Sunday, March 11, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Steer Clear o' the Crags (Titus 3:9-11)

A darkened taverna just fifty yards from the water. Outside, seagulls caw and cackle, the waves lap and lash the shoreline. Inside, the earthy plumes of smoke mingle with the salty sharpness of the air. Can you see it, smell it, taste it? A gaggle of Greek sailors sit, solemnly drinking wine and tsikoudia, as one, scarred of face and thick of beard, warbles a lecture to the others. He swears he heard it once – resisted it with all his might, but heard it, really heard it.

They all know the stories. Out on the sea, he says, when one gets near certain rocky outcroppings, one hears the call of strange beings – the sirens. Half-woman, half-bird, they live in meadows amidst the cliffs and rocks and crags, the sharp points of stone that jut out from the water, and they sing a song that captivates the hearts of men, luring them toward the sirens – only to make them wreck on the crags and rocks and cliffs.

Not without cause, the grizzled sailor insisted, did the Argonautica warn that “many a traveler, reduced by them to skin and bones, had forfeited the happiness of reaching home.” Not without cause, he said, did the Odyssey warn to “keep clear of the sirens, who sit and sing most beautifully in a field of flowers.” In the stories, Odysseus only survived by plugging his crew's ears with beeswax; in the stories, Jason and the Argonauts only survived because Orpheus outsang the sirens and drowned out their haunting strains. And the grizzled sailor insisted the stories were true, insisted he'd heard them once at a distance, and steered clear o' the sirens and clear o' the crags.

Had the apostle been in the taverna, he might well have scoffed. Inebriated seafarers and ancient poetic license aside, such beings were fiction. Oh, Paul surely knew the Argonautica. Paul surely knew the Odyssey. So Paul undoubtedly knew the legends of the sirens. And, no doubt, as he spent time in the company of pagan sailors – and, especially in the latter part of his travels, he surely did plenty of that – well, he no doubt heard of them tell their tall tales, and perhaps he could sympathize with their great fears. But though there were no sirens to truly fear out there in the water, yet there were crags that could wreck a ship if one didn't steer clear. And as on the open sea aboard ships of wood, so too on the voyage of the church, Paul might well have pondered: Just like the sirens of the myths, there are some who come to the churches and would beguile believers into wrecking on the rocks, crashing on the crags.

And so Paul bids us in his letters to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the teaching you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery” – not unlike the smoothness of the sirens' song – “they deceive the hearts of the naive” (Romans 16:17-18). That's just what sirens do, you see: they smoothly 'deceive' us into crashing into the obstacles, like crags jutting from the water. And Paul has the same advice to share a few years later with Titus, whom he'd commissioned to direct the fleet of local churches in Crete.

Paul observes that there are false teachers infiltrating these Cretan churches – that “there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party” (Titus 1:10). The duped are led to “devote themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth” (Titus 1:14). They engage in “stupid inquiries, genealogies, strifes, and wars about the Law” (Titus 3:9). And we have to admit, we don't totally know what's going on here; Paul doesn't give us the play-by-play. Paul talks about their foolish controversies, their 'stupid inquiries' – these people, he says, are just incompetent – the very questions they ask are dumb and beside the point, and they go chasing their rabbit trails. Some ancient writers like Polybius observed that popular pagan writers would compose fake histories for various cities, indulging in “the question of genealogies and myths” (Histories 9.2.1). And just the same, Jewish teachers seem to have been going to Christian churches, passing off their pet theology, and boosting its credentials with fake histories like that. Maybe they complained about the purity of church leaders' families. Probably they obsessed over their speculations on hidden spiritual meanings in the Old Testament – allegories tucked away in the biblical family trees, legendary stories about biblical heroes, secret demands lurking beneath the rules and regulations.

In the century before Paul wrote, you started to see just a flood of new Jewish books being written, re-imagining and reworking the biblical genealogies and laws. I've read bunches of them. There was one called Jubilees, a retelling of the genealogies and laws but structured around jubilee cycles of seven years. And in it, you'll find all sorts of tidbits. You'll hear that Hebrew was the first language, the “tongue of creation.” You'll hear that Adam and Eve lived seven years in the garden before the serpent approached them. You'll hear that the animals – cows and sheep and cats and snakes – all used to speak Hebrew, but stopped when Adam got the boot. You'll hear names for Cain's wife Awan and Seth's wife Azura and plenty of other unnamed characters. You'll hear legends about the life Enoch lived with the angels, and myths about fallen angels mating with human women who give birth to giants. You'll hear of Jewish feasts like Pentecost being set up after the Flood. You'll hear Noah spend chapters giving monologues of his teaching. You'll read stories of Noah battling demons through his secret mystical knowledge. You'll be told the Tower of Babel was 8,150 feet high, and you'll read stories of the young Abram chasing flocks of crows away, and preaching, and burning down an idol temple in the night. You'll get shades of the Book of Job when the demon-prince Mastema challenges God to test Abraham with the sacrifice of Isaac. You'll be told that the sabbath is woven into the very fabric of history, and be told that circumcision is “an eternal ordinance ordained and written in the heavenly tablets,” and that anyone not circumcised is “to be destroyed and annihilated from the earth.”

And then there were other books. Philo, the Jewish philosopher, had plenty to say about the genealogy of Cain. He found plenty of allegories there. Cain, he said, signifies the human mind apart from God. Cain's wife is his doctrine that 'man is the measure of all things,' and their son Enoch represents everything being seen as a gift of the human mind. Enoch's son Irad represents the soul degenerating into a collection of 'irrational powers' that wander aimlessly. Irad's son Mehujael shows “that a man who lives in an irrational manner is separated from the life of God.” Mehujael's son Methushael signifies that irrational passion leads to “the death of the soul.” Methushael's son Lamech signifies humiliation, that is, the torture of the soul under its fatal disease. Lamech's son Jabal shows that such instability leads to “changing the limits which have been affixed by nature to every thing,” and so on, and so on, and so on.

And then there were other books. They wrote apocalypses portraying hideous angels carrying the souls of the wicked, weeping angels in heaven who write down all your sins, and so on. They wrote testaments, imagined instructions of all the patriarchs from their deathbeds. They wrote astrological tracts like the Treatise of Shem, explaining what it supposedly meant if a year started under this or that constellation. They wrote little biographies of Adam and Eve, of the patriarchs, of the biblical prophets. And then came the rabbis, who could argue any point – they could turn words to numbers and numbers to words, could tell you which days were free from Satan's power, could divide over the slightest points of Hebrew grammar, could give you a rule for each and every occasion – and give you five other opinions while you're at it.

Any and all of that could be the sort of speculative Jewish teaching that was infiltrating the churches in Crete. It was dangerous, because using methods like that, you could 'prove' just about anything; and in an atmosphere like Crete, it was painfully apparent that some Greek teachers used the same tactics to justify any and every act by making up stories about the gods indulging in it. The result of all these 'stupid inquiries' about 'genealogies' and 'Jewish myths' and 'human commands' was that people in the Cretan churches were getting all stirred up about these new special so-called insights. Paul warns in our passage about the 'strifes' that were ensuing all over the map. Folks heard these ideas, these speculations; they were exposed to the arguments; and so they'd start bickering about the right way to see behind the Bible for its inner meaning. Anybody here remember the 'Bible Code' craze from a few years back? If not, count yourself fortunate. But the result of what was taking place in the Cretan churches was that these arguments were distracting people. They were distracting people from what was really important. It wasn't shedding helpful light on the Bible at all; it was just giving off smoke and a dizzying heat – that's why Paul talks about “wars over matters of the Law.” Getting such a heat up wasn't a tough task in first-century Crete, and it was dividing churches! And no one really won such wars – so Paul calls them “unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9).

See, the truth is, some arguments, some debates, some issues – they just aren't useful. Even if you're totally right about them, you don't gain much. It makes no fruitful difference. It's not a good investment of time. It only distracts from what's really important, like faith, hope, and love. There is such a thing as a dumb question, Paul's saying. And these teachings that folks are introducing into the Cretan church – they're just rumors, they're hoaxes, they're fake news, they're pointless and insignificant and a waste of breath!

And yet how fond we can be in the church about arguing over and dividing over things like this – over myths and genealogies and wars about matters of the Law. Sometimes we argue about creation. That we were created, no Christian doubts; exactly how it played out, how we're supposed to read those first chapters of Genesis, is a hot topic in the church. There are Bible-believing Christians who insist in a literal six-day creation six thousand years ago, based on careful math tallying up lifespans in the genealogies. One archbishop once calculated the universe was created on the night of October 22, 4004 BC – around six PM, but he declined to specify a minute. There are Bible-believing Christians who find gaps in the story, or who interpret the seven days as long ages, or who see the seven days as days where God explained to Moses what had happened. There are Bible-believing Christians who accept evolution. But to hear the different sides bicker, you'd hear that one group is secret heathens and the other are blatant ignoramuses. How many churches have been inwardly divided when differing views on creation came to the fore? How many ministries have been derailed by this fight? How many good works has it distracted believers from? Not that it's unworthy of calm discussion now and again, but how easily have we gotten sidetracked from bigger and brighter things?

Or sometimes, we argue about the other tail of history – the end-times. People build elaborate theological and doctrinal systems based on their synthesis of bits and pieces of this book, that book, all the prophecies hither and yon. They transmute days to years, add them, count them, write histories of the future before the fact. How many different dates have been set for the end, I've surely lost count. Each one as plausible as the last. You've probably heard of signs and portents – “wars and rumors of wars,” and signs in the sky, eclipses and 'blood moons' and all that jazz. Folks in the church take every conceivable angle: preterist and historicist and futurist and idealist, premillennial and postmillennial and amillennial, pre-wrath and mid-wrath and post-wrath. Odds are, folks in any given church differ widely on all of those, or even whether some of the questions are sensible. How many churches have been divided? How much energy has been expended on 'prophecy ministries' that go nowhere and only feed our weird obsessions? How many good works has it distracted believers from, and how many divisions has it fostered? Back when I was choosing a seminary, there were seminaries I couldn't attend because I couldn't in good faith dot the i's and cross the t's on their official position on the end-times. How does that help the work of the kingdom?

Oh, oh, and the arguments scattered all over history! Nearly a thousand years ago, the western church and the eastern church formally cut ties. There were an assortment of issues there, but you know what one was? The East accused Western Christians of being repulsive azymites; the West retorted that the East were prozymites. What are those? It all comes down to using leavened versus unleavened bread in Communion! Or think of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli battling so heatedly, ruining the ties between their followers, over the exact nature of what happens in Communion! And tell me, church: who ever trusted God more, who ever had more hope, who ever loved better, for being either a supralapsarian or an infralapsarian? Anybody? Show of hands?

Today, of course, there are some important issues that divide churches. Some of those are fair disagreements about things that really matter. Others are disagreements about things that matter but should have been off the table, by the teaching of Old and New Testaments and the consensus of the church. In the nineteenth century, denominations split because, in spite of the longstanding witness of the church that slavery was evil, some folks in American churches wanted to tolerate and defend it – and so there emerged Northern and Southern Baptists, there arose a Methodist Episcopal Church North and a Methodist Episcopal Church South, and so on. Just the same, today, on issues of sexual ethics – all very important – many have broken with the longstanding witness of the church about homosexual practices and other sexual sins – there are folks in American churches wanting to advocate for its tolerance and acceptance, and churches and denominations are dividing over this alien and unchristian doctrine. That's what heresy does – it tears and devours, and it impairs our love by condemning people to the slavery of their temptations and their passions and their faulty vision and darkened thinking.

But there are plenty of more frivolous issues that divide churches today, issues that aren't a matter of biblical faithfulness. Political squabbles, for instance. We've especially seen that in the past few years. Whole churches have divided – arguments have started, trust has withered, people have left, congregations have split – over how people react to the man who currently works from the Oval Office. I won't say politics doesn't matter, in some relative sense. And, look, I'm sure we run a wide range of positions even in our church here. But could a little difference of opinion over any prince of men be warrant to rip apart the unity of Christ, who tells us to place not our trust in princes? How much Christian witness has been sabotaged by importing secular partisanship onto holy ground? How many good works have we been distracted from by Satan's siren call?

And then there are the pragmatic issues. Churches divide over music style, don't they? Even if it's just adding an extra service so that the people who like the organ don't have to worship next to people who like guitars and drums, that's a division. I've seen plenty of division over people's musical idolatries. Haven't you? Oh, and churches divide over personality conflicts – that happens all the time. Our denomination's history bears witness – such was a major factor in the split in the Evangelical Association in the 1890s. Churches divide over fairly petty matters of legal procedure – that's what split the United Evangelical Church in the 1920s, after all. Churches divide over silly things – all the way down to carpet color.

Don't believe me? One church leadership expert (Thom S. Rainer) did a survey on Twitter the other year. He wanted to hear the craziest true-life stories behind church fights, some of which did actually split churches outwardly, but surely all of which divided churches inwardly and distracted from kingdom work. Ready to hear his twenty-five favorite?
  1. People fought over whether to sing “Happy Birthday” each week.
  2. People fought over a proposal to require all church staff to be clean-shaven.
  3. People fought over the appropriate length for the worship pastor's beard.
  4. People fought over whether the worship leader had to wear shoes during the service.
  5. People fought over whether people were allowed to wear black T-shirts to church, since don't you know that's the devil's color?
  6. People fought over who had access to the copy machine.
  7. People fought over who had authority to buy postage stamps for the church.
  8. People fought over a ten-cent discrepancy in the church's budget.
  9. People fought over whether to add gluten-free communion bread.
  10. People fought over using a cranberry/grape-juice blend instead of pure grape juice.
  11. People fought over the youth group daring to use an otherwise-unused crockpot from the church kitchen.
  12. People fought over what kind of green beans to serve at the church dinner.
  13. People fought over whether deviled eggs were appropriate for a church potluck.
  14. People fought over whether to call it a 'potluck' or a 'pot blessing'!
  15. People fought over what brand of coffee to stock – and, yes, folks really left that church over that!
  16. People fought over whether adding vanilla syrup to coffee looked too much like adding liquor.
  17. People fought over whether fake plants should be removed from the podium.
  18. People fought over whether to keep or remove a clock from the worship center.
  19. People fought over whether the church should buy a weed eater.
  20. People fought over whether to put stall dividers in the women's bathroom.
  21. People fought over which filing cabinet to buy.
  22. People fought over which painting of Jesus to hang in the narthex.
  23. People fought over whether to use their plot of land to build a children's playground or a cemetery.
  24. People fought over somebody hiding the church's vacuum cleaner from somebody else – and, believe it or not, that church actually did split over it!
  25. At one church, two deacons argued over an anonymous letter – and they settled it with a fistfight in the church parking lot!
We laugh! We laugh precisely because it's so obvious that none of this is worth wasting breath on. We laugh because it's so pointless, so trivial. And yet how many times has something as trivial as this caused a division in our church? Maybe not this year, maybe not last year, but over the last few decades? How many times has some 'stupid inquiry' or some 'strife,' some frivolous 'war over the Law' or some other closely-held myth or pet idea or speculation, distracted us from being “carefully devoted to good works” (Titus 3:8)?

Brothers and sisters, when Christians gather together, our vocation is not to argue. Yes, there is a place for real teaching, healthy teaching (Titus 1:9; 2:1). Yes, there is even a place for correcting and rebuking (Titus 1:13; 2:15). But these take place within our prime vocation, which is to unite worshipfully around “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), the core message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It's to unite around the reality that our good and loving God “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, being justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). These are the things Titus is told to be insistent about: they matter, they count, they bear fruit, they have functional relevance for Christian witness and life (Titus 3:8).

Such key truths, which Paul calls 'healthy teaching,' 'sound doctrine,' are worth clinging to and defending. And then there are other issues that are worth serious discussion. And then there are still others that can be fun to toss about in your downtime – (how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, after all?) – just as long as you don't take it too seriously and don't waste too much time and effort on it. But then there are issues that are just pointless, and some stances that are simply beyond the pale. These things are “unprofitable and useless,” and Titus is cautioned to “avoid” them (Titus 3:9). 

But others will harp on them, sure enough. They will throw everything out of joint, blow everything out of proportion. A 'divisive person' always finds a hobby-horse to ride, and a hobby-horse's hoofbeats have a way of clouding the air with dust and ash. Their quibbles don't lead to a clearer understanding. Their quibbles won't help you see God any better. Nor will their quibbles equip you to trust more tenaciously, to hope more audaciously, or to love more ferociously. So Paul tells Titus to kindly give them attention once and then twice, in hopes of correcting their behavior and refocusing their attention – but if they persist in their fruitless obsession, to reject them (Titus 3:10).

Because the church has important things to do. We all, as believers, have important things to do – a veritable smorgasbord of good works spread out before us, with more variety than Shady Maple ever boasted. And these quibbles, all the “myths” and “stupid inquiries, genealogies, strifes, and wars over the law,” are a distraction and a detriment that dare to divide the divine deposit of our doctrine. Such is all heresy, and such is schism, and such is our perpetual foolishness.

But distracting our brothers and sisters with frivolous fights and asinine arguments is not merely inadvisable, Paul says here. It is a serious sin, to threaten the health and integrity of the fellowship of the people of God: such a divisive person is “warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:11). We dare not distract the church with our petty agendas, our idiosyncratic views, our closely-held myths. Don't listen to their siren temptations. Steer clear o' the crags! Rather, let us instead insist on keeping the main thing the main thing, “so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves” – devote ourselves – “to good works” (Titus 3:8). In this “excellent and profitable” path over the waves, sail on, church. Sail on. Amen.

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