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Identifying and overseeing - Titus 1:1-9

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 6th July 2003.

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A few years ago, the Sun newspaper conducted what they called a 'truth searching survey' to find out more about the minds, hearts and integrity of its readers. It purported to be ecstatic to find that only 22% of its readers would kill their partner for money, and a mere 38% of their male readers would let their wives earn money as a prostitute. 'Congratulations,' read the huge Sun banner headline. 'We have always known it, but now we have the evidence. You Sun readers are decent, honest, caring, members of the community.' Now whether or not you read this particular newspaper, not one of us can have failed to spot the serious problem there is with the Sun's 'truth searching survey'. Whilst it claims that its readers are decent, honest and caring members of the community, and I dare say many are, yet the fact remains that almost 40% of men said they would be willing to sell their wives as prostitutes, and 20% would be willing to commit murder. There is a huge chasm between what the newspaper is saying about its readers and the what the readers are be willing to do.

Of course, sadly today in the public domain lack of integrity, indeed hard faced lies, seem to be the staple diet. Politicians often excel in this regard. You might remember when George Bush Senior was running for President he became famous for promising no tax increases, and then adding 'Read My Lips'. The only problem was when he got into the White House, he raised the taxes. It's not just politicians who are thought to lack integrity. Businessmen can no longer close deals with the words 'You have my word'. Too many promises have been broken and too many deals lost through lies and deceit. Now, deals are sealed with miles of bureaucratic red tape and millions of pounds of legal fees. In the area of marriage too, pre nuptial agreements make clear the terms of the marriage in the statistically likely break up. But the saddest place where lack of integrity and down right hypocrisy are seen is in the Christian church. We are constantly bombarded with stories of church leaders compromising the faith through adulterous affairs or financial scandal. We are worn down with tales of churches torn apart by petty squabbles and kingdom building. And we are saddened when the church leadership appoints people who teach falsehood and live lives which are contrary to the Bible's teaching.

But believe it or not these were just the sorts of issues the apostle Paul faced as he penned his letter to his younger colleague Titus towards the end of the first century AD. Paul tells us in chapter 1 v 5 that he'd left Titus on the island of Crete, not on some happy package holiday, but rather to appoint church leaders, 'elders' as he calls them. It seems that Paul and Titus had been on an extensive mission teaching the gospel to the people on Crete with good success. But before they had had time to establish leadership in the young churches, Paul had had to go. So he leaves Titus to finish up the job. And Paul's concern as he writes this letter is that the gospel truth may not be dishonoured by the ungodly behaviour of the Cretan Christians, and that the truth be taught properly in the face of false teaching. For he says in verse 1, that the truth leads to godliness. If there were one verse that sums up the message of Titus, then this could be it. Accepting the truth of the gospel leads to the demand to live a godly life. You cannot separate the message from godly behaviour, what you say you believe, from the way you live your life. For to say one thing and do another is hypocrisy. The integrity of the gospel is at stake. And so in these three chapters, Paul outlines what it is Titus is to teach these young Christians, and how the people are to live in the light of the gospel. In chapter one, Paul outlines what Christian leadership is to look like and what it is not like. In chapter 2, Paul shows how the truth of the gospel is practised in the home, in various different relationships. And in chapter 3, Paul shows how Christians are to work out the truth of the gospel in the world.

But Paul begins his letter in chapter one by talking about church leadership and the need to appoint leaders who are godly and who will teach the truth. And he begins with the leaders because godly leadership is vital to the health of the local church. Charles Spurgeon, the famous preacher of the nineteenth century, said that 'to compromise on leadership in the church is a suicidal act.' In other words it is suicidal for a church to give little thought to its leadership, such are leaders' influence. For without good leaders a church will be tossed here and there by every wind of doctrine, and Christians will fall prey to false teaching, temptation and will eventually give up. So Paul tells Titus in verse 5 to 'straighten out what was left unfinished, and appoint elders in every town.' And as we will see it is the leaders par excellence who are to be models of those who know and practice the truth of the gospel which leads to godliness. They are to be people who know the truth and live the truth. And in our days when leadership in the church is again under the microscope, indeed under public scrutiny, we need to be as clear as ever what kind of people God wants for the leadership of the church. For bad shepherds will leave the flock open to the wolves, and destroy the church- let us be very clear on this. And before we think that none of this applies to us if we are not leaders, then think again. First each of us needs to keep our leaders up the mark. We need to know as Christians what kind of leadership we are to submit to for our own spiritual health. But secondly, many of us here are in positions of leadership, whether as PCC members or youth and children's leaders. And furthermore, many of these things can be applied more broadly to each Christian here tonight. So let us in humility come before God's word tonight, not to gloat at the sins of others, but to measure ourselves against the plumb line of God's word that we might be a people who not only know the truth but live the truth. And we'll learn from Paul three lessons about the leader.

1) The Leader's Foundation (vv 1-4)

2) The Leader's Character (vv 5-8)

3) The Leader's Task (v 9)

1) The Leader's Foundation (vv 1-4)So first then we discover the leader's foundation in verses 1-4. Even my limited experience of building things tells me that without a firm foundation your building collapses. And it is absolutely vital that the leader, whatever role he or she has in the local church, must build their life and ministry on the right foundation. And Paul begins his letter by reminding Titus what foundation he, Paul, has laid through his preaching, the foundation that is the gospel of God himself. So what is the foundation that Paul has laid? Well it is two-fold:

a) The Truth that changes lives- First of all, Paul tells us that that the leader's foundation, indeed every Christian's foundation is the truth that changes lives. Verse 1: '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.' Now here, Paul puts faith and knowledge together. Faith is trusting the promises of God, trusting the knowledge of the truth as God has revealed it. Everyone has faith, the only question is what do you have faith in? Yourself, your family, your job? For the Christian, his or her faith is in God who has revealed himself to us in Christ. That is the truth according to the Bible. And here Paul says that this truth about God and his Son Jesus leads to godliness. In other words, knowing the truth about God does not just rest in the mind. It is worked out in godly actions. Paul is saying that if you know lots about the Bible and God, but you live a very ungodly, non Christian lifestyle, then you really haven't understood the truth properly. And if do not know the truth then you cannot live God's way. For when you come to know the truth about God and trust in him, then your life is transformed. It's not that you become a super saint straight away, but slowly and surely God works in you to make you more like Jesus. For knowledge of the truth always leads to godliness. And it is only the truth about God that can transform a life to go God's way. It is only the gospel about Jesus that can bring a sinful human being, an enemy of God, to become a friend of God, someone who loves God and longs to please him in every way. We're often told that in order to make life a little better we simply need to tap into 'the power that lies within'. Norman Vincent Peale's book, 'The Power of Positive Thinking', has sold over 15 million copies. It begins with these words: 'Believe in yourself; have faith in your abilities'. But no amount of positive thinking or social change can transform lives like the truth can. You cannot change the human heart just like that. Only the power of God through the gospel, the truth about Jesus, can change lives and produce godliness. Think of a man like William Wilberforce, the MP for Hull in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He was a man of his generation- rich, witty and sophisticated, but in his heart arrogant, self obsessed and godless. That is until his life was turned upside down by God. He put his faith in the promises of God in Jesus Christ and God changed his life to become useful for the kingdom of God. And today we are the beneficiaries. Only knowledge of the truth can change lives.

b) The God who never changes- But how do we know that this claim is true? Because of the second rock of our foundation. Not just the truth that changes lives, but the God who never changes. This truth is not some man made invention, not some human religion dreamed up to keep humans busy and blinkered. Rather this is God's truth based on God's character. Verse 2: '[This] faith and knowledge rest[s] on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Saviour.' This hope of eternal life, of life with God forever through Jesus Christ, is based on God who does not lie. We can be absolutely guaranteed that this is the truth because it is based on God's character. And moreover, God has been planning this rescue for us since the beginning of time. So often human promises fail and we are let down. But God has never gone back on his promises, nor has he let his people down. It is his character and promises which guarantees the truth of the gospel. And it's this God-guaranteed gospel that has been passed on to us by the apostles whose message we have in the Bible. That's our foundation, not just as leaders, but as Christians. We are to build our lives on the solid foundation of the gospel. The truth which changes lives, and the God who never changes.

And it's worth pausing to ask ourselves what foundation are we building on? Because unless you are building on the foundation of the gospel, unless you have trusted in Christ and you are forgiven and going God's way, unless you are building on the sure and certain promises of God, then you are heading for disaster, perhaps not in this life, but certainly in the next. Because no life that is built on anything else apart from God will stand on judgement day. But even if we have trusted God, even if we are building on the gospel foundation, yet it is so easy even as a leader in God's church to put your confidence in something else. Maybe your gifts, maybe your charisma, maybe your knowledge of the Bible, maybe your reputation for godliness, or your rapport with those you minister to. Well if that's the case, then you are building on very shaky ground. Your confidence is seriously misplaced. Its time to come back to your God and admit your self confidence and to trust in him again as the one who will equip you to serve him. For the leader's foundation, indeed every Christian's foundation, is the gospel. And that is where Paul begins. He'll bring us back here time and again in this letter, because we must never build our lives on anything else, especially in leadership. 'On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.' That's the leader's foundation.

2) The Leader's Character (vv 5-8)So if our foundation is the truth that changes lives and the God who never changes, then what should we expect of our leaders who proclaim this truth? Well obviously we'll be looking for lives which are shaped and transformed by this same truth. And that's what Paul explains to Titus next as he shows us the leader's character. Paul gives his colleague clear guidelines on the sort of leader that is to be appointed to lead the congregations on Crete. And the word which Paul uses twice in verses 5-8 of the leader is the word 'blameless', in verses 5 and 7. This word sums up what the leader is to be like. Now blameless does not mean perfect. Paul could have used another Greek word to mean perfect. And when he does use that word, he only uses it with reference to heaven, when Christians will literally be perfect. Rather, Paul says, Christian leaders are to be blameless, that is above reproach, people of integrity and honesty, in whom there is no hypocrisy. Quite simply they are to be godly, people in whom God has done a saving work and is doing a sanctifying work. They are not to be like the mother who one day invited some people round to her house on a very hot day one summer for Sunday lunch. The mother asked her 4-year old son Sam to give thanks to God for the food. 'But I don't know what to say!' the boy complained. 'Oh, just say what you hear me say' his mother replied. Obediently the boy bowed his head and mumbled, 'Oh Lord, why did I invite these annoying people over on a hot day like this?' So leaders are to be blameless.

But notice too before we look at the character of the leader how Paul refers to these people. They are elders in verse 6, but overseers in verse 7. Paul uses both these words interchangeably to refer to church leaders in the local congregations. These men are the vicars, the pastors or ministers of the local congregations. The NT calls them elders or overseers, or pastors- teachers, even shepherds. And the word overseer is what some versions translate as bishops. So bishops according to the NT, are those who oversee the local congregations. The bishops are the vicars. So we can quite legitimately call Melvin, Bishop Melvin. For he is the overseer of St. John's. It was only in the second century, after the NT period that the word bishop was applied to a man who had oversight of a number of different churches, as bishops today are supposed to have. But even though bishops as we known them are later developments, it's clear that we do regard them as leaders in the denominational structure, and so they too must adhere to the requirements for church leadership, even though they are not themselves local congregational leaders. So then, what does Paul require for church leaders? He lays down two basic requirements for leaders in terms of their character.

a) They must be blameless in their homes- First, he says they must be blameless in their homes. And Paul highlights a leader's sexual holiness first of all. Verse 6: 'An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife.' Now I don't think Paul is laying down a law saying leaders should be married, nor is he saying that widowers cannot bear positions of leadership. What he is saying is that a leader must be blameless in all things relating to his sexuality. He must be faithful in his marriage if he is married, or if unmarried he must act in a godly way in the whole area of his sexuality. Why? Because the truth leads to godliness. Leaders promote the truth of the gospel and show the truth of the gospel as they live it out. And in that sense what a leader does in private behind his door is important. For a leader's personal life, his personal godliness and his walk with the Lord has an effect on the way he leads. If a man lives in a ungodly way, then he is denying the truth of the gospel by his life. And what often happens is that a leader's lifestyle will shape the way he presents the truth, and vice versa. So next week we'll see that false teachers not only teach falsehood but live falsehood as well.

And this was not just an issue for Paul. It's an issue for us too as well. So we have heard recently of an openly gay man called Jeffrey John being put forward for the post of the Bishop of Reading. And although the has pulled out of the appointment, yet we can be sure there will be others who will be put forward to leadership in the church. And when that happens again, we cannot support that position. Indeed we must oppose it. Because how can a leader who openly denies the teaching of the gospel by his lifestyle be fit for leadership in the church where the truth of the gospel is to be taught? (Incidentally if you are unsure on what the Bible says on the issue of homosexuality, then do look in the tape library where there are tapes on the subject). The Bible's teaching is clear- that God's precious gift of sex is to be enjoyed in a permanent heterosexual union between man and wife, and that is the only place where that gift is to be enjoyed. Anything else is sin in God's eyes, whether it be homosexuality, adultery, or sex before marriage, or a host of other sexual sins. And for a leader to be engaging in any relationship contrary to the teaching of the Bible in terms of sexuality means he cannot be considered for leadership in the church. What is required is repentance, and God in his grace and love will forgive. It's not that we are being homophobic, nor are we saying that temptation is wrong. Indeed I have a friend who is tempted in this area, but God has given him the grace and strength to cope with his temptations, and he is able to serve God's people in God's church. In fact, ask any church leader and they will say that they are tempted in many of these areas Paul highlights. But when a man happily and publicly admits to a long term gay relationship and is willing to have his name put forward for a position of leadership, then we must oppose it. And nor is this a small issue. It's very important because not only is the integrity of the gospel at stake in our land, but also the very authority of God's word is being denied. It is not a question of interpretation. It is the plain teaching of the Bible, not simply in denying homosexuality is pleasing to God, as is every other form of sexual sin, but also in upholding the positive teaching of sex and marriage, which is a good and right thing.

Let me read to you the words from the service of the ordination of a bishop. They are actually the same words that I said, and Melvin and Matthew when we were ordained as ministers in the Church of England. The Archbishop asks this question to the bishop to be: 'Will you be diligent in prayer, in reading the holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen your faith and fit you to uphold the truth of the gospel against error?' The new bishop will reply: 'By the help of God I will.' Again the Archbishop asks: 'Will you strive to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ?' Again he replies: 'By the help of God I will.' It's actually straight from Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. And if a leader cannot uphold the teaching of the gospel by the way he lives his life, both behind closed doors and in the public eye, then he is not fit for leadership in the church of God. That's the simple teaching of the Bible. And if we deny it, then we are calling God a liar. That's how serious this is.

But it's not just in the area of sex that a leader is to be blameless in the home. There is also his family. Verse 6: '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.' Perhaps the best commentary on this verse is from the parallel passage in 1 Timothy 3 where Paul says this: '[The leader] must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. If anyone does not know how to control his own family, how can he take care of God's church?' The principle is this. If a man's children run riot, if they take no care to obey him and do what he says, if there is no discipline or control in the household, then how can he be expected to run God's household. A man's home is often the best place to look and see what he is truly like. In fact, it's a good principle to ask any potential leader. What are you like at home with your own family. Does godliness get laid aside when you shut the front door? It doesn't matter whether you are a youth leader or a minister, the same principle applies. And if you are ungodly in the home, Paul says that will not do. It's not that Paul is expecting children to be little angels, nor can a parent be held completely responsible for children who have left home. But the principle remains. A man's family is an excellent window into how he will fair as a leader in the church family. A leader must be blameless in his home. He must be godly in his sexuality, and he must be godly in dealing with his children. Because a person's private life shows what he or she is really like.

b) They must be blameless in their heartsBut secondly, and much more briefly, the leader must be blameless in his heart, again remembering that Paul is not demanding perfection but integrity and someone who is beyond reproach. Paul gives a negative list of qualities in verse 7 and then a positive list in verse 8. Verse 7, the negative. '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.' Paul mentions here five fatal weaknesses which can plague a leader, and Paul urges us to master all five. Why? Because we have been entrusted with God's work. How can a person be a leader of others if their own life is mastered by other passions and desires. Five deadly temptations- pride, temper, drink, power and money. Leadership tempts us in all five, and we better with God's help master them, or they will master us. Then in verse 8, there are the positive virtues: 'Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.' Those are the qualities you and I need to pray for if we are in leadership. That God would foster such qualities in us. And it's not just the ministers who need to display these virtues, though please pray that we would and hold us accountable. It's also the Homegroup pleaders, the Mark 2 leaders, the PCC, the Explorers leaders and everyone else who has responsibility in God's family. Could you say you are blameless in the home and in your heart? Yes it may be hard and a high demand. But then leadership in the church is like nothing else. We are God's fellow workers, and when you work for that kind of master, then he demands the best from you. That's the challenge Paul lays down for the leader's character.

3) The Leader's Task (v 9)

So we've seen the leader's foundation, the leader's character, and now briefly as we finish the leader's task. And in many ways, it should be clear to us by now, though Paul spells it out for us in verse 9: 'He 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.' You see the way a leader is to lead is not just by his lifestyle, but also in what he teaches. Because unless a leader is leading properly, in terms of teaching God's truth properly and responsibly, then his flock will suffer for it.

The true story is told of a young clergyman who was officiating at the funeral of a war veteran. The dead man's military friends wished to have a part in the service which was being held at the crematorium, so they requested the minister to lead them down to where the coffin was placed, stand with them for a solemn moment of remembrance, and then lead them out through the side door. This he proceeded to do, but unfortunately the effect was somewhat marred when he picked the wrong door. The result was that they marched with military precision into a broom cupboard, in full view of the mourners, and had to beat a hasty retreat in complete confusion.

It is vital the leader lead his congregation properly by his teaching. And Paul says this happens in two ways. First through teaching the truth. 'He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine.' The leader must be someone who holds firmly to the trustworthy message. That is the must never move from the foundation of the gospel that Paul explained in verses 1-4. It is that truth which saves and transforms lives and it is that truth as revealed in God's word that must be taught to encourage others. There is no room for the minister to say: 'We live in the 21st century, and we must change the message.' For to change the message is to destroy the message. And only the truth of the gospel will bread healthy disciples of Jesus. So that is why a congregation must not allow a minister to be defected from the teaching of God's word. He must be allowed time to prepare and to study. For it is for the congregation's health. For without the word of God properly taught, the people of God starve.

But not only must the minister teach the truth, he must also refute untruth. Paul says: 'He must refute those who oppose sound doctrine.' Just to teach the gospel is only half the job. A minister must refute error and show his congregation what is wrong, otherwise God's people will not be able to distinguish truth from error. And that is perhaps the hardest thing for a minister to do. It takes courage to point out error, sometime in the face of majority opinion. And notice Paul says that he must refute those who oppose the truth. Refuting inevitably involves speaking against people, not just abstract conceptions, and that is when it gets hard and sometime costly. So pray for us as leaders to have the courage to refute error. It must be done for the safety of the flock and the good of the gospel, and ultimately for the glory of God. Teaching the truth and refuting error, that's the leader's task.

Well if you are leader, then no doubt you will feel daunted by the standard set. God demands no less than our very best but in his strength. And for each one us, let us not walk away from this building without feeling the force of Paul's words. To build our lives on the foundation of the gospel, to have characters which are blameless and godly and to teach the truth and refute error, not for our own glory but for the glory of our great God and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.

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