Posted by: reformbama | March 10, 2009

Sound Doctrine, Sound Words (Part 2)

Sound Doctrine, Sound Words (Part 2)


(By Phil Johnson)

This is the second installment of Phil’s notes from his Friday morning address at the Shepherds’ Conference.

Now, that’s a much longer introduction than I originally intended to give, but I want to stress that this problem is serious, and widespread, and it’s moving through the evangelical movement with frightening speed. As one guy said, it’s not really a trend anymore; it has become the new norm.

One more thing about contextualization. (I spoke on this subject at last year’s Shepherds’ Conference): If your approach to contextualization is designed mainly to make you fit comfortably into a pagan culture—then you have an upside-down view of what Paul meant when he spoke of becoming all things to all men so that he might by all means win some.
And that’s one of the prominent lessons of our text.

Look first at the larger context. Titus, the recipient of this letter, was a close companion of the apostle Paul. You can see clearly in the way Paul writes about him that he had earned Paul’s trust. Titus was evidently quite a young man, because in chapter 1, verse 4, Paul addresses him as “my true child in a common faith.” It’s not “my son in the faith,” huios (a legal son who has come of age, or someone who has been granted the privilege of sonship by adoption) but teknon—”child”—which signifies a child by birth. The choice of that word implies that Titus was still a very young man. And combined with the adjective (“my genuine child according to [our] common faith”) it also suggests that Paul had personally led Titus to Christ.

So this young Gentile convert became indispensable to Paul. In 2 Corinthians alone, Paul refers to Titus nine times. (He also mentions him twice in Galatians and once in 1 Timothy.) Paul entrusted a number of important responsibilities to Titus. It’s clear that he regarded Titus as much more than a pupil or messenger boy, but Titus was a true and trusted partner in the apostolic ministry. So when Paul moved on from Crete, he left Titus there to establish and organize the leadership in the churches that were being founded there. Paul says in chapter 1, verse 5: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.”

Now, Paul has some not-so-nice things to say about the culture of Crete. It turns out this place was even worse than Seattle. Titus 1:10-16:

10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party.
11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.
12 One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”
13 This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith,
14 not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth.
15 To the pure, all things are pure, but to the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled.
16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.

There’s a bit of cultural sensitivity for you: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”

“Ooh, that’s harsh.”

Yes, it is. And if you ponder carefully what Paul is saying to Titus here, this passage explodes some of the favorite myths about contextualization. Paul does not say, Cretans are liars and lazy gluttons, so reach out to them on that basis. Immerse yourself in their culture and learn to speak that language. Appeal to their love f food, wine, and fellowship. Organize your men’s ministry so that the meetings are in the pub. Harness their passion for ultimate fighting by hanging out with gladiators and imitating their lifestyle and values. Let the flavor of that culture season all your preaching. Contextualize! You won’t find that in Paul’s instructions to Titus.

Notice this, too: Paul doesn’t lower the bar of Christian leadership to accommodate the hedonistic bent of Cretan Culture. In verses 6-9 He gives Titus practically the same list of qualifications for church leadership he gave in 1 Timothy 3.

Frankly, I don’t envy the task Titus was called to (v. 5): “Put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town” How can you meet those standards for leaders if all you have to work with are fresh converts out of such a corrupt culture?
But Titus’s task was clear. He was not to ape the fashions of that society. He was to teach them to be different. Not only that—but with regard to the young men in particular (since Titus himself was a young man)—he was to be a different kind of example from anything they had ever seen. He wasn’t supposed to crawl into society’s sewer and join the fraternity of Cretan bad-boys. He needed to model dignity, purity, integrity, reverence, and sound speech. That’s the whole point of our text (2:7): “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.”

Notice the flow of logic in chapter 2. These are things that adorn sound doctrine. Paul is reminding Titus of several important practical and behavioral issues that “[are in accord] with sound doctrine.”

Doctrine is vital, yes. Some doctrines are essential, right? That’s the premise of “Together for the Gospel,” The Gospel Coalition, the Shepherds’ Fellowship, and other similarly-minded groups. We may not agree on everything down to the smallest minutia, and we won’t let insignificant disagreements rupture our fellowship. But we must agree on the gospel. That’s the only basis for authentic Christian fellowship.

Doctrine per se is not extraneous or superfluous, despite what our postmodern friends try to tell us. Some truths are vital—especially the rich tapestry of truth at the heart of the gospel. Some truths are so vital that if you deny or try to alter them in any way, you’re anathema—accursed. And some lies are so dangerous that as Paul says back in chapter 1, verse 11, the mouths of those who utter such lies “must be stopped.”

But get this: there are likewise certain principles of sanctification and personal conduct that are so vital we’re required to break fellowship with those who ignore them. First Corinthians 5:11: “I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” In other words, if someone calls himself a Christian but his lifestyle or language is chronically incompatible with a sanctified heart and mind—certainly if he is given to casual blasphemy or obsessed with things that are lewd and indecent—Paul says, don’t associate with such people.

Paul’s point is that sanctified behavior is the essential companion to authentically sound doctrine. You may verbally affirm the finest confession of faith ever written, but if your words and deeds deny it, Paul would not have affirmed you as an authentic Christian at all. Much less would he lay hands on you for ministry. He says so, right there in chapter 1, verses 15-16: “To the defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but both their minds and their consciences are defiled. They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.” Sound doctrine is essential—but it’s not enough.

Therefore, Paul says to Titus, (2:1): “as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” Teach the principles of sanctification that adorn the doctrine you teach. And then Paul describes what that looks like (verse 2): “Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled,” etc. Verse 3: “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women . . . ”

He is not giving Titus exhaustive lists of what is crucial in sanctification; these are representative samples of the kinds of qualities Titus needed to stress, especially in such a grunge-addicted culture as Crete. And Paul goes systematically through all the classifications of saints—every Sunday-school class—starting with the older men, then the older women, who are expressly tasked with teaching the younger women. Then in verse 6, Paul gets to the category to which Titus himself belonged: “younger men.”

Notice what Titus is to stress with them, and how he is to stress it (vv. 6-8): “Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned.” That’s the heart of our text, and there you have the apostle Paul’s instructions for a young man ministering to other young men in a pagan, unchurched, pleasure-oriented, idolatrous culture. There’s nothing whatsoever here about adopting the badges of the youth culture in Crete. Not a word about the importance of fitting in or adapting your ministry to the lowbrow lifestyle of Crete. Titus was the one who was supposed to set the standard for them, not vice versa.

By the way, let me make just one more brief comment about what Paul means in 1 Corinthians 9:22, where he does speak of “becom[ing] all things to all people, that by all means [he] might save some.” The context in 1 Corinthians 9 is just as clear as the context here, and Paul is talking about two completely different things. In 1 Corinthians 9, he was talking about avoiding adding unnecessary stumbling-blocks that get in the way of people’s hearing the gospel. The gospel itself is already enough of a stumbling-block. Paul wasn’t the least bit concerned about adjusting the gospel message to eliminate the offence of the gospel; or adjusting the message to suit the tastes of some subculture; or making himself seem cool and stylish. He was simply trying to keep himself out of the way as the gospel advanced. He didn’t want to offend people unnecessarily over peripheral matters. His point was that he respected every culture’s taboos as much as possible—not that he joined up with those in the culture who were challenging the taboos. He absolutely was not saying he was willing to adopt any and every aspect of a particular subculture or lifestyle in order to fit in.

In fact, here he more or less instructs Titus not to imitate the dominant features of the culture. Notice how the twin themes of reverence and dignity run through this whole passage. Paul doesn’t suggest that we can tolerate a lack of dignity or a greater measure of irreverence from young men, just because they may not be fully mature yet. Dignity is expressly required of both young and old, Paul says.

And that was totally counter-culture. Remember that in chapter 1, verses 12-16, Paul basically says that the central problem with all of Cretan culture is that people were undignified, irreverent, self-indulgent slobs: “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” He doesn’t say that’s a cultural reality Titus needed to indulge. He doesn’t tell Titus to get creative and learn to adapt his strategy to fit Crete’s youth culture.

Paul clearly recognized Crete’s cultural tendency to favor the things of the flesh, but he was not in favor of making that tendency part of the ambience of the churches he was planting on Crete. Does anyone seriously think Paul would have approved of an inflatable Phallus as an advertizing device in a culture like Crete?

Instead, Paul says (1:13): “Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith”

Then he repeatedly stresses the importance of dignity and reverence. Chapter 2, verse 2: “Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled.” Verse 3: “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior.” Verses 6-7, “Likewise [to] the younger men. . . . Be a model of . . . dignity.”

There’s a lot in these two verses than time permits us to unpack. Notice that Paul encourages Titus to cultivate sound behavior, sound doctrine, and sound words—and to be a model in all those ways (not just the doctrine). Your life, your doctrine, and your speech are all crucial aspects of your pastoral duty.

In fact, Paul words these instructions so that those categories are interwoven. Each one is essential to the others. They aren’t three totally separate things, but three aspects of the same duty. I’ve been reading the text from the ESV, which inserts the conjunction and between good works and sound doctrine, giving the unfortunate impression that Paul differentiates good works and good doctrine. But he doesn’t. Sound doctrine is simply a prominent feature of good works. The NASB gets the gist of it as well as any: “show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine.” Keeping your doctrine pure is one of the good deeds you need to exemplify. And then Paul says your doctrine isn’t really pure if you don’t impart it to people in a dignified way through “sound speech that cannot be condemned.”

Now, that’s the specific aspect of Paul’s instructions to Titus that I’m most concerned with this morning. I want to focus on what he says about our speech. I keep hearing people (including some well-known leaders in the evangelical movement) making the claim that it really doesn’t matter how radically we contextualize the message as long as we basically get the theological facts and the doctrinal formulae of the message correct. I’m convinced that is patently wrong. In fact, that way of thinking goes contrary to the whole point Paul is stressing in his instructions to Titus. Your doctrine isn’t really pure at all if you yourself are not an example of reverence and dignity. If your manner of speech is lewd and profane, or if your lifestyle is characterized by the same fleshly tendencies that define secular culture, then you are not a fit minister of the gospel, and you ought to step down.

Paul says that very thing at the end of Titus 1, starting in verse 15: “[Those whose] minds and . . . consciences are defiled . . . profess to know God, but they deny him by their works. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.”

So if you consider Paul’s command about “sound speech that cannot be condemned” in its full context, he is putting a very high premium on the importance of dignity, reverence, purity, and soundness of language. That would apply especially to the language we use in the pulpit. But here’s what is vital: Paul was actually commanding Titus to guard even his everyday speech so that his whole life would be consistent with the dignity, reverence, and holiness the gospel commands. Paul was urging Titus not to do or say anything in any context that would be unbecoming to the gospel or give the enemies of the gospel a legitimate reason to speak evil about us.

Of course, throughout the New Testament we’re reminded that the world will speak evil of us. Paul isn’t suggesting we ought to adopt some artificial postmodern notion of civility and do everything we can to be politically correct so that people will always like us. Quite the opposite; he’s saying, Don’t give the world any reasons to criticize us that are unrelated to the fact that they reject the truth we stand for.

Brethren, this is not a complex issue at all: Crass, carnal, crude, gutter language and fleshly, self-indulgent, or erotic subject matter should not be the hallmarks of our ministry style.

Again: less than a decade ago, no one needed to stress that point. It simply wasn’t controversial. And it shouldn’t be controversial. Consider again the implications of that last verse in chapter 1: If you see practically everything as an opportunity for crass humor and filthy talk, what you are communicating to the culture is that both your mind and your conscience are defiled. And don’t kid yourself: every culture, no matter how pagan, naturally reacts to filthy talk that way. Paul says those whose minds and consciences are that defiled are unfit for ministry.

So if you are someone who can fill your conversation (or your sermons) with filthy words, coarse joking, and carnal subject matter without a single pang of conscience: get out of the ministry. Please. The pulpit is a place where God’s Word is to be proclaimed and God’s truth is to be elevated in worship. It is the very last place where everything holy should be dragged into the gutter.

This problem has reached epidemic proportions lately. As I said earlier, I could cite dozens of examples, and there are hundreds more examples I wouldn’t dare cite, because even mentioning them here would violate the principle I’m striving to affirm. Some things are too shameful even to be mentioned. Ephesians 5:12: “it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.” That is a fact our culture has worked hard to overthrow. The world thinks everything, no matter how shameful, needs to be brought out, dissected, and explored openly—even in mixed audiences. That’s the idea underlying most of our culture’s entertainment. The last thing the church should do is pretend the world has a valid point. Preachers don’t need to subject their people to any more filth than the world already shoves down our throats.

(To be concluded tomorrow)


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