An Elder’s Doctrine

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

TITUS 1:9 

An elder is thought about in Scripture as a shepherd [cf. Acts 20:28, 1 Pet. 5:1-2]. The word “pastor” is nothing but the Latin for shepherd. It may help to think of a pastor’s place of business as a pasture. I know my spellchecker often thinks so! To “pastor” is hardly an intelligible concept anymore. Now every shepherd has a rod and a staff for his flock [cf. Ps. 23:7]. The one is for protection and the other is for leading. This would explain why Paul tells Titus that every elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Here we can see both a positive and negative application of the Word. Calvin uses slightly different imagery to say the same thing about Titus 1:9: “A pastor needs two voices: one for gathering the sheep; and another for warding off and driving away wolves and thieves. The Scripture supplies him with the means for doing both; for he who is deeply skilled in it will be able both to govern those who are teachable, and to refute the enemies of truth.”[1]

The Pastoral Letters do not leave the doctrinal qualification to the realm of mere apprehension, but also includes the ability to teach. Let us look only at the texts which communicate commands from the Apostle to his two protégés: “Therefore an overseer must be…able to teach” [1 Tim. 3:2]. This passage does not explicitly draw out what this means. Other passages in these letters to Timothy and Titus are helpful: “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” [1 Tim. 1:3], “put these things before the brothers” [1 Tim. 4:6], “Command and teach these things” [1 Tim. 4:11], “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” [1 Tim. 4:13], “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” [1 Tim. 4:16], “Command these things as well” [1 Tim. 5:7], “Teach and urge these things” [1 Tim. 6:2], “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty” [1 Tim. 6:17], “guard the deposit entrusted to you” [1 Tim. 6:20], “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me” [2 Tim. 1:13], “guard the good deposit entrusted to you” [2 Tim. 1:14], “and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” [2 Tim. 2:2], “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words” [2 Tim. 2:14], “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved…rightly handling the word of truth” [2 Tim. 2:15], “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” [2 Tim. 4:2], “do the work of an evangelist” [2 Tim. 4:5], “rebuke them sharply” [Ti. 1:13], “teach what accords with sound doctrine…Older men are to be…Older women likewise are to be…and so train the young women…urge the younger men to be…” [Ti. 2:1, 2, 3, 4, 6], “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you” [Ti. 2:15], “Remind them to be…” [Ti. 3:1], “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law” [Ti. 3:9].

There are several elements in these dimensions of the doctrinal office. Of course there are many other verses in these three letters that bear on the elder’s task of teaching; but since these are straight commands, they are more obvious in how they explain the nature of the job description—the ability to teach. Rather than exposit each one of these texts, it may be more helpful to bring the apprehension and the ability together in a systematic way.

There are three basic ways in which every elder must understand doctrine in order to be truly qualified in this area: doctrine as it is (orthodoxy), doctrine as it is attacked (heterodoxy), and doctrine as it shapes us (orthopraxy). Another way to label these might be the substance of doctrine, the corruption of doctrine and the fallout of doctrine. Failure to understand doctrine in all three of these dimensions would be like a shepherd who doesn’t know what to feed sheep, what to protect them from, or what will happen if any combination of those two things doesn’t happen. Such a shepherd would not be much of a shepherd at all. He would be a passive spectator to the sudden death of the whole flock.  Let us take all three of these in turn.

The Substance of Doctrine

Much of the talk today about the “essentials” of the Christian faith is thoroughly unhelpful. A complex mixture of historic developments within the modern West has insidiously morphed what it means for a doctrine to be essential to the faith.[2] The correct way to understand what is essential to Christianity is to first see Christianity as a system of truth. Whatever else the Christian faith is—and it is much else—it is certainly not less than “one faith” [Eph. 4:5]: namely “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” [Jd. 3]. So when we are discussing the substance of this or that doctrine, we are first and foremost discussing the ideas and propositions inherent to the doctrine—not the motives or even the consequences in and to the person’s soul who is holding them. Such motives and consequences will be important. But that is not the first thing we mean by what Christianity is. And this is really the first thing that an elder must get in his head. He must be a man who thinks about the world outside of himself as if that world is superior to him. It is objective. This is what has separated the Christian mind in the West from the Eastern mind: the subject-object distinction. Within Eastern religion, there is a maxim: Thou art that. In other words, there is a denial that the soul can lift itself above the fray and speak meaningfully about the world outside of itself. There is no sufficient distinction between the knower and the thing known. Today in the West, postmodernism has injected the same nonsensical drug into our consciousness. In the past hundred years or more, there has been an increasing inability to distinguish between propositions and people, the analysis of trajectory and the assigning of motives. And this has explicitly worn the pious robe of humility! But it is a false humility. G. K. Chesterton prophetically noted a century ago, that,

what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.[3]

So the first thing that a shepherd must grasp about doctrine is that doctrine is about the whole and real world outside of me: not primarily about me, or you, or your friend that the implications have you so worried about. Now how does this “Easternizing” of our understanding of essentiality play out in the Evangelical world today? There are two steps to it, so the reader will have to do some critical thinking. First, there is a big difference between what is essential to fellowship and what is essential to the worldview, the line of which has been severely blurred. Second, there is a big difference between what is essential to fellowship in the universal church and what is essential to fellowship in the local church, the line of which has also been blurred. We might think of these as two perpendicular lines that are now both blurred.

I would insist that the theology of the Neo-Evangelical movement of the twentieth century, in general, and the phenomenon of the parachurch, in particular, have been largely responsible for this blurring of the lines. We speak of the “death, burial, resurrection” formula of 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 and perhaps the identity of Jesus passages in the Gospels as “the essentials,” as if it were a search for magic mantras in the Scriptures that are expressly trademarked with a “believe-this-or-you’re-going-to-hell-certified” sticker, or, a “press this button (or check this box) and no one should question your sincerity.” Anything else is either a “non-essential” or a “secondary essential.” But the only thing certified about that is that it is certifiably insane! Think about it for a second. Does the New Testament anywhere tell you to break off fellowship with an Atheist or to throw the Marcionite out of your house? Nowhere. But can we not agree that to deny the existence of God or to throw large portions of the Bible out is to immediately contradict the entire faith? Is that not as plain as day? Apparently it is not in our day.

The Corruption of Doctrine

In our day, the “in-house” heresies that press us for our humble acquiescence are Open Theism, Limited Inerrancy, Egalitarianism, Pelagianism, and the New Perspectives on Paul and Jesus. There are many issues that are genuinely secondary over which Christians should not divide their general fellowship. But these above poisons are not among them. These things are heresies because they divide the Christian faith up and reduce it to something utterly different. If a shepherd is not willing to call these things heresies then he is no shepherd at all. 

Open Theism destroys Christianity because Christianity is first and foremost theistic (belief in God) and Open Theism is no theism at all. It holds that the knowledge and/or decrees of God always change in concert with the free choices of human beings. Thus the future is “open” to God. Such an idea compromises other attributes of God as well, such as his immutability, self-sufficiency and truthfulness. On a practical level, how do we trust a God who does not really know what will happen in the future? Sure God may be the most infinitely wise chess player, but it would seem that his will could still be thwarted. Would this sort of a God draw our worship? Could we be sure that He even wins in the end?

Limited Inerrancy teaches that while the Bible is God’s Word, it was written by mere men and pre-modern men at that. We should not be surprised to find errors of various kinds in the ancient text. This view is also called infallibilism because it wants to focus on the Word being unerring (or unfailing) only in “matters of faith and practice.” In other words, we can count on the spiritual things of redemptive significance, but not on the mundane reports of history and nature. But who will decide which parts of the Scripture to retain and which to extract? Doesn’t this set us above the Word? And since God personally related to Israel and then became flesh, died on a Roman cross, and rose bodily, how exactly do we separate the script of eternity from the stage of history? In fact, the whole of God’s revelation happens in history! We must accept all of it or none of it.

Egalitarianism challenges God’s design for man and woman from the beginning. At first glance this may not seem too destructive to the structure of orthodoxy. But extreme circles within this movement are behind the gender-neutral Bible translations and do not seem to want to stop there. In fact the unique way that God made man and woman seems to reflect both the essence of the Trinity as well as the gospel. The authority-submission relationship between husband and wife, as well as the two coming together to make a third image-bearer seems to undergird all of the other social spheres in which this three-in-one-ness is also exhibited. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:22-33 that marriage was created to display Christ’s covenant keeping love for his bride, the church. So actually, the complementary doctrine of gender is vital to the whole fabric of the faith.

Pelagianism first arose in the Fifth Century and was promptly condemned as heresy at the Council of Ephesus. But it is our most native error. It holds that man is born good and able to approach God and fulfill the Law apart from any special divine grace. Its modified form, Semi-Pelagianism, was also condemned at the Synod of Orange in the next century. It concedes that we are born in sin but that such a state is not terminal. We can still respond to the grace that God gives all men in common and believe. The trouble in the modern world is that we have added to this error (under its newer name, Arminianism) that belief is not a part of the Law and thus to think we can do it apart from grace is not a kind of works-righteousness. The immediate, individual response has been isolated as the defining characteristic of Christianity ever since the second Great Awakening and that has essentially blinded people to the destructive nature of this heresy.

Now the “Emergent Church” has given a popular platform to some scholarly musings about what Jesus and Paul were really all about. We are informed that we have gotten them both wrong for nearly two-thousand years! First to Paul, it has now been argued that the Apostle’s concept of justification never meant an act of God whereby the believer, through faith alone, is credited with the righteousness of Christ. Rather, what Saint Paul really said was that, in the gospel, the righteousness of God is bringing justice to the nations through the faithful Israelite, Jesus (which is true as far as it goes—but not exactly good news to a demon or anyone outside of Christ). And that brings up the way in which liberalism has continued to separate the person and work of Christ. A non-authoritative earthly ministry of Jesus is now joined at the hip with a non-violent atonement of Jesus. What it amounts to is that anything that God has against us or over us was really just a big misunderstanding foisted upon the world by that bloody, primitive religion of the Old Testament.

But there you have it. The entire Christian faith is now being challenged in a most wholesome and commercial way. Right under our noses we are being watched to see if we will lose our cool and stir up the pot. From within the most “conservative” Evangelical enclaves, traditional, biblical Christianity is being gutted of anything that would have been recognizable to the saints throughout the centuries as the Christian faith. Real men will not stand by and let it continue to happen. They will plant churches that stem the tide of this apostasy or else help others that have already planted.  

The Fallout of Doctrine

If anyone demands to know where the fallout of doctrine is in Titus 1:9, he may move his fingers down a centimeter to read the very next verses:

For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach [1:10-11].

Why must an elder be able to contradict false teachings? Here is one reason (the Scriptures give many): the false teachings are upsetting whole families. These beloved of God are being confused and their faith is being threatened.

The connection between doctrine and life is simply that we become like what we look at. For the believer, we become more like Christ as we look at him [cf. 1 Jn. 3:2, 2 Cor. 3:18]. For the unbeliever, all of the most heinous sins are the result of unsound doctrine [cf. 1 Tim. 1:10]. Again the shepherd-sheep imagery is helpful. What do we feed the sheep with? Sound doctrine, or “the pure spiritual milk” [1 Pet. 2:2] of God’s word. Elsewhere the substance of the word is compared to “bread” [Mat. 4:4], “water” [Eph. 5:26], “seed” [1 Pet. 1:23], “life” [Jn. 6:63] and “solid food” [Heb. 4:12, 14].

And Jesus, the Good Shepherd, prayed to the Father: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” [Jn. 17:17]. True shepherds know that churches are not simply church-planting incubators where the only goal is to simply reproduce and resend. Such an attitude is not true to the shepherd-sheep context. We don’t need more churches like we’ve been getting more Starbucks. Missional theology has become all the rage among the new generation of shepherds. Few of its devotees have the intellectual background to understand that much of its foundational literature brings Postmodern and Cultural Marxist assumptions about culture into the equation so critically, that missiology becomes a functional replacement for theology in one’s worldview. 

Paul is also clear that an elder who does not combine total doctrine with life experience will suffer from conceit: “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” [1 Tim. 3:6]. ‘Recent convert’ means that he has only recently embraced the Christian faith as it is, as a whole, as a real objective thing. This may be confusing today because our culture specializes in having churches where you are “born again” because you told the Barna research pollster that you are. But a recent convert in Paul’s mind is just anyone who is just taking in the Christian worldview for the first time, in his first two to five years of it. That needs to be tested. The Bible knows nothing of the “recent convert” to nothing in particular—it is a recent convert to an actual thing called Christianity that is relevant. And that means that in our culture in which “stillborn Christianity” is the norm, a man can be a professing Christian (possibly even genuinely saved but starving) for twenty or thirty years and still in the same place as this recent convert. In his understanding he is not a man.

Typically the type of man who would step ahead of the line to leadership without a sufficiently formed worldview will bully other people, either because of his inherent personality type or because of the “puffed-up syndrome” to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 8:1. A little bit of knowledge causes him to take his new worldview all the way to the guillotine.  Everything becomes a witch-hunt. He does this because he is insecure in his worldview. He wants to see it proven out in the real world and when sheep do not match up to the sheep food fast enough it is the simplest inference to kick the sheep. Lacking a comprehensive worldview and therefore a positive vision, he doesn’t know what to do with himself except justify his own existence and credentials by taking a handful of convictions and whipping everyone else in to shape by them. It is a sad reality that when churches do get around to correcting the Seeker-friendly circus, that they usually wind up huddling in small congregations of fifty or less where everyone simply stares at one or two men who have “it together.” In the name of being “hard core,” real reformation gets put off for another day. Now countless young men can read everything that you, the reader, just read, shake their heads knowingly and then proceed to exhibit this very trait, creating a joyless atmosphere in which no one can grow and few want to stay.

In fact the doctrine of the elder and the character of the elder are very intimately connected. The doctrine produces the man. Hence when we see someone lacking in character we are seeing so much more than a bad upbringing, a bad seed or a bad season—all of which might be true of course—but at the heart of a character unbecoming of an elder is the absence of wisdom. And wisdom is nothing but the knowledge of God aimed at the whole of life.


[1] John Calvin, The Epistle to Titus: Calvin’s Commentaries (Baker, Grand Rapids 1979); p. 296

[2] cf. Matt Marino, Doctrine and Division (2010) for a comprehensive treatment of this subject.

[3] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Image, New York 1990, org. 1908); p. 31

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