There is nothing straightforward about ministry. As soon as people get involved, things get messy. It’s not as if the earliest Christians were exempt from this reality. Like us, the early Christians had their own baggage, their own cultural norms, and their own problems. How are we to go about having a healthy ministry environment when so many of us have so many issues?
How are we to discern between what our culture tells us is best for our community and God’s vision for community? Titus 3:8–11 can be understood as a framework for a ministry built on healthy relationships.
In recent years, there has been a major push to have emotionally healthy ministry environments, and I heartily agree (e.g., Pete Scazzero's push for Emotionally Healthy Discipleship). But long before the modern popularity of emotionally healthy ministry, Paul wrote to his young apprentice Titus about similar issues.
The letter to Titus is written to the churches on Crete. Paul had left Titus there to appoint new leaders and guide the fledgling Christian communities for a season. As we read the letter to Titus, it becomes apparent that this is no easy task. These people have some serious issues—and don’t we all? In Titus 3:8–11, Paul says:
“This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned” (Titus 3:8–11 NIV).
“This is a trustworthy saying,” says Paul. This is a common phrase or formula in Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus (occurring five times). It could be Paul’s way of demarcating a quotation or simply an affirmation that what he is saying is true (i.e., a form of rhetoric). It could even be that the formula is early liturgy (e.g., the reader could say “This saying is trustworthy,” and the congregation could respond, “This saying is trustworthy indeed”).
The idea of liturgy is the thread of thought I want to follow; not because I’m completely sold that the formula “the saying is trustworthy” was indeed early Christian liturgy, but because I think it leads to a practical application. Following this train of thought, I think we see in Titus 3:8–11 four principles for relationally healthy ministry.
The first step in creating an emotionally healthy ministry environment is to live a different liturgy than our culture—to immerse ourselves in a different narrative, story, or rhythm of life. James K. A. Smith has called this, a “counterliturgy” (You Are What You Love, pp. 58, 125).
Our culture’s liturgy is high drama. It’s full of reality shows of people arguing and backstabbing; dramas in hospitals, courtrooms, and the white house; and violence, everywhere. There is violence in words and actions. This is the liturgy, or rhythm, present on our TVs. But what is God’s liturgy, his ultimate rhythm for our lives?
Smith observes that, “If our loves can be disordered by secular liturgies, it’s also true that our loves need to be reordered (recalibrated) by counterliturgies—embodied, communal practices that are ‘loaded’ with the gospel and indexed to God and his kingdom” (You Are What You Love, pp. 57–58). How can we “index” our lives to God’s kingdom, to his ways? How can we “load” our lives with the gospel? What does it look for our ministries to be “reordered (recalibrated) by counterliturgies”?
A primary point of our “counterliturgy,” the rhythm we live, is “good works” (or “doing what is good.”) The emphasis of the Greek text of Titus 3:8–11 is on “good works.” The discourse of the Greek text literally frames around this point. What’s “excellent and profitable for people”? To practice “good works,” “to devote themselves to good works.” How do those “who have believed [or trusted] in God” live? They practice “good works.”
The Christian is constantly searching in his or her life for the opportunity to do “good” for other people. As Paul shows us in Titus 2:11–14, the response of the Christian to Jesus is to do good in his name: the redemption God offers in Christ changes the way we live. What is “good”? That which benefits other people.
For example, in his letter to Timothy, Paul describes an impoverished widow who has done good works as having the following type of characteristics. She is a woman who:
“is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds” (1 Timothy 5:10 NIV).
In 1 Timothy 6:17–19, Paul says a rich person who has done good works will display a certain kind of character. Paul tells Timothy:
“Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17–19 NIV).
This is how we devote ourselves to “doing what is good”: In our wealth or in our poverty, we love people self-sacrificially, utilizing whatever resources are available to us. But we also need to go one step further to be relationally healthy.
Paul has already told us how to act toward other people—the actions we should take daily. In Titus 3:9, he explains what we should avoid. Picking up on a thread from Titus 1:10–16, Paul says,
“But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless” (Titus 3:9 NIV).
Paul picks up on a liturgy of the culture of Crete that is also common today: controversies that do not have a point. Consider all the times that you have heard people argue over something that they can do nothing about. (This is the case for most political arguments.) As Christians, we need to step out of controversies when we can do nothing about them.
Paul then mentions “genealogies,” which were commonly used in Graeco-Roman society to include or exclude people. In the Christian community, there is no place for parentage being a deciding factor (or any factor at all) in defining our lives. We are all one in Christ (Galatians 3:28–29). Whenever tribe or family threatens to disrupt God’s community, we must stand against it (compare Mark 3:35). Unity must be the desire.
From here, Paul addresses a quarrel that seems to have been happening over how to interpret the law (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). It seems that there were some Jewish Christians on Crete who were trying to take a place of authority over Christians who were not of Jewish heritage (Titus 1:10–11). Paul opposes legalistic prejudice, especially when such legalism is evoked for “shameful gain” (Titus 1:11).
Whenever we as Christians find ourselves embattled in a debate, we must ask, “Will this further Jesus’ ways? Is there good to be had here, for the betterment of God’s community and mission?” If not, we should step back and change our behavior. Avoid foolish controversies and prejudices.
Rather than, “I’m right,” emotionally healthy ministry prioritizes unity. This is the point of Paul’s closing teaching in Titus:
“Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned” (Titus 3:9–10 NIV).
If a person is seeking to be divisive, even after warning, then they are not really seeking God’s ways. In the process, they have condemned themselves by their actions. Paul here is asking the Christian community to be self-disciplined. He is saying, “If all else fails, prioritize the unity of the church.” It’s okay to say someone, “If you can’t learn to love people first, and if you insist on leading people astray with you into these foolish controversies, incorrect teachings, and prejudices, then I don’t think we have a place for you here.”
This is how seriously Paul takes the issue of unity. It is a priority, and thus there are boundaries.
What does relationally healthy ministry look like, according to Paul? It (1) Creates a counter-liturgy, a new rhythm of living; (2) involves people devoting themselves to what is good, the betterment of other people; (3) means people avoiding foolish controversies and prejudices; and (4) prioritizes unity, which means having boundaries with people.
This article is part of our series, "How to Authentically Live as a Christian: Paul's Letter to Titus."
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