Sunday, January 28, 2018

Church on the Choppy Seas: Helmsmen's Duty (Titus 1:5-9)

Things would have gone differently, they say, with another commanding officer. The story of the HMS Hermione would have been a different one. And with it, American history. That, at least, is the thesis of Roger Ekirch's excellent book American Sanctuary, which came out last year. Ekirch tells the story of how our 1800 presidential election was shaped by a long-forgotten issue: the controversy over the fallout of what happened to alleged American citizens impressed into naval service aboard an infamous British ship: the HMS Hermione. Things could have gone well on that ship, with a different captain at the helm: one the crew had reason to trust.

Instead, the ship had recently received a new captain: Hugh Pigot, a late admiral's 28-year-old son. Gifted as a tactician, that was about where his leadership qualities ended. Pigot's command experience was but three years deep. He was unfamiliar to much of the crew serving under him. And on his last command, he'd ordered eighty-five vicious floggings in just nine months, and two of his old crew had died from their whippings.

On his new ship, he played favorites between old and new crew members. His mood and behavior were erratic. He was sensitive to the slightest slight, and demanded his officers bow before him. In a perilous storm, Captain Pigot shouted threats to the slowest topman working on the masts – and in their fear and haste, three of them plunged to their deaths. He ordered their corpses shamefully swept off the deck, and the next rainy morning, had fourteen of his men beaten. No wonder the night to come – September 21, 1797 – would be the last night alive for Captain Pigot and several other officers of the HMS Hermione. It was mutiny. And so turned the wheels of history that night.

Last Sunday, as we picked up Paul's letter to Titus, his delegate to the rough-and-tumble new churches of the infamously 'post-truth' mission field in Crete, we described his ministry as being like sailing a ship through choppy seas, like the dangerous waters off the southern Cretan coastline. And we talked about the importance of having a sure anchor to give a ship stability in seasons of storm. For us, for the church, our sure anchor is a “God who never lies” (Titus 1:3), which was a great relief for Titus surrounded by a culture that didn't care about truth and was skeptical of knowledge.

But just like a ship needs a sure anchor, a ship also needs trustworthy officers – the team responsible for steering the ship and giving leadership to the rest of the crew. If the ship's officers act like Captain Pigot, the ship is in real trouble! And, in fact, the HMS Hermione didn't accomplish what it set out to do, because the mission was compromised by an understandable if brutal mutiny. Just the same, a local church needs trustworthy officers. The local church needs a captain and other officers who can steer it with confidence and wisdom, who can give leadership to the rest of the crew, who can ably get the ship where it needs to go and ensure that morale stays high, the crew stays fed, the resources stay managed well, and so on. It will not do to have Pigot the pastor, Pigot the lay delegate, Pigot the trustee, Pigot the steward!

And that's basically what Paul tells Titus in this morning's passage. He reminds Titus that Titus' job is to select officers for each of the ship in the fleet of Cretan churches (cf. Titus 1:5). These officers – variously called 'elders' and 'overseers' – need to meet certain qualifications if they're going to guide their ships. If you compare this to other letters, Paul doesn't raise the bar too high for church leadership in Crete – after all, it's a rougher culture, and all these believers are new believers, not like the folks Timothy is working with in Ephesus. But Paul insists that, if the ship isn't going to crash, and if there aren't to be grounds for mutiny, the ships' officers will need some basic qualifications. And the same is true for the people leading this church – your pastor, but also your lay delegate, your trustees, and your stewards, and all the officers of the board. So what does Paul insist we officers of the churchly ship need to be?

First, the officers of the ship need to be “above reproach” (Titus 1:6-7) – have no charge that can fairly be laid against them, nothing to compromise their broader reputation. Paul fleshes that out: he envisions the officer as “a one-woman man” with believing children (Titus 1:6). That isn't a command for the elder to be married with children; in Crete, that would have just been the most common thing, and Paul himself had neither wife nor kids. But Paul is envisioning his church leaders as faithful in marriage and wise leaders for any families they have – raising their children to love the Lord, rather than tolerating all sorts of nonsense.

Paul then focuses in on what we have to not be. The officers of the ship cannot afford to be arrogant, pointing to themselves and insisting that others in the church bow before them. The officers of the ship cannot be quick-tempered, ready to fly off the handle and behave erratically. In short, Paul is saying, Pigot is disqualified right here! The officers of the ship are not allowed to be self-willed, not allowed to be prone to outbursts of anger, not allowed to be violent types of people. Nor can they afford to be addicts – the word Paul uses here suggests addiction to wine. (Crete has some very good wine!) Local church leaders, at the very minimum, have to be free from such addictions and habits.

Unlike the many false teachers, who were mainly concerned with their profit margins, church leaders cannot afford to be greedy, always looking for their fee or a way to turn their position to their financial advantage. Paul believes strongly in the rights of full-time Christian workers to “get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14), and even says that those who preach and teach are “worthy of double honor,” probably suggesting a high standard of remuneration compared to others (1 Timothy 5:17) – but they are not to be focused on gain beyond that level, and certainly not on collecting fees for every little thing (Titus 1:7).

Instead, officers in the church need to be hospitable – literally, they need to 'love strangers,' love foreigners, love 'intruders,' love 'inconveniences,' love 'interruptions.' In Titus' world, the leaders in the churches needed to be ready to offer food and accommodations to traveling missionaries who'd come to visit. They would also need to open their homes to other believers in general, for meetings there. In today's context, you might say that each church leader should be ready to host a Bible study, a prayer group, a house-church gathering, a festivity where believers can mingle with nonbelievers. In a setting like Crete, where would most people hear the gospel for the first time? Probably around the table in the home of a Christian host. And in today's world, with people mistrustful of the so-called 'institutional church' and everybody professing to treasure their sleep so much more on a Sunday morning than on every other day of the week, we might be in the same place. Dinner invitations, small gatherings with Christian and non-Christian friends together, just sharing life – that might be the place where the gospel can spread and flourish best. And officers in the church need to set the stage for exactly that. Hospitality.

Paul adds a few other virtues, too – “self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:8). Aboard a ship sailing at sea, these are the kinds of people you want at the helm. You don't want the guy at the wheel to panic easily or break under pressure. You don't want the officers to be drinking and partying when they need to be focused on a safe and well-directed voyage. You don't want them to be corrupt, to be playing favorites, to be targets for a bribe, to default on the crew's trust. You want them, ideally, to be self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. And the same is true for your church board – you want your leaders to be self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined.

Finally, officers in the church need to be committed to “the trustworthy word as taught” – in other words, they need to be loyal to the gospel message and the elements of Christian teaching. They can't be cult leaders who make it up as they go along. They can't be inventing new heresies or reviving old ones. They can't be indulging in their pet theological agendas. They need to be whole-gospel people, they need to be committed, and they need to understand it well enough to tell the difference between the gospel and its many counterfeits.

For what purpose? To “give instruction in healthy teaching” – God willing, that's what I do up here on a Sunday: give you instruction in the healthy teaching of the prophets and apostles, to fill your lives with more health, more life! But it can't stop on a Sunday, and it's not just my job; other officers of the church have a share, too. And, Paul says, a church leader needs not only to be able to instruct the willing but also “to rebuke those who contradict it” – in other words, to offer clear-headed answers to those who start filling the air, or just their own heads, with crazy ideas that ultimately won't lead to health (Titus 1:9).

Above reproach” – faithful and wise in family life – not arrogant – not quick-tempered – not addicted – not violent – not greedy. Instead, loving what's good – keeping self-control – being upright, holy, and disciplined. Welcoming the church into their homes, and providing places where believers can be the light of Christ to non-Christian friends. And being loyal to the Christian message, understanding the Bible well enough to offer healthy teaching to others and to correct those who are making a mess of it. That is what Paul asks Titus to use as a standard for church leaders, officers aboard the ships in his fleet. And we have a right to expect the same.

This morning, as we hold our congregational meeting, you'll hear from several of the officers in this crew. You will have the opportunity to, as a congregation, appoint some officers. Yes, there are specific job descriptions we have in our bylaws for exactly what a trustee is to do, what a steward is to do, what a class leader is to do, and all the rest. But beneath the job description is this character description; beneath it, there's what Paul is telling Titus about who a trustee, a steward, a class leader, a lay delegate, a pastor, is supposed to be. As we commit to another year of sailing this ship, keep these things in mind. There need be no mutinies, because every member has a hand here in choosing and confirming leaders who fit this vision, and every member and friend has a hand in encouraging us in it. May this ship be steered well, and may her crew benefit from good and health-giving leadership, in Jesus' name. Amen.

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