This is an edited version of a sermon on the Apostle Paul’s epistle to Titus preached in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge.
Does what is preached from the pulpit matter? If there has to be a sermon, to avoid the potential for tedium wouldn’t it better to have a seven-minuter max? In fact, in the age of the internet and the smart phone and the tweet, why have a sermon at all? Why not have an interactive chat room instead? Wouldn’t that make the church more marketable?
And what about the preacher? If the church has to have preachers, or at least moderators of a discussion, does it matter what kind of character they are? Provided they are affable on the door and don’t wind people up too much, does it matter how they behave when they are off duty, at home, down the pub or at the sports club?
Wouldn’t the church be better off with short sermons delivered by a smooth communicator whose only qualification is that he or she should be reasonably personable?
The Apostle Paul’s letter to Titus gives an emphatic No to that question. The church would definitely not be better off with sound-bite sermons delivered by religious spin-doctors. In fact, preaching matters greatly and the character of the preacher matters greatly.
Paul and Titus had evangelised the Greek island of Crete together sometime in the 60s AD. Paul had departed, leaving Titus with the task of appointing elders, overseers, leaders, for the new churches on Crete. The leaders Titus appoints must uphold ‘the truth that leads to godliness’, to quote Paul’s phrase in the opening greeting of his letter. If they do not, the spiritual health of individual Christians and of local churches will suffer greatly. There was a lot at stake in Titus’s task:
‘The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless – not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.’ (Titus 1v5-9 – NIV)
Sound doctrine, literally ‘healthy teaching’, is vital for the spiritual health of Christians in their local churches. And so it was vitally important for the churches of Crete that Titus appointed leaders who would teach the truth of the apostolic message, the absolute, objective, apostolic truth of God and who would exemplify godliness, the God-pleasing life to God’s church. It was vitally important that local church leaders on Crete should combine the right belief and the right behaviour that are God’s purpose for his people. Humility, self-discipline, integrity, faithfulness in marriage, the right upbringing of children – these God-pleasing qualities should mark out God’s church from the world, so the church leader should exemplify them.
Titus and the church leaders he appointed were to go against the flow of the culture. In upholding the truth that leads to godliness, in combining right belief and right behaviour, they were to be counter-cultural.
Think of the direction of the mainline churches in the Western world since the 1960s – what has been the direction? Go with the flow, hasn’t it? Western society has been moving increasingly in a permissive direction, so the once-influential Protestant denominations in America and Britain, the Anglicans, the Presbyterians and the Methodists, or at least their elected bodies, their general assemblies and synods, have sought to move with the culture. If we move with the times, so the thinking has gone since the Sixties, modern people are more likely to come along to church. That, of course, hasn’t happened. The older Protestant denominations have seen numerical decline.
But irrespective of the numbers game, the Apostle Paul taught that where the culture is against the truth that leads to godliness, the church should go against the flow. It should be counter-cultural.
So, to conclude, God’s church matters, the people who have put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ for their eternal salvation matter. That is why the faithful preaching of God’s apostolic, biblical truth matters and the godly character of the Christian preacher matters and should matter to us as God’s church in this place.