“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.”
That’s the concluding qualification and duty Paul gives to Titus for the selection and ministry of local church elders (Titus 1:9). The elder must be a converted man who holds firmly to the gospel and the implications of the gospel for Christian living. He must, in turn, be able to teach others these truths and stand convincingly against those who oppose the truth.
That was no small feat in Titus’ Crete, and it’s no walk in the park in our day of multimedia, instant access consumer age. In Titus’ day, those who opposed the truth were likely there in flesh and blood, their teaching in Titus’ earshot, their lives observable, and the people’s access limited to a gathering in the local assembly or in a person’s home. Titus could see the whites of their eyes as they propagated falsehood and error. Today, local church pastors/elders have to carry out the twin responsibilities of Titus 1:9 in a context where the opposition or influence comes from a tv or computer screen, a radio program, or a steady stream of books lining shelves at the local Christian bookstore (or ‘beamed’ into a handheld device with the click of a button). Our context makes it more difficult to protect the flock from encroaching wolves and makes it more necessary that our sheep develop mature theological and practical discernment.
I’m currently reading Daphne C. Wiggins’ Righteous Content: Black Women’s Perspectives of Church and Faith. It’s an engaging and enlightening qualitative study of 38 women in two Georgia churches. Wiggins’ smooth writing and generous use of quotes and anecdotes from her interviews makes this piece of sociology very helpful as she puts the contemporary Black Church and Black Christian women in context. At one point she highlights the difficulty and tension of guiding and protecting a flock when large numbers of the sheep take their diet from other sources. She references two very large and prominent women’s conferences targeted to African-American women and offers the following:
Many African-American pastors are critical of these conferences and the slate of clergy who seem to become household names and spiritual gurus by appearing at a conference. They are also frustrated by pronouncements by these preachers that flavor church members’ faith in a manner contrary to some of their own patoral tenets and teachings. I am suggesting that the Black Church has not been replaced as a refuge for women’s spiritual and personal growth by these religious events; it does have a competitor in this arena. (p. 92)
I resonated with Wiggins’ mentioning of pastoral frustration or concern about the sheep feeding on things contrary to pastoral tenets and teaching. It’s a difficult dilemma in this digital age. Thinking about Titus 1:9 in our day requires some real effort lest the sheep be easily led astray while sitting in their very own living rooms, offices, or cars. So, here a few things I scribbled in response to reading Wiggins’ comments. Hopefully there’s some help for us as we try to apply Titus 1:9.
1. Don’t be polemical unless you have to. There’s a place for polemics, but it’s not usually during the exposition of scripture. When we’re preaching and teaching, we’re primarily trying to advance a positive statement, to proclaim what “Thus saith the Lord.” Our work is overwhelmingly constructive. We’re making disciples, building a holy temple, growing the family of God. We can’t do that with an inordinate emphasis on polemics. More on polemics later.
2. Give away a lot of good books and sermons by people you’re happy to commend. As pastors, we have the happy opportunity to point people to other faithful resources for their spiritual benefit. Over time, we have the sobering honor of helping to shape people’s interests and reading habits. That’s not to be taken lightly or done indiscriminately. So be positive and thoughtful. Go beyond the “best seller” lists to consider works of enduring value. The preachers, books and authors we recommend are actually helping us disciple our people. So, we want to be in the habit of commending really trustworthy things. And this is a matter of praise. Praise be to God that He has allowed us to live in an era of unprecedented access to some of the most solid resources in Christian history–resources from ages past and resources in our own time. Brothers, we don’t know everything or have everything our people need. Praise God that we have so many helps available to us as we elder and shepherd! We should be familiar with them and we should hold them out to our people. Give away books at your mid-week Bible study if you have one. Recommend good works in your Sunday bulletin–perhaps a book per month or a section called “Elders’ Recommendations” on various topics. Recommend to your people the latest sermon series you listened to by a faithful pastor. Over time, the people will know who you appreciate and they’ll begin to appreciate some of those folks, too. And by the way, be willing to take recommendations from your people. They know some people and some resources that we don’t.
3. Take your people with you to a conference or invite them to read something you’re reading. This has been one of the best blessings in my own life and ministry. After having my wife next to me, I love knowing some of our church family is feeding with us at a conference. I can recall significant changes in relationships, understanding, focus and energy occurring in the lives of my people when we were together at these events. What a privilege to see the Lord work in these moments of retreat and heightened spiritual focus! I remember when one brother decided he wanted to be an elder and to shepherd God’s people. I recall when two sisters decided that they’d been so encouraged at a pastors’ conference that they would pay for young men in our church to attend future events. That’s made a huge difference in some men’s lives who couldn’t afford to attend otherwise. Then there are the rich bonding moments–my favorites–as we discuss the sermons or workshops we heard, reflect on our lives and our church, and laugh at almost everything. Our attending together provides real-time opportunity to encourage in sound doctrine, guard against falsehood, and grow in love and trust.
4. Be familiar with the preachers a lot of your people enjoy. Know what they teach. Know what they emphasize. Thoughtfully engage their arguments and positions with your Bible open. Then when you speak with your people, they will know you’ve taken them and their favorite preachers/teachers seriously. And when you have to address a problem area, they’re more likely to know it’s not a fearful, knee-jerk, playa-hatin’, tribal reaction but a considered, patient, gentle instruction. The last thing we want our people to think is that we’re simply jealous of the “bigger fish” and are not really familiar with the issues. That’s likely to drive them further into errors we’d rather they avoid.
5. Teach the people what to believe and what not to believe from the Bible. I find that I too often encourage belief or warn against error without showing my people why either position is necessary from the Scripture. It’s so easy to lazily assert that “Baptists believe this” or “Christians hold that” or warn with labels like “liberal.” Saying those things is fine. But our people need more. They need and deserve our opening the Bible and slowly constructing an article of faith or deconstructing a falsehood. Every time I do this, I notice something. The saints write down the passages, consider them frequently, and thank me for the word. But whenever it’s me summarizing or stating a position, there’s less eager agreement, more hesitation, and greater difficulty in holding fast to the trustworthy message. The Bible is meant and capable of doing a work with authority that I was never meant or capable of doing. Duh, right?
6. When there are names prominent in your local congregation and context, name the names and identify the errors. It’s biblical to do so. But when you observe those places in the Scripture where Paul names a name or cites an error, it’s always naming someone or citing an error that’s very familiar to the local context. He doesn’t write to the Corinthians and say, “Hey, have you heard about what’s going on with the Galatians.” Nor does he write the Galatians and say, “Are you familiar with the ‘super-apostles’?” He addresses their context and identifies the issues likely the shipwreck faith in their churches. Learning the particular names and issues in our churches may take some time, and we may feel out of step with the fast-moving electronic age. But we’ll actually serve the people in our care and we’ll be more effective at helping them follow the Lord and avoid real local pitfalls. This is the time to be polemical and most all of our polemics should be local.
7. Tell the people to “turn off” and “unplug.” Most of us are over-stimulated. We’re always “on”–whether it’s the internet, twitter, cell phones, ipads, ipods, or whatever. There’s little quiet space in our lives. Are we, as Postman observed, still amusing ourselves to death? It’s difficult for me to believe that we’re capable of processing all that input like Mr. Data. Surely our thinking and mood are impacted as much by the volume of information as it is by the content. We’re likely to form impressions because we’ve been impressed by the deluge as much as by the cogency. Simply turning off the outside world provides a big help in protecting the sheep. We should encourage our people to pray and study their Bibles more and perhaps listen or view less.
As a local church pastor, I’m contending with these problems like everyone else. I’m not primarily an author or a conference speaker or a blogger. My primary calling is to be a local church pastor, an elder. I delight to serve my particular people as a shepherd. I can’t think of a more noble calling and the other things I do I pray are a help to the Lord’s churches. But if ever I found or my fellow elders found that serving the wider body of Christ hindered my faithfulness in this particular body, then without hesitation I would stop writing, blogging and speaking elsewhere to concentrate all my energies on this family of God entrusted to our care. That’s why I care about Wiggins’ observation above and why I care about the often legitimate critiques of conferences. I’ve got a people to shepherd and sometimes wolves enter through holes in the fence.
Now, I speak at a lot of conferences. I suspect that for some pastors I am the problem, particularly if they have a different theological bent or practical emphasis than I do. For example, a couple pastors have told me of finding themselves in difficult discussions of “race” and ethnicity after someone heard me say something somewhere and came back to the church convinced that their church was wrong or that their pastor needed to change some emphasis or another. My heart sank–in part because it was clear that some were drawing conclusions that I do not draw (so I was either unclear in my talk or they misunderstood) and in part because the last thing I ever want to do is make a faithful pastor’s job more difficult. I don’t mind troubling an unfaithful pastor; but a faithful man I’d rather support, encourage and honor. I hope to encourage church members to do the same with their pastors. But I realize that conferences have tremendous potential for shaping people’s approach to the faith and their local church–potential for good and for ill. I’m part of the problem, I suppose.
As one conference speaker, I’m not at all offended if you tell your people in reference to me, “Don’t listen to that guy.” You just may be doing your job.