When multiple churches existed in a single city, Paul didn’t bless them.
He reformed them into one church in every city.
1500 years before the Protestant Reformation, a more important reformation took place on an island in the Mediterranean.
The apostle Paul left Titus all alone with a single mission. Reform the churches of Crete: “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5).
Why, Paul? Why should Titus appoint elders in every city?
“For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers
and deceivers, especially those of
Those rebellious men led churches in every city. So much so, every city on Crete was just like your town or city: multiple churches led by many rebellious men, resulting in a schismatized and heretical witness for Jesus Christ:
“they must be silenced because they are upsetting whole
families, teaching things they should not teach
for the sake of sordid gain.”
What Paul did in all of Crete’s cities is what we need now. We need Paul’s apostolic reformation in every city. But unlike the Protestant Reformation, we won’t use a magistrate to enforce it. Why not? Because Paul didn’t want magistrates on Crete enforcing reformation. Just Titus and a letter from God.
Similarities and Differences
There are some similarities between the two reformations, but then again, there is one glaring difference. In both reformations the gospel of justification by faith alone was front and center. And in both reformations, church leaders were removed and church decision making practices were altered.
But instead of schisming the churches of Jesus Christ, the reformation detailed in the New Testament book of Titus unified them. This the Protestant Reformation did not do. This the Protestant Reformation could not do.
Under pressure to recant Luther said, “I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”
We learn from Luther that one ought never retract what is learnt from Holy Scripture, while still humbly seeking their intended meaning by all means of creeds, confessions, books, teachers, prayer, and dialogue.
Here too we stand, for the book of Titus comes from Jesus Christ and belongs in the Canon of Scripture. What Luther could not do by theses alone can be done today by the power of God in the gospel of God under the church polity of God. We, too, can do no other.
But we sit beneath Martin Luther’s feet and consider him the greatest reformer in all of church history, after the apostle Paul. His commentaries and works are of inestimable value and his ecclesiastical life was brilliantly lived for the glory of Jesus Christ.
When discussing Paul’s letter to Titus he wrote:
“This is a short epistle, but yet such a quintessence of Christian doctrine, and composed in such a masterly manner, that it contains all that is needful for Christian knowledge and life.”Luther quoted in F.W. Farrar, Saint Paul the Apostle, 660
Therefore, even more do we sit beneath the Apostle Paul.
Because Paul was uniquely called by Jesus Christ his reformation has always been the standard all churches must submit to, if they are to conform themselves to the Church’s One Foundation built on Jesus Christ and His apostles.
Only in obeying this reformation can all Christians fulfill Christ’s great command to “love one another,” that is, not merely those in one’s own church, but all those in their local body of Christ.
The Reformation Creed, Decreed
Here in a few words is the reformation decreed by an apostle for all churches on Crete, the good and bad:
“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set
in order what remains and appoint elders
in every city as I directed you”
Paul used only twenty-six words to lay down the power of Christ’s own ecclesiology which brought geographic unity to the schismed churches of Crete. Every city’s many churches were reorganized so there was only one church in each, governmentally led by only one set of qualified elders. If obeyed today, His geographic ecclesiology will bring the same unity to us.
How important is this? Look at the next-to-last word of Titus 1:5, “directed.” Of the many words in the NT used for “command” or “direct,” the one used at the end of this verse is the very strongest and could be translated, “decreed.” In Acts 18:2 it translates the Roman Emperor’s unilateral decree that forced all the Jews out of Rome. Jesus used it this way: “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done” (Luke 17:10). Paul’s Greek in Titus 1:5 puts this word at the end, making this decree even more emphatic.ὡς ἐγώ σοι διεταξάµην As a result, his directive to Titus is non-negotiable and is, in fact, nothing less than a decree from Jesus Christ (Titus 1:4). No doubt such command language had an impact on all who first read this letter (Titus 3:15).
This decree and its reformation came at the proper time, for the apostolic letters are the benchmark for all churches through the present age, and inasmuch as the letter of Titus heals schism Christ’s way, it is needed now more than ever. All can read these twenty-six words and learn that schism is not the will of Jesus Christ, and that He has a plan to fix it. From Crete’s reformation in the First Century you can be assured that obedience to the will of Christ, expressed in this epistle, will heal schism and bring unity where you live.
Greece’s Island of 100 Cities
The poet Homer gave Crete it’s famous name, “the Island of 100 Cities,” a label still in use today. But long before Homer and his Iliad, Crete featured the culture of the Minoans, making Crete one of the oldest civilizations in recorded history and setting the stage for later Greek culture. Only 400 miles south of Athens, the island’s peoples have always shared a tight affiliation with Greece.
Yet in the 1st Century, Rome tried to separate Crete from all things Greek by putting it under rulers who lived in North Africa. It didn’t work. Crete was, and is, a source of pride and honor for Greece. Next time you’re in town here, stop by the house and we’ll share some pretty fantastic honey, bought in Athens, but made in Crete.
The 1st C reformation of Paul wasn’t connected to Greece’s cultural or economic issues but only with the churches of the island. As a result it’s a simpler reformation to comprehend than the Protestant Reformation simply because the issues surrounding it were less involved. For instance, the State only got involved (if it ever got involved) if and when lawsuits were filed to prevent Titus from merging churches.Which may be why Zenas the lawyer was specifically dispatched to Crete – to help with such court cases as would arise from Paul’s reformation (Titus 3:13). Crete was not a ‘stopping over point,’ for ships from Asia, Greece, or Achaia normally went straightway to Rome. Therefore, Zenas was not on his way somewhere else but had likely been dispatched by Paul to go to Crete in order to handle specific legal that could arise in light of the coming fallout from Paul’s reformation of merging churches.
While I would love to jump into the details of this reformation – its demand for godly leaders and its radical removal of the unqualified, its implementation of biblical eldership, and its merging of churches in every city – I would do you a disservice if I just launched into those aspects of it but didn’t provide you first with some salient background. Until we understand the context of the 1st Century reformation initiated by the Apostle Paul, it’s impossible to appreciate its proper application to our churches in this day.
This article begins our series on “Merging Churches.” Reformation isn’t just for Protestants but for all who wish to build on Scripture, the permanent witness of the church’s one foundation (Eph. 2:20). So we begin by examining how the churches of Crete got started, and how many of them there were.
How Did the Churches
on Crete Get Started?
Crete’s churches were among the first planted in Christendom. On the Day of Pentecost Luke notes that men from Crete heard the gospel preached by Peter (Acts 2:11). As was true with men from all the groups that Luke noted, some (if not most) believed the gospel and became children of God that day through faith in Jesus Christ. Those believing men then traveled back to their homelands, taking the gospel to their home synagogues where they shared the great news that God’s Messiah had come, had died for sins, had risen three days later, and was to be believed on for forgiveness and eternal life.
From there a significant measure of conflict likely arose in the synagogues as many Jews believed on Christ while others resisted. Those who believed proved to the rest from the Scripture what “the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place; that the Christ was to suffer, and that by reason of His resurrection from the dead He would be the first to proclaim light both to the Jewish people and to the Gentiles” (Acts 26:22-23).
But the arguments over the Scriptures divided people into Christians and Jews, assuring the two groups could not function side-by-side. The Christians were likely forced out of the synagogues (i.e., Acts 13:50ff, 14:2, 14:19) even as they had begun meeting on Sundays to worship Jesus Christ without hindrance, and referred to themselves as “churches.”
How quickly this happened on Crete we are not told, but judging by the history of the book of Acts and in the letters of the NT we can safely assume Crete’s churches began between AD 30 and 35. They would have received a copy of James’ letter in the NT, written around AD 44, which referred to all its scattered recipients as being gathered in local churches (James 1:1, 5:14). Perhaps they also received all of Paul’s correspondence with the churches of Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia.
Therefore, by the time the letter of Titus was written in AD 63 institutional churches had existed on Crete for 25 to 30 years. From the perspective of age alone, the churches of Crete were among the most mature in all Christendom. But from the perspective of Paul the apostle and his assistant Titus, they were schismed, rebellious to authority, and disobedient.
By the time Paul visited Crete the believers there had preached planted churches “in every town” (Titus 1:5). But they had done it without apostolic instruction and oversight. By the time of Paul’s reformation their church governances reflected the culture’s own cultural leadership ideals, not Christ’s. Paul condemned most of Crete’s church leaders by likening them to “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. This testimony is true” (Titus 1:12-13). He also called them unsaved and on their way to hell: “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed” (Titus 1:16).
Paul wasn’t speaking about the men saved at Pentecost, for they were indeed Christ’s own children and no doubt quite godly. He was writing instead about the leaders in the schismed churches in every city.
So it was time to act. By the New Testament letter to Titus we learn how and why Paul assumed apostolic leadership of Crete’s many churches. He never would have done this if another apostle were responsible for these churches since he refused to build on another apostle’s foundation (Romans 15:20; 2 Corinthians 10:13). So here came Paul, thirty years after the beginnings of Christianity on Crete, taking authority on behalf of Christ.
How Many Cities and
Churches Were on Crete?
There was one other matter beyond the ungodly leaders of Crete’s churches that required reformation, and that was the sheer number of Crete’s churches. The church environment on the island reflected the ecclesiastical schisming of our present day where multiple churches exist in most cities. This is a grave hindrance to the body of Christ’s maturity (Eph. 4:11-16) and a heretical picture of Christ to the world (multiple “bodies of Christ”).
Like today, churches were being split off into households: “For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain” (Titus 1:10-11). Many rebellious men make for many rebellious churches since they simply can’t submit to those who are over them in the church. They form “the opponents” Paul warns about and those who will hinder the merging of Crete’s churches (Titus 2:8, 3:10-11).
So how many churches existed on Crete when Paul wrote the commission to Titus to “appoint elders in every city (Titus 1:5)? When we remember that a significant number of Crete’s cities likely had more than one church due to ungodly leaders, and that the island had been a twenty-five year venue for vigorous church planting efforts, an estimate of the number of churches on Crete is likely a multiple of its number of cities. And as we observed in Unity Where You Live, Paul’s instruction in Titus 1:5 that Titus appoint elders “in every town” and not simply “in every church” required the merging of all the churches in each town into one church. Using the available historical and archeological data I estimate the number of Crete’s churches between one hundred and three hundred, distributed through the island’s 35-100 cities, while the island likely had a population of 300,000. I present this data and the reasons for my conclusions in a separate article, “Paul Did Not Sin on Crete!”
How Did Paul Get
Involved with Crete’s Churches?
Paul, traveling by ship with Luke from Caesarea to Rome, stopped at the island of Crete for a “considerable time” (Acts 27:9). We aren’t told how long that was but it was likely more time than Paul was allowed in Cyprus (Acts 27:3).
In Cyprus the commander of the ship allowed Paul the freedom to disembark and receive care from friends, and Paul likely experienced the same freedom on Crete. As Cretan’s Christians would come to the city of Lasea to greet and care for him, Paul learned of the problems of the churches on the island. We learn that Paul desired to stay on Crete for a long time, and admonished the ship’s captain and the centurion conveying him to Rome that it would be best to winter on Crete (Acts 27:10). He was, however, overruled.
On Crete for a good number of days, then, he would have come to know a number of Christians who made the trip to visit. Luke’s own mention of Cretans in Acts 2:11 and accompaniment with Paul on Crete confirms he knew that men from Crete had come to a saving knowledge of Christ. It is even reasonable to think that he, as a passenger on the same ship as Paul, was able to visit a number of the churches on the island during this weather delay in AD 59-60 (Acts 27:7ff). Perhaps Paul did as well.
The sea voyage eventually continued, however, and Paul made it to Rome where he spent the next two years under house arrest (Phil. 1:12ff). He likely developed a plan of reformation for Crete’s churches during this time under inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Those two years gave Paul the time to evaluate a plan that matched his apostolic assessment of Crete’s disastrous situation.
His rescue and protection plan for Crete’s Christians, as well as the complete and unilateral reform of all of Crete’s churches, forms a plan for biblical reformation that transitions individual churches to an obedient polity of eldership and a merging that calls churches into the obedience of the body of Christ.
The Obedience of Eldership
Eldership was the universal church polity of the apostolic church which is why when Paul told Titus to appoint elders in Titus 1:5, he didn’t need to explain how to do it. Titus already understood it. Fifteen years earlier Paul and Barnabas had appointed elders in the churches of Galatia (Acts 14:23) who knew Titus and his experience with the the elders in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:1ff). Titus was doing what others had done under Paul’s guidance. His associates likely appointed elders throughout the churches of Greece and Asia: Timothy in Ephesus (1 Tim. 5:22), Luke in Philippi (Phil. 1:1), and Timothy again in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5:12-13).
The surprise of Titus 1:5 is not that Paul asked Titus to appoint elders, but that he asked him to do it geographically, in every city. The implication is that Crete’s churches were utilizing forms of polity other than eldership. Given the sustained treatment of eldership in the NT, it shows how independent these churches were from apostolic obedience. James knew that every church scattered out of the persecutions in Jerusalem were governed by elder polity at the beginning of the apostolic period (James 5:14), while Peter assumed virtually every church at the end of the apostolic period did the same (1 Peter 5:1-4). Even the Apostle John called himself an elder when writing a letter to deal with a church disaster (3 John 1:1). In the New Testament, elders are geographic in oversight.
So how did Crete not get the teaching on eldership? The likeliest answer is that when churches began on the island in the 30s, they simply fell out of touch with the rest of apostolic Christianity. Paul’s willingness to take control of the island’s Christianity virtually assures that this is exactly the case since he would never build on another apostle’s foundation (Rom. 15:20, 2 Cor. 10:13-15). He would not have considered taking on Crete had it been served previously by another apostle, but would likely have advised that apostle of Crete’s near demise.
Most likely the Cretans adopted forms of church governance that matched their own culture. Just as a centralized Diocesan government made its way into the churches of the early centuries, and Representative polities mark those church traditions that come out of the Reformation/Renaissance period, Crete’s Christians likely implemented the world’s values and leadership structures of their day into church leadership. And the result was disobedience on an institutional scale.
Paul’s plan to implement eldership, a polity that places the full-charge of leadership in each local church solely in the hands of it’s qualified men, was not simply “better” than what Crete’s churches were using. It was obedience to the revealed will of Jesus Christ. Only men who are both godly and skilled in the Word of God are permitted to rule over the flock of God (Acts 20:28, Titus 1:6-9). Their authority in the church is not checked by a hierarchy above them nor a congregation beneath them (1 Thess. 5:12-13, Heb. 13:17). Instead the checks and balances on them are two-fold: they must rule in plurality and they must all be qualified to rule by Scripture’s own criteria.
As a topic in the NT there is more instruction on it than there is on the Lord’s Table, water baptism, the institution of marriage, child-raising practices, and working a job… combined. The larger passages that teach eldership in both Precept and Example are Acts 15:1–29, Acts 20:17–38, 1 Timothy 3:1–7, 1 Timothy 5:17–22, Titus 1:5–9, and 1 Peter 5:1–4. The smaller passages are everywhere sprinkled through Acts and the letters to the churches. In the past century and a half some scholars have scoffed at the claim that the NT teaches a normative polity. That question, “Is there a normative NT polity,” is not unbelief. Unbelief is rejecting that there is such a thing in the NT. Titus knew exactly what eldership was and obeyed Paul.
To be specific, Titus obeyed Paul to the letter. If Titus had appointed a bishop among the presbyters in each city he would have disobeyed Paul. If Titus had held elections and allowed the congregations the right of representational elders he would have disobeyed Paul. Only eldership, as clearly and broadly taught in the NT, is the revealed polity for all churches. Had Titus left even one church with a different polity, again, he would have been disobedient. Eldership is apostolic polity, and churches built on the foundation of the apostles are obligated to obey it.
The Obedience of
the Body of Christ
The most prevalent metaphor for the church in the NT is the body of Christ and has two descriptors, universal and local. The universal body of Christ is comprised of three groups at the present time, those who are perfectly obedient and with Christ in heaven, and then those partly obedient who walk by faith on earth, and those yet born but among the elect. The first part are the “dead in Christ” and the second and third parts are “we who remain” (1 Thess. 4:16-17).
God never asks the universal body, described in Ephesians 1:22-23, to obey since most of that body is glorified in heaven. But three chapters later, when Paul pleads with the believers to maintain the unity of the body, he refers not to the universal body but the local body of Christ. Four times in Ephesians 4:1-16 Paul uses the word “body” to describe the single local church that exists to make visible the unity of the Trinity (Eph. 4:1-6), the ascension of Christ (Eph. 4:7-10), and the unity of the faith (Eph. 4:11-16).
Only the local body of Christ, when structured, populated, and functioning according to apostolic design visibly displays the invisible Trinity. It enjoys the “filling” of Christ’s ascension and builds up the body in maturity and love (Eph. 4:10-12, 13-16). This happens as the one church in a region “makes every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace: One body and one Spirit” (Eph. 4: 4-5).
Schism denies the local body of Christ the experiences of these amazing realities. When Paul crowns this section by specifying that “the whole body” must be “fitted and held together” he speaks of all the Christians – the whole local body – being in the same local church and not divided into numerous churches (Eph. 4:16). Separate churches of the “called” (v. 1) in the same locale disburse Christ’s gifts too widely to accomplish their designed result – the building of the body to the maturity of Christ.
Therefore, Titus’ mission to merge the churches in every city on Crete was critical to the very nature and character of the NT church. It was not an interesting addendum to eldership. Eldership was, and always shall be, a tool to be used by godly men to unify His called people, reform their worldly polities, relieve them from the vanity of voluntarism so far as church is concerned, deliver them from unqualified leaders, and end their schisms.
The Whole Church –
a Prevent Defense against Schism
Paul’s phrase “the whole body” in Eph. 4:16 is amplified by four other instances where NT writers were led by God to refer to a single local church as “the whole church.” Individually these texts are important because they define the local body of Christ. It is all those called into a saving relationship with Christ in a single locale. Together these texts are a staggering rebuke to our love of schism. Indeed, much of modern Christianity considers schisming the local body of Christ all over the world as great righteousness.
In each of these four texts “the whole church” describes a city-wide, single church in which all the Christians who lived nearby were gathered together with the intent of not schisming. During the week they loved each other by gathering in smaller groups for food and fellowship in house groups, but on Sunday they “came together” to worship the Christ who called them out from the world to be His body. The whole body.
The “whole church” of Jerusalem feared when Ananias and Sapphira were slain by God for false worship, meaning their worship, as a collective church, was purified and intensified (Acts 5:11). The “whole church” of Jerusalem entirely supported the decrees decided upon by the apostles and elders, thereby preventing a schism over circumcision (Acts 15:22).
When Paul writes to the Roman Christians from Corinth, “Gaius, host to me and to the whole church, greets you” (Rom. 16:23) he provides two reasons not to schism. First, it tells the church of Rome that Paul’s prior letters to Corinth have succeeded and the church there has not schismed, though it has and is sorely tempted to do so. Many in the Roman Church would have known about Corinth’s travails through Prisca and Aquila and understood his words (Acts 18:2, Rom. 16:3). Second, Paul’s words “the whole church” form a not-so-subtle comment to Rome that if the Roman Church moved in the direction of schism it would lose its testimony as an obedient church (Rom. 16:17-19), being even less obedient than even the Corinthian church from which he wrote.
Fourth, when Paul writes “Therefore if the whole church assembles together and all speak in tongues, and ungifted men or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are mad?” (1 Cor. 14:23) he lays down a principle that prevents schism. The clear preaching and teaching of the word of God is much to be preferred over any spiritual giftedness when the church is gathered in the same place for worship, even prophecy. Tongues, and even over-exuberant prophecy, were distractions. Better to speak five words that instruct (v. 19) than ten thousand words in a language that makes no sense.
Schisms, the scourge of Christianity, are promulgated by self-important men who, like the Corinthian tongues-speakers, were more interested in charism than edifying the church.
How far astray is modern Christianity? It applauds schism and mocks the idea of a single church in a single locale. Sadly, when Christians are schismed they either compete and argue with each other, or ignore each other, all the while breaking the command, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Only when all the saints in a city worship together every Sunday in the same church can they “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, and be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:18-19). Only Paul’s reformation on Crete, made real where we each live, has the power to bring us that comprehension.
For more on eldership, read De-Schisming the Body.
For more on merging, read Defeating Schism in Your Own Backyard.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Luther quoted in F.W. Farrar, Saint Paul the Apostle, 660|
|2.||↑||ὡς ἐγώ σοι διεταξάµην|
|3.||↑||Which may be why Zenas the lawyer was specifically dispatched to Crete – to help with such court cases as would arise from Paul’s reformation (Titus 3:13). Crete was not a ‘stopping over point,’ for ships from Asia, Greece, or Achaia normally went straightway to Rome. Therefore, Zenas was not on his way somewhere else but had likely been dispatched by Paul to go to Crete in order to handle specific legal that could arise in light of the coming fallout from Paul’s reformation of merging churches.|
|4.||↑||I present this data and the reasons for my conclusions in a separate article, “Paul Did Not Sin on Crete!”|