Controversy


The last of the qualifications for elders that Paul mentioned was theological conviction. To lead the church of Jesus Christ a man must know the faith and must believe it absolutely. He must have that theological mind that enables a man to recognize falsehood when it appears, to explain its error, and to commend the truth persuasively to others. The next sentence and the next section begin with “For…” indicating the connection with what has gone before. An elder must have such a theological mind because the church’s loyalty to the truth is going to be tested. He must be able to refute error because there is error abroad.

Text Comment

v.10

The false teachers then troubling the nascent church in Crete are characterized by three adjectives. They are insubordinate – that is, they do not submit to the teaching laid down by the apostles and acknowledged in all the Christian churches – they are people who indulge in empty talking – that is, their teaching has no true value; it does no one any good – and they are deceivers – that is, they mislead. They seek to make people believe that they are teaching the truth, when they are not. And, alas, there were many of these people. They formed a party.

That they belong to the “circumcision group” indicates that this party of false teachers was Jewish Christians. The Greek term (μάλιστα) usually means “especially,” but sometimes can mean “that is.” In that case, Paul would be saying that all the false teachers belonged to the circumcision group. They obviously made much of their Jewishness. We’ll hear more of their particular teachings momentarily.

v.11

The influence of these men had already been devastating for Christian families on Crete – setting family members against one another – and that for mercenary motives. In the course of my life I have seen this myself: the unity of Christian families broken by some teacher who persuades one or the other that this new understanding is the secret to faith and godliness. He or she insists that the rest of the family climb on this bandwagon, they refuse, and soon they are no longer talking to one another.

Paul doesn’t say how these false teachers were to be silenced, though he gives us an idea later when he speaks of sharply rebuking them or those who are listening to them.

v.13

These false teachers are characterized more by their Cretan culture than by their Christian profession. The quotation is from Epimenedes (from the late 7th century B.C., though scholarship isn’t absolutely sure of his dates). Paul uses the quotation to describe the Cretan character in unflattering terms and to explain why there should be such false teaching found especially there. As I mentioned two weeks ago, the Cretans had a reputation in the world of that day for dishonesty (indeed, the verb “to Cretize” meant “to lie”) and also for sensuality. Cicero, for example, says “Moral principles are so divergent that the Cretans…consider highway robbery honorable.” [De Republica 3.9.15] Paul’s point is that this national character lent strength to the platform of the false teachers troubling the church. Of course, the very same thing could be said about the influence of American culture on the American church. It is not surprising that the American church – even the evangelical church – is flirting today with or already embracing the very errors that fit most neatly with the character and moral tendencies of American culture.

“Rebuke them sharply…” could refer to the false teachers or to the Cretan Christians who are being influenced by them. Perhaps the latter is more likely as Paul would be less likely to suppose that the false teachers would become sound in the faith as a result of such a rebuke and, in any case, in v. 14 he seems to distinguish the people who are to be rebuked from “those who reject the truth.” [Knight, 299-300]

v.14

In 3:9 we have reference to this false teaching as “foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law.” Genealogies were spun out based on OT characters and these fanciful histories – what Paul calls “myths” – were then used to support novel interpretations and commandments. And lest you think this sort of thing happened only in the ancient world, this is precisely the kind of speculation with the same sort of heretical result that you find in Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code. A fanciful story is spun and then is made the basis of a moral or ethical viewpoint. False theology leads to false practice; often the false practice is chosen first and the false theology invented to justify it.

v.15

It seems almost certain that the question of purity is raised because it had become one of the points of contention between the false teachers and the orthodox. Insofar as the false teachers addressed in 1 Timothy have clear affinities with those addressed in Titus, in all likelihood Paul means here something like what he said in 1 Tim. 4:3-4: “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving…”

v.16

Strong words indeed!

This is not the only place in the New Testament, as you well know, where the importance of contending for the truth is emphatically stressed. The Lord’s brother, Jude, began his letter by saying,

“Dear friends, although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”

Whole NT books are arguments against false teaching that has intruded upon the mind and heart of the church. Galatians is such a book, so is Colossians, so is Hebrews. And in the Pastoral Epistles, of which Titus is one, Paul says that resisting false teaching and protecting the church from its influence is a primary obligation of pastors and church leaders. The truth is subject to attack at every turn; corruptions of it are constantly being insinuated into the mind of the church. To deny and refute those corruptions has from the very beginning been the first duty of the church’s leadership. It was for the apostles themselves and it has continued to be for the pastors and elders of the church.

Now we have only to read these seven verses aloud to appreciate how strange, even how unpleasant they sound in modern Western ears. To characterize people with a different opinion of things as rebellious, empty talkers, and deceivers; to say of them that they are detestable, disobedient, and unfit for anything good; to order that they be sharply rebuked sounds not only very unmodern but harsh, cruel, judgmental, and arrogant. Who is Paul to claim that he alone is right and all these other men are wrong? Who is he to cast aspersion on the motives of these men, as if orthodox Christian preachers and teachers never have false motives? But, fact is, it is all sham to take offense at Paul’s stern portrayal of the false teachers as charlatans and wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Let’s have none of that. Let’s be honest about this. Fact is, for all the public talk about tolerance, for all the ostensible commitment to pluralism and relativism in modern Western culture, this is still the way people talk, all people talk, about people who hold views that offend them. Richard Rorty, the consequential American philosopher, may teach that we can no longer claim to know truths that are absolute and so universally binding upon all people, that what we call truth is nothing but social construction and personal and usually biased opinion, but he nevertheless savages evangelical Christians for their views as if our ideas are genuinely, objectively, and absolutely evil and his views, in turn, absolutely right. He impugns our intelligence and our motives. He speaks of us, in other words, just like Paul spoke of these false teachers and their ideas. And so does everyone on each side of the important divides in our contemporary culture. So, let’s give Paul the pass he deserves. For all the talk otherwise, we hear just as much of Paul’s language being used nowadays, perhaps especially by people who desire to influence public opinion, as people heard it in Paul’s day. And we will hear this language until the end of the world. And for good reason. This is the moral nature of human beings and the impress of eternity stamped upon their souls expressing themselves.

The difference between Paul and Richard Rorty is this and this only: Paul believed that the truth, the universal truth, the absolute truth, the eternal truth had been revealed in and by Jesus Christ and Richard Rorty does not believe that. Hence their categorical rejection of one another’s viewpoint and hence the severe language they employ in characterizing one another’s teaching and, indeed, one another’s person. Each of these positions has consequences: inevitable and deeply important consequences. Someone is trading in the truth and someone else in egregious error. The language Paul uses here makes perfect sense – no, we can put the point more strongly still – the language Paul uses here is the only appropriate language if, in truth

  1. God the Son became a man and lived among men and died and rose again for their salvation;
  2. If he disclosed himself and through his apostles the truth about God, man, salvation, and the future;
  3. If upon one’s response to that truth hangs a person’s eternal destiny;
  4. If there is in the cosmos a spiritual being of great evil and great power who is always at work subverting that truth so as to prevent the salvation of mankind;
  5. If there is that in our sinful hearts that renders us vulnerable to and susceptible to killing theological error;
  6. If Christ has entrusted his church with the responsibility of holding his truth inviolate, both for the present and the eternal welfare of the people of God and for the saving effect of the church’s witness to the world;
  7. And if the history of the kingdom of God illustrates with monotonous and dismal regularity the ease with which the church can lose her grip on the truth and enthusiastically embrace errors that weaken and finally break her relationship with God.

Stop and think of how many erstwhile Christian churches there are – almost all erstwhile or former Christian churches, by the way, for Christian churches that embrace a corrupted faith rarely reproduce themselves – in which congregations sit Sunday after Sunday without ever hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Think of how many congregations there are that come of a Sunday to their churches and leave again as much in the dark about God and salvation as they had always been. Think of how many so-called Christian congregations there are who have generation after generation lost almost all their children to the world because they no longer proclaim any message sufficiently different from the world’s to justify any continuing commitment. Christian denominations captured by deformed versions of Christianity are everywhere in decline, in most instances such a steep decline that the end is approaching with a mathematical certainty. Some have already disappeared in Europe, or are near to doing so, and so to in Great Britain and the United States. The Presbyterian Church USA, for example – which, as a denomination, has for several generations now embraced or tolerated a variety of deformations and denials of apostolic Christianity – has lost upwards of half its membership over the last 40 years. False teaching kills the church and, if that also means, as it must, that it kills human beings forever, then no wonder Paul speaks of these false teachers and the need to refute them and root out their teaching in the stern and uncompromising language he uses here.

What we have here is proof of what J.I. Packer refers to as “the greatness and weight of spiritual issues.” These things matter. They bear on eternity. They determine the endless future of human beings for weal or woe. And the enmity, the hatred of God in the fallen human heart being what it is, it should come as no surprise that the truths of the gospel, the teachings of Holy Scripture should come under savage attack and have to be defended with might and main. We cannot rest because the enemies of the truth do not and will not rest.

And if we had not gathered that from the pages of the New Testament, we learn it soon enough from the history of the church. Before the second century was well underway the church was fending off corruptions of its teaching that drew strength either from the predispositions of the culture or the natural animosity of the human heart toward the good news of God’s grace. As one perceptive observer wrote [Kuyper], heresies arise on Christian territory by a fixed law (like a mirage in the atmosphere). They are a deflection of the light of Christianity in the spiritual atmosphere of a given age. And so Marcion, in the middle of the century recast the Christian message in terms well suited to his age, he denied that the God of the OT was the Christian God, denied the abiding authority of the law of God, advanced an ascetic, celibate lifestyle as the only authentically Christian one – indeed, gave baptism only to the unmarried and the abstinent – and, as part of his anti-creation worldview, substituted water for wine in the Lord’s Supper. Asceticism was a powerful attraction in the Greco-Roman world so it is not surprising that it should find its way into Christian thinking. We find it here in the false teaching on Crete as we find it later in Marcion.

And after Marcion there were the Christian Gnostics who attempted to combine Christianity with then popular theories of salvation by mystic knowledge and ended up with a religion that was considerably more Gnostic than Christian. And then one heresy after another. Unbiblical teaching about God, about Christ, about the way of salvation, about the Bible, about the church, and not once but over and over again. Remember, we are not talking about non-Christian systems of thought. They are deadly enough. But heresy, false-teaching in the church is far more deadly because it not only destroys the souls of people in the church but cripples and sometimes renders entirely impotent the church’s witness to the world. Who is to speak the truth to the world if the church, the foundation and pillar of the truth, has lost it? How is the world ever to find the salvation of God if the church herself no longer knows where it comes from, what it is, or how it is to be obtained? And, as Paul reminds us, this is not merely a theoretical danger; it is the dismal story of Christianity in the world that must be told alongside the grand story of the world’s salvation. Wherever salvation has gone by the Spirit of God, false forms of the Christian message have come right behind to extinguish the light.

We are talking about views of God, man, and salvation that purport to be Christian, that purport to be the truth as Christ and his apostles revealed it. We have views of Jesus Christ in the patristic period – Arianism, for example – and up to the modern day that deny that he was the Living God. In 1981 a Presbyterian Church USA presbytery received into its membership a United Church of Christ minister, Mansfield Kaseman who denied the deity of Jesus Christ. It was that decision that eventually led to the formation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

We have denials in every form of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Pelagius in the 4th century was a do-it-yourselfer who taught salvation by good living; so did Socinius in the age of the Reformation, and so do many so-called Christian churches today. And not just the doctrine of salvation in Christ as a whole: every part of the Bible’s doctrine of salvation has been denied times without number: that Christ bore our sins on the cross; that we must be born again by a re-creative work of the Holy Spirit if we would be saved; that Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us when we believe in him; and so on.

We have denials of divine creation, both in the early church and in the contemporary church. We have denials of the events of salvation history both in early Christianity and today. It was in the early 1920s that among others Harry Emerson Fosdick, the preacher at First Presbyterian Church of New York City declared that one did not have to believe in the virgin birth of Christ or his bodily resurrection to be a Christian.

And we have all manner of contradictions of the Bible’s ethical teaching. In 1975 a minister was denied ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA because he informed his Presbytery that he could not in good conscience participate in the ordination of women. The deity of Christ could be denied but not the ordination of women. That decision prompted the departure of 40 congregations including Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. Now, as you know, the present issue is over the acceptance of practicing homosexuals in the church’s membership and ministry.

What all of this amounts to is that there is hardly a tenet of biblical teaching that has not been denied, there is not a doctrine or commandment of Holy Scripture that has not been spoken against by people in the Church who claim to be Christians and who want us to accept their teaching as authentic Christianity.

And what this means for us, as it did for Titus and his contemporaries, is that we must be prepared to stand for the truth because it will always be under attack. We must be prepared to state and defend the truth as it is revealed in Christ and Holy Scripture and refute those views that depart from it. Heretics are usually influential because they are able. They are often powerful thinkers, gifted writers or speakers, and, sometimes, even very attractive persons. Christians will be put on their mettle to stand against them. Half-hearted measures will not be sufficient to stem the tide of unbelief.

Read the biography of Abraham Kuyper and hear him tell how as a young man and a young scholar he fell under the spell of J.H. Scholten, the first great “modernist” theologian of the Dutch Reformed church, and hear him describe how Modernism seemed to him at that time so “bewitchingly beautiful.” He would later say that “he too had once dreamed the dream of Modernism.” When, at 80 years of age, he addressed the students of the Free University of Amsterdam, he remembered those days.

“At Leiden I joined, with great enthusiasm, in the applause given Professor Rauwenhoff when he, in his public lectures, broke with all belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. Now when I look back, my soul still shudders at times over the opprobrium I then loaded on my Savior.”

It had been easy for him to indulge those skeptical views and even to indulge them as a more authentic and useful form of Christianity. But he came to see that it was not Christianity that he had been taught and that if he embraced such views he would not remain a Christian in any meaningful way. [G. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, 9-10]

J. Gresham Machen had the same experience, being first deeply impressed by both the scholarship and the personal character of Germany’s arch liberal professor of Christian theology, Wilhelm Herrmann, and then utterly unsettled by his views, so powerfully and winsomely presented. But he too became, as Kuyper before him, a tireless opponent of that teaching and advocate for historic Christianity as revealed in Holy Scripture. And history has proved him right. The church in Germany is largely dead and it was Hermann’s ideas and those of others like him that killed it.

Or think of Albert Schweitzer, the influential theologian, the superb musician and famed musicologist, and the missionary doctor to French Equatorial Africa. If you had asked any typical group of people in Western Europe or the United States in the middle of the 20th century to name a really good person, someone would have been very likely to say “Albert Schweitzer.” He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952. A man who had left prestigious careers behind in Europe to help needy poor folk in Africa was everyone’s idea of a good man. And he was a world-class scholar in three different areas of scholarship: theology, musicology, and psychology. Some of his books were among the most influential of his day. But Schweitzer’s Christianity, his gospel was a concoction of his own design, a repudiation of the history of the cross, the resurrection and the ascension of the Lord, and a very modern western message of reverence for life leading to a life lived in the service of others. In fact, he viewed Jesus as something of a well-meaning dupe who turned out to be wrong about most everything. There is nothing distinctively Christian about Schweitzer’s understanding of the world and of salvation, but it was made a compelling vision of life by the self-sacrifice of Schweitzer’s own life.

What I mean is that very clearly these false teachers on Crete certainly did not see themselves in Paul’s description of them. They would not have accepted that they were deceivers or that they were motivated by the desire for personal wealth (teachers in those days expected to be paid and often handsomely). They certainly would have deeply resented the accusation that they and their teachings were detestable, disobedient and unfit for any good purpose. Obviously there were those in the church already who would have resented Paul’s categorical denunciation of these men and would have argued that Paul was being unfair, inaccurate, hypocritical, disturbing the peace of the church and so on. No doubt there were some who downplayed the importance of the issues and pleaded for harmony and goodwill.

No doubt the false teachers themselves would have said – we know they did say – similar things about Paul. They accused him of being afraid of losing his authority over the churches; he was a reckless innovator taking the church away from the divinely ordered features of Jewish piety that had for centuries formed the basis of the life of God’s people. There is no escape from this contention, so long as truth and error compete for the minds and hearts of men and so long as the fight to the death continues between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the Evil One. There is no way to escape the necessity of this battle, there is no way to escape the bitterness of it, there is no way to escape the hard work it requires of those who would represent the truth as it is in Jesus Christ wisely and well.

There is, of course, much more that can and must be said. Paul, as we know from his whole corpus of writings, was very careful to distinguish between killing errors and more benign misunderstandings. He knew that real Christians sometimes gave place to bonehead ideas. He knew how to be patient with people who didn’t understand things correctly. He knew how to teach and instruct and refute in ways that made proper distinctions between various kinds of errors and various kinds of persons. He knew where to draw the line and where not to draw it. All of this is also the task of the one who would contend for the truth and the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Such contention is an art as well as a science and requires godliness and love as well as education and intellect to do well. They said of Augustine that he was sauviter in modo, fortiter in re; that is, he was gentle in his manner but unrelenting in regard to the issue itself.

But all of that being said and heard, it remains the fact that the truth that sets men free is always and everywhere being subverted from within the church. Congregations and whole denominations filled with believing people generations ago are now empty of spiritual life. Once thriving spiritual nurseries are now morgues. The churches of the men of whom you hear so much from me: Chrysostom and Augustine in the early church, Francis and Bernard of the medieval church, Calvin and Knox of the Reformation church, Owen and Bunyan of the Puritan church, Whitefield and Edwards of the Great Awakening Church, Charles Simeon, J.C. Ryle, Charles Spurgeon, and Alexander Whyte of the Victorian Church, these churches are dead or dying and it was in every case a self-inflicted wound that killed them.

If you love your souls and the souls of your children, you will care about the battle that Paul is calling upon us to fight and you will care that you have leaders capable of acquitting themselves faithfully and ably in that battle.