society, mistresses were common).
Elders should also be responsible in their families, but we should not take this legalistically, either. One child who went astray 20 years ago would not automatically disqualify an otherwise well-respected leader.
"Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless — not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain" (v. 7). An elder or overseer (Paul uses the words interchangeably) should not be bossy, irritable or selfish. "Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined" (v. 8).
After this list of personal virtues, Paul briefly addresses the doctrinal needs: A church leader "must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it" (v. 9). Elders must know the gospel and be able to pass it on accurately. They must teach the truth, and denounce the counterfeits.
The believers in Crete needed good leaders because the truth was being distorted: "For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group" (v. 10). Paul’s greatest adversaries were Judaizers who taught that Gentiles should be circumcised and keep the laws of Moses (Acts 15:5; Gal. 5:3).
"They must be silenced," Paul writes. If they teach a false gospel, they should not be allowed to speak to the congregation — a good leader must be willing to exclude them (Rom. 16:17). Why be so strict? "Because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach — and that for the sake of dishonest gain" (Titus 1:11). Some false teachers want money; others want to bolster their ego. Either way, it is dishonest gain.
Paul then quotes "one of their own prophets" — Epimenides, who lived on Crete six centuries earlier: "Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons" (v. 12). This is a philosophical riddle: If Cretans are always liars, can Epimenides be telling the truth? Paul says, "This testimony is true." Every culture has its own problems; the people of Crete had these.
Paul gives the solution: "Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth" (vv. 13-14). Titus is to rebuke the false teachers, so the members will be sound in the faith, so they will not be led away from the gospel of grace.
"To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure" (v. 15). This verse is a proverb that can apply to various situations. But in this context, it refers to Judaizers who declared all sorts of things "unclean."
Even today, some overly zealous people see a problem under every bush, paganism in every custom. The problem is in the eye of the beholder, Paul says: "Both their minds and consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good" (vv. 15-16).
Paul uses strong words, because he was passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who teach legalism, he says, have a tragically distorted concept of God. By their focus on works, they show that they do not trust him to be the author of love and grace — God our Savior.
Questions for discussion
• If time had a beginning, will it ever end? (v. 2)
• Why does Paul list personal virtues before doctrinal accuracy? (v. 9)
• When churches today designate elders, what additional qualities do they consider? (v. 19)
• In a culture that values freedom of speech, should anyone be silenced? (v. 11)