We are currently working through a series on the book of Titus at our church and it has been an enriching time hearing how Paul instructed the leaders of the church on Crete to remain faithful to the gospel in the midst of a tough culture. And while the point hasn’t been focused on in the series, I am caught by the truth of a passage on the qualifications of an elder, specifically when it comes to teaching.
Paul says this of an elder in Titus 1:9, “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Those leading and teaching in the church must cling to the “word that was taught” which we can understand as the gospel, so they can teach others and correct those that teach wrongly. So what is it that is being taught that is contradicting the gospel? Paul describes it in verses 10 and 11.
“For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.”
As I evaluate this text I think it helps me come to a couple of questions concerning my preaching that I want to be asking as I wrestle with each text. 1) Am I being insubordinate to the word and 2) am I leaving the hearers with a greater burden than the gospel declares?
First the question of insubordination. Now we have all heard this term in relation to work and following the leadership of others. For the preacher, the ultimate authority is the biblical text as illuminated by the Holy Spirit. This is the part where we have to do our homework. We research, wrestle with and pray earnestly over a text to ensure we are not adding our own meaning into it but instead seek to understand and communicate rightly what it is saying. This is one reason I am careful with topical sermons; I want to tread carefully when I am forced to “choose” a text to prove a point. I prefer to approach a text and reveal the point it proves. But there are seasons when a topical sermon is appropriate and when this occurs I desire to be extra careful that my study and sermon submits to what scripture declares rather than abusing scripture to fill 50 minutes with empty talking.
The second question gets at the result of the sermon preached. In this Titus text we see there is a lot of bad teaching going on in Crete; “there are many”. And some of these are preaching for improper or shameful gain which is upsetting families. It is clear from the text, and what comes before it, that this gain is monetary. Preachers preaching to get paid. The gain may also be however, popularity or influence. Or in our day, a bigger church and notoriety. But what I want to zoom in on is Paul’s calling out of the “circumcision party.”
While it might be easy to glance over this descriptor and suggest “the circumcision party” were simply Jews, the reality is that this group was adding a burden on top of the belief in the gospel and they are alive and well today just as they were on Crete in the first century. We know that there were those among the believers in Jesus that demanded that new converts not only repent and believe but fulfill some of the Jewish ritual rites, specifically circumcision. The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 corrected this perspective and Paul would continue to interact with and correct those that held this view. So when I read this in view of preaching it leaves me with the questions, am I leaving the hearers with a greater burden than the gospel declares?
In my preaching, am I suggesting an effort on behalf of the Christian that the scripture in its totality does not? This is a tough one. We are of course called to preach obedience but it is in how we preach it that matters. Obedience motivated by and empowered by Christ are biblical. Obedience “because this is what you need to do to be better” or richer or happier or you name it, is not. I think too often in our churches we are leaving the hearers with a greater burden that the one Jesus proclaims when he says his burden is light and his yoke is easy. The members of the circumcision party in Crete and elsewhere where preaching works for work’s sake and it was ruining the faith of believers. It happens today as well because the moment we put our hope in our efforts over and above Christ’s work and the empowerment of the Spirit we are ripe for discouragement and hopelessness. As a pastor I interact with this reality every day.
In our preaching let us be subordinate to the word understood rightly and preach grace and obedience as burden lifters not a new law to be crushed under.