CDPCKL · The Division Undermining the Church (Titus 1:10-2:1)

The Division Undermining the Church (Titus 1:10-2:1)

At the height of the Roman empire, 2000 years ago, the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean Sea was perfectly positioned to operate as a way station for shipping. Massive grain cargo ships travelling northward from Egypt to Rome, ships carrying copper and tin from Britain to the coasts of Asia in the east, westbound ships carrying textiles from China and India and spices from Arabia, and of course Roman battleships: they all stopped at Cretan ports, sometimes to rest and resupply, sometimes to wait for the winds to change, sometimes to escape from storms. As a result, Cretan cities were always full of sailors and passengers and merchants from every nation and culture in the Roman empire. 

And the native Cretan response to this amazing influx of foreign trade was to take full advantage of every sucker who came along. There is a western proverb that says, “A fool and his money are soon parted,” and the Cretans agreed wholeheartedly. More than this, they believed it was their job to help part that fool from his money. 

Now the Cretans thought they were brilliantly clever. 

The rest of the empire had a rather different opinion. When we read the complaints of Greek and Roman writers, they tell us, first, that the Cretans were incurable liars. 

Which makes sense: the Cretans were worshippers of Zeus, who was an incurable liar. But even worse, the Cretans even lied about who Zeus is: they claimed he had been a human Cretan king before he became king of the gods. And to prove it they pointed tourists to the tomb of Zeus on their island. Now, to everyone else, the tomb was obviously a fake; but the Cretans stubbornly stuck to their story. And so, eventually, the Cretan reputation for deception became so complete that it became part of the language itself: the Greek word for “deceive” is “cretizein”, which literally means “to Cretan,” as in: “Don’t you dare Cretan me!” 

Greek and Roman writers also tell us the Cretans were extremely contentious and violent. 

When the different Cretan cities were not busy going to war against each other, they were busy hiring themselves out as mercenaries. And since it was well-known that the island of Crete had no dangerous wild beasts, eventually this produced a joke that went like this: Crete doesn’t need any wild beasts, because the Cretans are the wild beasts! 

And, finally, Greek and Roman writers tell us that the Cretans would do anything for money. 

In fact, it turns out the Cretans had combined their talent for deception with their talent for violence: Cretan ships were the pirates and predators of the sea-lanes. They were happy to carry freight from here to there, but also happy to hijack another ship or two along the way if the opportunity presented itself. 

Now, here is a question for us: if we were Christians living in that culture, how in the world would we survive and grow? How would we go about establishing a healthy church on an island of pagans who are so nasty even the other pagans do not like them? 

This is the problem Titus is facing. 

Now, as Ps. Meng pointed out last week, Titus is the right man for this difficult job. Titus is mentioned a few other times in the New Testament, and almost every time he is mentioned Paul is sending him or has sent him somewhere else. So it seems that Titus was the problem-solver on Paul’s team: if a church got into trouble somewhere in the world, that is where Titus went. 

And the churches of Crete are definitely in trouble. 

They started off as Jewish synagogues that became Christian synagogues. But still, in those early years, the congregations were almost 100% Jewish, which means they already shared the same culture, the same values. So they got along pretty well with each other. 

Then, a few years later, when Paul passed through and proved from scripture that everyone is allowed to join Jesus’ Church — not just Jewish people — then Cretan people from a pagan background started to join the Jewish Christian synagogues. 

And this caused some conflict, of course, because the Cretans had very different cultural values, as we have seen: they enjoyed deception, division, and greed. But that cultural conflict between Cretan Christians and Jewish Christians was not a bad thing: it is one of the central jobs of a church to figure out how we can all adapt to one another so we can live in peace and unity as one family. And that process of learning requires some conflict. 

Still, it is quite a difficult job to bring unity out of such a very diverse situation. That is why Paul left Titus behind on Crete: because Titus has a proven track-record of solving very difficult problems. 

But then the conflicts in the Cretan churches got too big even for Titus to handle, because a new batch of Jewish teachers arrived from Jerusalem. They took one look at the cultural conflicts in the Church, and they proposed a very different solution. Instead of doing the hard work of bringing everyone together and learning to compromise, the Jerusalem teachers said the churches should just divide everyone up: Jews in the front, non-Jews in the back; men in the front, women…somewhere else; citizens and property-owners in the front, slaves and other non-persons…at work, like they ought to be. 

And when Titus protested against these divisive ideas, the Jerusalem teachers told the congregations that Titus is not qualified to be a pastor or a preacher, because he comes from a non-Jewish background himself. 

That is how the churches of Crete fell into crisis, pulled in two directions at once: should they listen to the Jerusalem teachers and divide the congregations up by ethnicity, age, sex, social status? Or should they follow Paul’s idea that churches ought to be united, everyone of equal value in the sight of God? 

So Titus’ job of establishing a healthy Christian community on Crete has just gotten much, much harder. The Cretans are already very difficult to disciple properly, because of their messed-up culture. And now Titus also has to deal with these false teachers who are busy breaking the churches up into pieces! 

That is why Titus wrote to Paul asking for help, and that is why Paul wrote this letter back to Titus. 

And in his introduction two weeks ago, Paul basically said, okay, nemind, let’s just clear away the rubble from the building site and start over: 

Step One in establishing a healthy Christian church is to go back to the three foundational points of the Gospel. 

1. Make sure everyone understands that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. That is the cornerstone of the Church’s foundation. 

2. Make sure everyone understands that church community has been defined by the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles. The apostles and prophets are the rest of the foundation stones. 

3. Make sure everyone understands that the goal of Christian community is…community! Unity, not division! Unity is the cement that ties all the foundation stones together. 

Then, last week, Paul went on to describe Step Two in establishing a healthy Christian church: 

Make sure to set up elders in every congregation, men who are very strongly fixed upon those foundational points of the Gospel. These elders should be able to teach those foundational points, but they especially need to be men who know how to live those foundational points. They need to be living examples of what the Gospel looks like in everyday life. They need to be Christ-like, not Zeus-like. 

Those elders are the pillars of the Church, built on the foundation of Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets. 

But why are these pillars needed? Aren’t there other, more modern, more streamlined construction methods that Titus could use in establishing the Church of Crete? Setting up pillars is a long, slow, painful process, and the churches are in crisis right now! Shouldn’t Titus find a way to work more quickly, more efficiently, before more souls are lost? 

No, Paul says next. If you are wondering why it is so important to take no shortcuts in building the Church, this is why: [10] For there are many rebellious people already in your congregations, full of meaningless talk and deception 

And as Titus was reading this letter out loud to the congregation on that first Sunday, this is where the Cretan people there would have hung their heads a bit, while the Jerusalem teachers and their Jewish Christian followers would have nodded knowingly at each other. 

Because it is obvious Paul is talking about the Cretan congregation members: everyone knows that Cretans are rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception. The only surprise here is that Paul is finally agreeing with the Jerusalem teachers: the Cretans are the problem. If they could just get rid of the Cretans, the church would be fine! 

But then Paul says something else: 

especially those of the circumcision group. 

And this is where the Cretan members suddenly look up in shock and surprise. They are used to being called rebellious liars. They are used to being the unrefined “bad guys” in the congregation. 

But now Paul is saying that it is especially the super-strict religious Jerusalem teachers who are the rebellious liars, full of meaningless talk and deception! 

That is a bit different. 

Titus reads on: [11] They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. 

And as Titus looks out over the congregation, he sees the Jerusalem teachers and their strict Jewish followers sitting there with the veins pulsing in their foreheads. 

Because Paul is taking everything that people normally say about Cretans and applying it to these super-strict Jerusalem teachers: 

For instance, everyone says Cretans are combative and divisive, tearing families apart with their violence. Paul says: normally, yes! But in this church it is the strictly religious Jewish teachers who are disrupting whole households. 

And everyone says that Cretans would happily sell their own mothers into slavery for a bit of extra cash. Paul says: normally, yes! But in this church it is the strictly religious Jewish teachers who are selling God’s Word into slavery for the sake of dishonest gain. 

Going on: [12] One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” [13] This saying is true. 

And probably by this point Titus also has a vein jumping in his forehead. He must have been thinking, “Oh, man, Paul, what are you doing? Are you trying to alienate everyone here? You cannot insult the Jewish members of the congregation, and then turn around and insult the Cretan members of the congregation, we’ll have no one left!” 

But when Titus looks up he sees that the Cretan members are actually nodding at this part. They are not offended at all! Because it is true: 

One of their own Cretan poets did write, in disgust, that his own people are always liars. And if we had asked a Cretan man on the street, “Hey, is it true that Cretans are always liars?” he would have said, “Yes!” And then he would have grinned and winked at us. Because this line of poetry is part of a philosophical puzzle that is officially called “The Liar’s Paradox”. It goes like this: if a liar tells you he always lies…is he telling the truth, or not? And the ordinary Cretan man-on-the-street delighted in this paradox, because it meant that, even when a Cretan told the truth, no one could ever know whether he was really telling the truth or whether he was simply wrapping a lie in the truth in order to create an even deeper kind of lie…this kind of thing gave Cretans a tremendous advantage in any negotiation.  

And then, as the old joke goes: the island of Crete does not need any wild beasts, because the Cretans are the the wild beasts! So if we had asked a Cretan man on the street, “Hey, is it true that Cretans are all evil brutes?” he would have said, “Yes it is! We are all wild and unpredicatable! So you better watch out!” But is he serious, or is he joking? Is he telling the truth, or is he lying — again — just to make us nervous so he can take advantage of us in some other way? When dealing with a Cretan, everyone assumed they were going to get robbed, that was a fore-gone conclusion. The only real question was: will we be robbed violently, or through manipulation? 

And then, if we asked our Cretan man on the street, “Hey, is it true that Cretans are all lazy gluttons?” he would have said, “Every chance we get! Isn’t that the whole point of life, after all: make a fortune, retire early, live off the fat for as long as possible? Buddy, you must be stupid if you have any other ambition in life!” 

So the Cretan members of the congregation are not offended by Paul’s words here. They look at each other and they go, “…yeah. That is a fair description of how we were raised.” 

And that is the point Paul is making by quoting their own poet back at them: they were raised to be like this. But they are not like this anymore. 

They used to be rebellious, full of meaningless talk and deception. They used to disrupt whole households simply for the sake of dishonest gain. They used to be liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons. But when the kindness and love of Jesus Christ was preached to them, when they believed, when they were reborn and renewed by the Holy Spirit, they literally stopped being Cretans and they became Christians instead — nothing more, nothing less. 

Now, this does not mean they are perfect. Old cultural habits are hard to break. There is no doubt the new Cretan believers were causing some tension in the churches: their bad behaviour is bad behaviour. But they are trying to improve. They do not want to be liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons anymore. And they need their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters to teach them how to escape from those pagan habits. They need their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters to teach them how to live godly lives. 

But this is where everything has gone wrong: many of their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters are not teaching them how to live godly lives anymore. Instead, many Jewish Christians in the Church have joined the Jerusalem group in teaching the Cretan Christians things they ought not to teach: things like how to get circumcised, how to avoid eating certain “unclean” foods, how to avoid eating with certain “unclean” people. In short: how to break the Church up into little pieces defined by ethnicity, age, sex, and social status. 

And so, by joining the “circumcision group”, many of the Jewish Christians of Crete have become the liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons in the church — worse than the Cretans. Because at least the Cretan Christians are trying to escape from their deceptive culture, whereas the Jewish followers of the “circumcision group” are continuing to promote their own deceptive culture! They have joined the Jerusalem teachers in twisting God’s Word, which makes them absolutely the worst kind of liars of all. 

Therefore, Paul says, rebuke them sharply. 

Paul is telling Titus to rebuke those Jewish-background Christians in the church who have joined the “circumcision group”. 

And what is the purpose of this sharp rebuke? 

So that they will be sound in the faith. 

Sound in the faith means being healthy in the faith. 

But what does it look like when someone is sound in the faith? 

Well, they [14] pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth. [15] To the pure, all things are pure. 

That is what it looks like when someone is sound in the faith: they are not impressed by Jewish myths, or Cretan myths, or anybody’s myths. In other words: they are not impressed by titles and PhDs, they do not care about where you came from, what race you are, who your family is, your education level. They pay no attention to man-made rules about what you are allowed to eat or what you allowed to wear, to them all things are pure: there is no such thing as “unclean” food or “unclean” clothing or an automatically “unclean” person. 

But, Paul goes on, to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. [16] They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. 

So that is what it looks like when someone is not sound in the faith: they claim to know God,  and in fact they work very very hard to look godly on the outside so that others will follow them. But if you look closely at their lives, you will see that their version of godliness is all about rules and regulations: don’t eat this, don’t drink that, don’t wear the other thing. And this kind of godliness is a lie! It is the opposite of true godliness! Such people are preaching transformation on the outside of a person, while leaving the heart untouched. 

And this is exactly what the Jerusalem “circumcision group” has been teaching the Jewish Christians to teach the Cretan Christians. The Jerusalem teachers do not care about transformed hearts and lives. They don’t care if the Cretans continue to be liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons on the inside, as long as they get circumcised on the outside and stop eating pork. 

Now, why are these false teachers like this? 

Well, as Paul said earlier, they teach these things for the sake of dishonest gain. They want money. More than this, though — as Paul points out in another letter — they want to be able to boast about how many converts they are winning. They want to write back home to their missions boards and say, “During the last quarter of this year we won another 3000 Cretan native converts to the Jewish nationalistic cause. How do we know they are true converts? Because they are circumcised now, and they don’t eat pork.” 

In short, the circumcision group only cares about growing their numbers very fast, because more converts means more donations and more respect from other false teachers who are also impressed by big numbers. And the only way to grow numbers very fast is by ignoring true discipleship. True discipleship — which means helping people escape from slavery to the sinful habits of their past — is long, slow, hard work, and mostly invisible. Changed hearts are hard to see, and hard to boast about. Numbers, however: very easy to see. 

So, for instance, let’s say a man wants to join our church but he has a murderous temper. That is really hard to fix! It could take years of careful discipleship before he can be safely accepted as a member. The temptation is strong for a pastor to just say, “Look, as long as you stop drinking and you stop smoking…we’ll baptise you and call you a Christian.” 

And then: “Dear Gereja Presbyterian Malaysia, yesterday I won a new convert. I can tell he is a Christian because he has stopped smoking and drinking, and he is baptised. Please make my bonus payable to Maybank, account number 1123…” 

So, by following all these detailed man-made external rules while also ignoring true discipleship — and by teaching others to do the same — these false teachers and their followers claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. 

They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good! 


Wow. Paul, why don’t you tell us what you really think? 

Why is Paul being so hard on the Jewish Christians in the congregation? We can understand why he wants to wack the false teachers: they are just passing through anyway, and Paul wants them to move on. But the Jewish Christians there in Crete are members of the local churches! Surely Paul does not want to get rid of them also! — does he? 

The reason Paul is being so hard on the Jewish Christians is because the Jewish Christians are supposed to know better. The Cretan Christians are starting from zero: they are having to learn the Old Testament and the New Testament and figure out how to live godly lives all at once. So of course they are going to make mistakes and misbehave sometimes. But the Jewish Christians were raised on the Old Testament prophets. They have heard Paul preach, so now they know that the Old Testament prophets were pointing forward to Jesus’ New Testament gospel of unity. If they remain sound in the faith, then they will be good examples of godliness and unity for the Cretan Christians, they will be able to model what it looks like when someone is transformed from the inside-out and learns to love those who are different from them. 

But if the Jewish Christians are not sound in the faith, if they turn back to false Jewish legalism, then as the older brothers and sisters in the faith they will end up leading all the younger Cretan Christians away from Jesus, enslaving them to a false religious law, and leaving them still in slavery to their deceptive, divisive cultural values. 

And so the truth is: Paul does want to get rid of these corrupted members of the congregation. If they continue to insist that Christianity means legalistic external obedience to man-made rules, if they continue to insist that the Church should be divided up by ethnicity, age, sex, social status…then: yeah! Please leave before you do any more damage! 

Remember, Paul is teaching the Cretan church — through Titus — how to establish a healthy Christian community. First they need to make sure the gospel foundation is in place. Then they need to set up the elders that will hold up the walls and the roof. But this building program will never work if some members of the church keep on digging back down into the gospel foundations and trying to change them! If they keep on undermining the foundations, the Church will just keep on breaking apart and falling down! 

So this is why Paul tells Titus to rebuke them sharply: the future health of the Church in Crete depends upon the most mature members being sound in the faith. If they are not sound in the faith, the church is just going to fall down…again. 

And, really, we could say that this is Paul’s first practical application in this passage: rebuke them sharply. This is an application for Titus in particular — and for his fellow elders, once they have been set up. The reason Paul left Titus in Crete was that he might appoint elders in every town that will protect the Church’s gospel foundations from the many rebellious people who are full of meaningless talk and deception. That is the elders’ calling: to sharply rebuke people who are trying to destroy the gospel foundations of the Church. 

So Paul’s first practical application was directed at Titus and the elders. His second application in this passage is directed at the Jewish believers in the Church who have been misled by the false teachers. They are supposed to be more mature, they are supposed to know better! So Paul’s application for them is really a warning: repent now. Go back to being sound in the faith. Or else. 

Paul’s third practical application is directed at the young Cretan believers. And this application is really instruction in how to choose mentors in the faith. The Cretans are new! The Old Testament is huge! Their Jewish Christian friends are divided over whether the church should be united or segregated! How can they tell which teacher to follow? So Paul is saying, “Look, let’s keep this simple: To the pure, all things are pure. But to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. Okay?” 

In short, when you are trying to find someone who can help disciple you in the faith, remember this simple but ironic truth: Christians who are obsessed with looking pure on the outside are actually impure on the inside; do not follow them, they will only teach you how to live by law, deception, and division. But Christians who do not seem to care at all about whether they look pure on the outside are the ones who are truly pure on the inside; follow them instead: they will teach you how to live in grace and peace and unity. 

Those were Paul’s applications for the Cretan Church 2,000 years ago, and those are also our applications for this week. 

So, if you you are here today and you are new to the Christian faith — or not yet a believer at all — this is what you should do: pray and ask God to give you eyes of wisdom as you look for someone to help you grow. Then use the eyes God gives you to look around carefully at the people in our community who seem to be more mature than you are. Test each one of us according to Paul’s ironic formula here: people who are obsessed with ritual purity are actually impure on the inside, while people who are truly sound in the faith are not worried about ritual purity at all. 

But let’s get practical, let’s get specific. This is what it looks like: if someone offers to disciple you, and that person seems really godly, but then their discipleship program is all about what you are allowed to eat or drink or wear or smoke or whatever, if they are all about pushing you through the program at high speed so you can hurry up and get out there and win some new recruits for them — I mean, converts — if they are obsessed with evangelism and baptism and numbers but they leave out the need for you to grow slowly and steadily in grace and character, if they insist that you call them by their proper titles, that you only listen to them and to no one else…then they are actually impure. As Paul says here: they do not believe. So do not follow them. They are not actually interested in helping you grow and escape from your sinful habits. Even worse, they will be misleading you into something that is not even true Christianity — and that will cost you your soul. 

But if that person seems really godly, and then — as you get to know them — you discover that they really don’t care what you eat or drink or smoke or wear, they really don’t care about what ethnic or cultural background you come from, if they take their time to know you and love you, if they care enough about you to challenge you to give up your sinful habits and then teach you how to do so, giving you room to learn through failure and repentance, if they are always urging you to gather a community of good people around yourself so you can learn from many people at once…then that person is pure. That person is living the perfect Gospel that gives freedom. So listen to them. Follow them. Ask to meet with them regularly for prayer. Eat with them. Talk to them. Learn how they got to where they are, and imitate them. 

Now, if you are here today and you have been in the Christian faith for a long time — five or ten years or more — this is our application: let us take warning. Because we are the older brothers and sisters in this community, we are responsible for how our younger siblings grow. If we become legalistic, obsessed with titles and external purity and hyper-detailed religious rules, then that is what our church is going to become. If we take shortcuts with our gospel foundation; if we try to set up the elders too fast, before the foundation is properly set; if we try to adopt some of these modern, streamlined discipleship methods that promise all these amazing quick results — we will end up building an entire community that is not sound in the faith. We will be like that foolish man Jesus talked about, who built his house on sand. When the rain comes down, the streams rise, the winds blow and beat against our church, it will fall with a great crash. 

So let us keep on turning and returning to the sweet Gospel of Grace that first saved us. We know that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. And we know it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. So let us stand firm, then, and let us not now turn and burden our younger brothers and sisters with a yoke of slavery, stupid man-made demonic rules about smoking or drinking or mask-wearing or anything else that is destroying the unity of Jesus’ Church today. Let us preach Jesus, and let us model what a life of true Gospel godliness really looks like! 

Now, last of all, if you are here today and you are an elder in Jesus’ Church, this is your application: rebuke them sharply. But not everyone! Not all the time! Only those who are stubbornly and continually threatening the gospel foundations of our community by bringing in myths or merely human commands. 

Here is some good advice from a French pastor named John Calvin, who lived about 500 years ago: “We must not deal with stubborn and rebellious persons in the same way we deal with those who are humble and teachable. For, in discipling those who are mild, we ought to use such mildness as is suitable to their teachable spirit. But the stubborn must be severely corrected.” 

And here is some more good advice from a Syrian pastor named John Chrysostom, who lived about 1,600 years ago: “If you treat with harshness the humble and teachable, you may destroy them.” But on the other hand, “if you are gentle with the one who requires severity, you also cause him to perish, instead of reclaiming him.” 

This is a tough job. It requires great wisdom to know when to use gentleness, and when to use a sharp rebuke. So it is helpful in this process to always remember why we are sometimes called to rebuke people sharply: never to destroy them, but rather so that they will be sound in the faith. 

But it would be nice to never have to rebuke anyone sharply, wouldn’t it? Well…no chance of that, I’m afraid. 

But elders can lessen the chances that they will have to rebuke people sharply. 


This is how — and this is why we are closing today with some advice from a Jewish pastor named Paul who lived almost 2,000 years ago. This is what he says: 

[1] You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. 

Our hope is that, if our elders consistently teach us what is appropriate to sound doctrine, there will be fewer rebellious, divisive people in our community, and more who are committed to peace and unity. 

And this is what the whole next section of Paul’s letter is all about: how to build up the walls of the church so that they will not fall down so easily. 

So, please, make sure to come back for that. 

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