There has been a flurry of letters in our local paper lately attacking what they call “exclusivist” Christians who restrict the annual prayer breakfast to those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Jed Schenck, the pastor at the Federated Community Church, organized an alternative prayer service to include people of all faiths, such as Buddhists, Hindus, Native American religions, Mormons, or whomever. The paper published a letter by Steve Yulish defending the evangelical prayer meeting and affirming that Jesus is the only way to salvation.
It also published several responses accusing Mr. Yulish and those who agree with him of being bigoted, intolerant, and holding “exactly the attitude that fueled the Inquisition” (Melanie Richards, Arizona Daily Sun, 5/13/2007). Rev. Schenck weighed in with a letter (5/15/2007) that read, in part, “God’s spirit works through all cultures and all spiritual traditions; it ‘blows where it will’ and is not the exclusive domain of any one tradition—and never has been. God speaks today, as in the past, through all religions and cultures and faith traditions, none of which is perfect and an exclusive avenue to truth, but all of which can learn from each other. An interfaith identity is a necessary part of spiritual awareness and practice in our time.”
A week before the prayer breakfast (4/29/2007), the paper printed an editorial written by a retired attorney, Mike Chambers, who wrote, “Religious exclusiveness baffles me. I have tried to understand the logic behind a belief that yours is the only religion and that all others are doomed.” He went on to pontificate, “Whether liberal or conservative, exclusivism is what is wrong with religion and world politics.” He then encouraged everyone to pray with someone who holds a different religious belief than yours. He said, “You’ll be amazed to learn that we all pray to the same God for the same things.”
I sent a response to Mr. Chambers, but the editor refused to print it. I pointed out that behind the complaint against “religious exclusivists” is an unstated assumption, namely, that there is no such thing as absolute, knowable truth in the spiritual realm. If that assumption is true, then it follows that one religion is just as good as another. Finding the right religion would be just a matter of personal preference, like finding a favorite restaurant.
But if that assumption is false, then it is possible that one religion is true and that others are false. I pointed out that the founder of Christianity made a rather exclusivistic claim, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). I suggested that at the very least, it would be profitable to examine the truth claims that Jesus made. I even offered to buy Mr. Chambers a cup of coffee and discuss spiritual matters with him, but the editor didn’t want my version of religious exclusivism to be published!
In light of the supreme “virtue of tolerance” that dominates our culture, it is probably no great surprise to read these attacks against we who believe the message of the Bible to be the only spiritual truth. What is shocking is that among professing Christians, 64 percent of adults and 91 percent of evangelical students do not believe in absolute truth in the moral realm (Christian Worldview Network email, 5/18/2007). Apparently, the unbiblical attitudes of the world are not just seeping into the church—they are flooding in and about to sink the ship!
The Bible affirms from cover to cover that God exists objectively, apart from our ideas about Him and apart from our subjective experience of Him. He spoke the universe into existence. He has revealed Himself in the written words of Scripture and supremely in the person of Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh. God is true whether you believe in Him or not and whether you like who He is or not. You can make up a god who is all love, who never judges anyone, but such a god is not the God who has revealed Himself in the Bible. You can make up a god who lets everyone into heaven, no matter what the person believes, but that god is not the God of the Bible. If you believe in this tolerant god, then you have rejected Jesus Christ, who taught something very exclusive and narrow.
All of this is a necessary background to understand what Paul is getting at in Titus 3:9-11. He tells Titus not to get involved in meaningless controversies and theological speculation and to deal with factious people who promote such ideas in the church. Paul’s words are meaningless unless there is such a thing as knowable, absolute spiritual truth. He is assuming that the gospel is true and that it is the responsibility of the leaders in the church to maintain that truth by dealing with those who try to subvert it. He’s saying,
To maintain the truth of the gospel, church leaders must deal properly with factious people.
This point is not directly in the text, but it underlies Paul’s thought. In 1 Timothy 3:15, he writes that the church is “the pillar and support of the truth.” The main spiritual truth in the Bible is that Jesus Christ is the only Savior for the sinful human race. He is eternal God in human flesh who gave Himself on the cross to pay the just penalty for our sins. God offers a complete pardon and eternal life to every person who repents of his sin and puts his trust in Jesus alone. Believers individually and the church corporately are entrusted with preserving and proclaiming this message of truth, centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Before we look at Paul’s specific instructions for dealing with factious people in the church, note three things:
If there are many ways to God, then Jesus came to this earth and gave His life on the cross in vain. He could have stayed in heaven and said, “The native spirit worshipers will find Me in their way. The Hindus have their millions of gods, and any one of them is just as good as another. The Buddhists are such peace-loving people, so they’re welcome in heaven in spite of their mixed up views of reincarnation. You’ve got to admire the zeal of those Muslims, even if they don’t believe in Me! Even those doggoned Wiccan people have a good streak in them, so we’ll give them their own section of heaven!” Why should Jesus have gone through the agony of the cross, if there are many ways to God?
Jesus not only claimed to be the truth, the only way to the Father, but also He talked about the Spirit of truth, whom the Father would send to guide the apostles into all the truth (John 14:17, 26; 15:26; see also, 1 John 2:18-27; 4:1-6). He said (John 17:3), “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” He prayed (John 17:17), “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” Jesus was affirming that spiritual truth is narrow, it is knowable, and it is contained in verbal and/or written propositions. In speaking to Pilate (John 18:37) Jesus summed up the reason why He came to earth, “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
These things are important to affirm, not only because unbelievers in our godless culture are attacking them, but also because professing believers in the church are attacking them. The growing “emerging church” movement denies that spiritual truth can be expressed or known in written, propositional form. They disparage preaching and deny that anyone can get up and speak authoritatively in the name of the Lord.
John MacArthur critiques emerging church leader, Brian McLaren, who rejects the exclusivism of Scripture (The Master’s Seminary Journal, Vol. 17, Number 2, Fall, 2006, p. 150). McLaren says that Christians should “see members of other religions and non-religions not as enemies but as beloved neighbors, whenever possible, as dialogue partners and even collaborators” (citing McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy [Zondervan, 2004], p. 35). Maclaren says that we should celebrate the “Jesus” of all theological traditions, from conservative Protestant to Roman Catholic to Liberation theology, much as we enjoy the foods of various cultures. MacArthur rightly concludes (ibid., p. 151), “Only by turning a blind eye to the Bible’s clear teaching, can anyone entertain with any enthusiasm the broad ecumenism of McLaren.”
So to apply Paul’s words to Titus, we must affirm that there is such a thing as knowable, absolute truth in the spiritual realm.
Our culture believes in the exclusivity of truth in the physical realm, but it denies it in the spiritual realm. In the physical realm, it makes all the difference in the world whether you take a cyanide pill or an aspirin to deal with your headache! It doesn’t matter how sincere you are in your belief that the cyanide pill will help or in your belief that we must be open to different theories of dealing with headaches. Sincerity isn’t the issue; truth is. Even if you think that it’s judgmental to criticize the cyanide pill, it will kill you if you swallow it. An aspirin may relieve your headache.
Unless Jesus was a liar or a deceived man, believing the truth about Him is the difference between spending eternity in heaven or in hell. Peter affirms regarding Jesus (Acts 4:12), “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved.” Paul states (1 Tim. 2:5), “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” John draws the line (1 John 5:11-12), “And the witness is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.”
It is significant that in Paul’s final three letters to his two helpers, Timothy and Titus, there is a strong emphasis on truth and sound doctrine. Without going through the many references in 1 & 2 Timothy, note these in Titus (emphasis added):
Titus 1:1-2: “Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago.”
Titus 1:9: An elder must hold “fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”
Titus 1:13-14: “This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth.”
Titus 2:1: “But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine.” In 2:7, he mentions “purity in doctrine.”
Titus 2:15: “These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” Obviously, you cannot speak, exhort, and reprove relative ideas with all authority!
So, Scripture affirms that there is knowable, absolute truth in the spiritual realm and such truth matters greatly. The only way to deny this is to deny the words of Jesus and the apostles, written in the New Testament.
God did not give us His truth so that philosophers and theologians may sit around and speculate about their speculations about God. It is given to change our lives as we submit to it and obey it. As we’ve seen, this is also a major thrust throughout Titus (1:9-16; 2:1-10, 11-14; 3:1-8). Apparently there were many in Crete who loved to speculate about theology. They seem to have been Hellenistic Jews who promoted their fanciful theories about genealogies and disputes about the Law (1:14; 3:9). But Paul said that their foolish controversies were unprofitable and worthless, because they did not lead to godliness.
If our theology does not promote the supremacy and lordship of Jesus Christ and the need to submit every aspect of our lives to Him, it is worthless speculation. This is one reason why I like John Calvin. One scholar writes of him, “Piety was the keynote of his character. He was a God-possessed soul. Theology was no concern to him as a study in itself; he devoted himself to it as a framework for the support of all that religion meant to him” (A. Mitchell Hunter, cited by John McNeill, editor, The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], by John Calvin, p. lii). McNeill adds (ibid.), “Gratitude, love, and obedience are involved in this religious attitude which is the indispensable condition of a sound theology. Since we ‘owe everything to God,’ in Calvin’s pages we are everywhere confronting God, not toying with ideas or balancing opinions about him.” In other words, God’s truth must be obeyed.
With that foundation, we are ready to examine Paul’s instructions on how to deal with factious people in the church.
If there is no such thing as absolute spiritual truth, then we have no basis for any kind of church discipline. If all ideas about God are equally valid, then Paul’s words here make no sense. But, if there is a true gospel and a false “gospel” (Gal. 1:6-9), then we need to apply Paul’s directive here.
“Factious” comes from a Greek word meaning self-chosen, thus, an opinionated person. He tries to defend his opinions from Scripture, but really he is motivated by pride. He tries to gain a following by forcing people to choose between his views and those of the church leaders, thus creating parties or factions in the church. But in Galatians 5:20, Paul lists “factions” as a deed of the flesh, along with “idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, and dissensions.” In Titus 3:11, Paul says, “such a man is perverted and is sinning, being self-condemned.”
By self-condemned, Paul may mean that when such false teachers attack godly church leaders, they expose themselves for what they really are. Often, they take their followers and leave the church, again showing their true colors (1 John 2:19). Arguing with them about their doctrine is pointless, because the real issue isn’t doctrine. The real issue is sin, especially pride. Often those who promote false teaching are using it to cover up other major sins.
I add this because invariably when church leaders discipline a factious person by putting him out of the church, some will accuse the leaders of being unloving or unkind. But to preserve the doctrinal purity of the church, to keep sin from spreading, and to uphold the honor of the God of truth, we must remove unrepentant sinners from the church. Our aim should always be to restore them until it becomes clear that they refuse to repent. But when their determination to continue in sin is evident, we must follow the steps of church discipline (Matt. 18:15-17).
Paul says (3:9), “But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” “Unprofitable and worthless” refer back to 3:8, where Paul instructed Titus to speak confidently about the truth of the gospel (“these things” refers to 3:4-7), “so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things [the gospel truths] are good and profitable for men.” So Paul’s yardstick for whether a matter is worth debating is, does it relate to genuine conversion, godliness, and good deeds? If it is just a matter of idle speculation that really doesn’t affect these core issues, then don’t waste your time on it.
When Paul tells Titus to avoid these controversies, I understand him to mean that we must not get into public debates over speculative matters that do not center on the gospel or godly living. They will waste our time. In my opinion, many of the debates over the finer points of prophecy can easily degenerate into useless speculation. How does it affect the gospel or godliness? If it doesn’t, don’t spend too much time debating the issue.
But, if someone in our church is promoting such peripheral matters as if they are important, trying to build a following, then he needs to be confronted privately and asked to stop. Our goal is to get the person back to being focused on the gospel and godly living. If the person persists in promoting his views and creating a faction, there may be a sin issue behind it (3:11), which must be dealt with. If the person refuses to stop spreading controversy over peripheral or uncertain matters, then he must be warned a second time. After that, Paul says (3:10), reject him.
Commentators are not agreed on what it means to reject these difficult people. Some say that it means something less than excommunication. But, surely, Paul wouldn’t allow such divisive, sinning men to remain in the fellowship of the church, trying to recruit more people to their cause! In Romans 16:17-18, he writes something similar to our text: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them. For such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting.” Paul isn’t suggesting that such men be allowed to remain in the fellowship of the church. He wants the church to avoid them by formally putting them out of the church.
So the process here is in line with Jesus’ words (Matt. 18:15-17): “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Since divisiveness and trying to recruit people to join a faction are sins, those who persist in such sins must be put out of the church after a first and second warning by church leaders.
If you think that we as church leaders are being judgmental and unloving if we ever need to deal with someone in this manner, you are probably being more influenced by our tolerant culture than by the truth of God’s Word. Also, you probably need to review my message on Titus 2:15, “Understanding Spiritual Authority.” God wants the elders in each church to maintain the truth of the gospel and godly standards of behavior. When someone deviates in either of these areas, our goal should be to try to restore him to obedience to the truth. But, if the person refuses correction, the Bible is clear that he must be put out of the church. If we as leaders do not do so, we are being disobedient to God’s Word of truth.
It is far easier to debate theology or abstruse points of doctrine than it is to love your wife as Christ loved the church; to love your children and bring them up in the instruction of the Lord; to be a good worker at your job; and, to practice the fruit of the Spirit on a daily basis. This is not to say that theology is unimportant or irrelevant. Quite the contrary! Rather, it is to say that it is easy to use theological debates as a convenient cover for sins, such as anger, pride, selfishness, impatience, and laziness. Properly understood, sound doctrine leads to submission to God, humility, and holiness before God, beginning on the thought level. Speculations about matters that do not lead to godliness and good deeds are unprofitable and worthless. We want to keep our focus on the truth of the gospel that changes lives.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation