The culture wars are very real and getting worse.
For the first time, our society has legalized unbiblical morality and made it obligatory for everyone, including Christians. Slavery was tragically legal for much of our history, but no one was required to own slaves or to facilitate slavery. Abortion is tragically legal, but no one is required to get an abortion or to perform abortions (yet).
But same-sex marriage and LGBTQ advocacy are the civil rights issue of our day, according to our culture. To disagree is to be branded homophobic, discriminatory, and dangerous. We are likened to KKK members burning crosses in yards. From the so-called Equality Act to the Religious Exemption Accountability Project to the so-called Respect for Marriage Act, unbiblical morality is proceeding with no protections for religious freedom. If these acts and others like them become law, Christians will have little or no recourse to First Amendment religious protections or the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
We could see Christian doctors forced to perform abortions and sex-change surgeries, Christian ministers and churches forced to perform same-sex weddings, and Christian schools forced to choose between receiving federal student aid and affirming traditional biblical morality. These are challenging times, indeed.
You and I are called into this conflict. Titus 1 specifically calls “overseers” to “rebuke those who contradict” biblical truth (v. 9).
But there are two steps we must take first.
Viewing the skull of Titus
I remember vividly my first visit to Crete. Leading study tours in Israel and in Greece and Turkey has been a great privilege for me over the years. On one of our Mediterranean tours, we stopped for a morning on the island of Crete. The shops and restaurants were typically historic and interesting, and the people were welcoming.
But then my wife and I entered a small church to which our guide had directed us and found something quite unexpected: the skull of Titus.
Titus, as you know, was one of Paul’s “sons” in the faith (Titus 1:4). He had been assigned leadership of the Christian movement on the island of Crete and is still venerated by Christians there today.
In the Church of Agios Titus (Greek for “Saint Titus”), there is displayed a small box (known as a “reliquary”). Inside, looking through the ornate artwork, you can see a human skull. By tradition, this is the skull of Titus. It was moved to the church in 1966 from St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice.
I have no idea if it is actually the skull of Titus or not. However, the object reminds us that a very real person and pastor led the Christian movement on this island in its infancy. It reminds us of his humanity, finitude, and mortality, and of ours. This reminder is vital for the discussion that follows.
Note the order
To Titus, Paul gave specific instructions for the work of an “overseer”: “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).
Note the order.
On Crete as with our culture, Christian pastors and leaders who “rebuke” those who contradict biblical truth are essential. However, such ministry comes third in Paul’s order.
First and foremost, we are to “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught” (Titus 1:9a). “Hold firm” translates antechomenon, to “cling to” or “be devoted first and foremost to.” The “trustworthy word as taught” refers to biblical teaching handed down by Christ and his apostles (cf. 1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Thessalonians 2:15).
Our first job is to know and embrace biblical truth for ourselves. It is to think and live biblically, to walk in the word and will of God. My major professor in doctoral study, Dr. John Newport, emphasized regularly the importance of being “immersed” in the biblical worldview so that we think biblically in every dimension of our lives. This is Paul’s call here.
Second, we are to “give instruction in sound doctrine” (v. 9b). “Give instruction” translates parakalein, meaning to “appeal, exhort, encourage, strengthen.” It is more than transmitting information, as important as that is—this is to teach biblical truth in a way that encourages and equips others to follow it.
“Sound doctrine” points again to biblical truth as received and now transmitted. I often told my seminary students that the only word God is obligated to bless is his word. I added that if, at the close of a worship service, an elderly member of our congregation comments on our sermon by saying, “I’ve never heard that before,” be very afraid. We are not here to make up new truth. Our calling is to teach God’s word in the power of God’s Spirit.
Our lives are our best sermons
Only on this basis can we then “rebuke” those who reject biblical truth and authority. This is for at least two reasons.
One: Our post-Christian culture deserves to know God’s word on the issues of our day. Many in our culture are biblically illiterate with no real knowledge of biblical truth. We can rebuke them for rejecting that truth, but many times they did not know that truth well enough to reject it. Or they were not presented with that truth in a way that encouraged and inspired them to follow it.
Two: We must keep our souls right with God in order to engage our cultural opponents with spiritual health and Christlike compassion. We are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Winning souls is more important than winning arguments.
If we are not first living in God’s word and then teaching it to others (which is the best way to learn it ourselves), we are less likely to “rebuke” the culture in ways that honor the Lord and draw others to him. We can lead people further from Jesus rather than closer to him. And that would be tragic.
Conversely, when we meet God in his word and then teach his word with purpose and passion, our lives are our best sermons and our words glorify the Word.
“The best preaching of the gospel”
Charles Spurgeon, still known as the “Prince of Preachers,” had an interesting point of view relevant to our conversation:
I do think that the best preaching of the gospel is when the preacher himself enjoys it, when he himself is heartily in love with it; that is a part of the unction that God gives to go with it. When a cook is preparing a dainty dish, methinks he smiles as he sends it up to his lord’s table, and he has some enjoyment of it himself. I love to preach a gospel of which I feel the sweetness in my own soul. So, dear hearer, if you begin to feel the sweetness of hearing the gospel, you shall feel more of it. Those who are tired of preaching are those who do not often hear it. If it is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and you have often heard it, you want to hear it again.
When last did you “enjoy” the word of God?