By Pastor Glenn Pease
For some unknown reason a sculptor hacked an 18 foot high piece of marble into an awkward shape, and then left it unfinished to lay in a Cathedral courtyard in Florence, Italy. For about a hundred years it laid there until Sept. of 1501. The damaged block had been offered to other sculptors, but none of them felt capable of doing anything with it. Then Michelangelo was asked if he could make a statue out of it. He felt he could, and so a contract was drawn up for him to complete the work in 2 years.
He built wooden walls around the block so he could not be seen or interrupted. Others hired assistants, but he did not. From first to last it was his mallet and chisels that did the work. He would not leave his shed for days on end. He often slept there so that he could get busy on it without delay. The 2 year deadline came and he was still not finished. It was not until 1504 that he completed the project.
Everyone agreed when they seen it that he had created a masterpiece. Out of that rejected piece of marble he created his famous statue of David-the slayer of giants. Contemporaries declared that nothing equaled to it had been produced since the ancient days of Greece and Rome. The 18 thousand pound statue was moved to a conspicuous place where all could enjoy it. For 3 and a half centuries it stood outside as the pride of Florence, but the in 1873 it was moved inside to protect it from the weather. Copies of the statue can be found all over the world, including a downtown park in my hometown of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Michelangelo is famous because he was devoted to excellence. He was so devoted because he knew that excellence was on of the ways men are drawn to God. He said, "If it be true that any beauteous thing raises the pure and just desire of man from earth to God, the eternal fount of all, such I believe my love." And such was the love of Paul as well, and that is why he chose Titus to stay in Crete to straighten out what was unfinished. Like the marble block of Michelangelo, these Christians were far from finished. They were Christians; they were saved for eternity, but they were messed up in many ways and they needed a spiritual sculptor to shape them up.
What we see in this letter of Titus is that Paul was committed to excellence. The goal of God is not just to get His Son a bride, but to get Him a bride who is without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing. In other words, the goal of God is always perfection. We can never achieve this in time, but we can and ought to be devoted to excellence as we move toward the perfection that only God can achieve. That is the essence of what Paul is telling Titus to aim for in completing the unfinished work in Crete. Appoint leaders who are devoted to excellence. They are to show excellence in character, in their family life, in their social life, in their economic life, and in their spiritual life.
This was Paul's goal in every church, and that is why he writes to the Corinthians who were having so many problems because of their focus on some of the lesser gifts. He writes in I Cor. 12:31, "But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way." Then he goes on in his great exposition of love in I Cor. 13. Paul is saying that all the defects of the church are due to low aim. If we aim for excellence and focus on the best, the highest, and the noblest, we will not be part of the problem, but part of the answer. The bottom line is this: The servant of Christ is called to excellence. In Col. 3:23 Paul writes, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men." This is not a call to manageable mediocrity, but a call to excel in excellence.
Titus is told to chose leaders in the church who are heeding this call to excellence. Not all Christians listen to this call. Just as there are all different levels of faith, knowledge, and hope, so there are all different levels of commitment to excellence. The first graders work of art on your refrigerator may not be an excellent work of art, but if it is the best a child can do at that stage, it deserves praise, for excellence it not so much a destination as it is a direction. The excellent Christian leader is one who is committed to growth.
They are never content with where they are, but ever striving for the better way to serve and be pleasing to Christ.
The great violinist Isaac Stern was asked by a reporter, "What truly distinguishes a great musician?" Sterns replied, "A great musician is one who is always seeking to improve, never content with his performances, always moving on to discover more about the instrument and music he loves." The great Christian is likewise always seeking to improve and discover more about the Word of God and the Lord he loves. He hears and heeds the call to excellence.
This call to excellence, however, is not the same as the call to success which is so popular in our sexual culture, and in the health and wealth Gospel movement in the church. Jon Johnston, professor at Pepperdine University and Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote a whole book called Christian Excellence Alternative To Success. Success is a matter of cultural matters, but Christian excellence is a matter of biblical values. The two are not the same. If you have a million dollars, it does not make any difference to the world if you have a different wife every few years, and a few girlfriends on the side. It makes no difference if you are an alcoholic, and so hot tempered that you fire your employees for minor mistakes. Your personal life can be a disgrace from a biblical point of view, and yet you can be consider a great success. Success is very this worldly and based on the accumulation of things and notoriety.
On the other hand, the Christian who aims for excellence, like the elders in Crete were to do, may not be wealthy at all. Their excellence is not based on things or achievements and popularity, but on the kind of person they are, and the good qualities of their behavior. They are Christ like people pleasing to God and man. They are just good people. Our culture has made many Christians twist this into a success theology that says if you love Jesus you can be a champion in athletics, win beauty contests, be leaders in business and politics, and just be among the elite in every realm of life. Christian excellence has been tied to secular success so that Christians think a success Christian should be winning Olympic medals and big contracts and popularity contests of all kinds.
Tony Compolo says this is all a perversion of Christian excellence. Jesus never called His disciples to success, social prestige, and large bank accounts. These things are not necessarily inconsistent with Christian excellence, but they have nothing to do with it. The least known Christian is just as called to excellence as the most famous. We need to make the distinction clear, for when the two concepts are blended as one the standard of the church and the biblical standard of excellence is set aside.
Christian excellence opposes mediocrity as an enemy, and so it will lead the Christian to strive for excellence in the secular realm as well, and thus be an aid to his or her success. But it must not be equated with success, for this leads Christians to be motivated by secular rather than a biblical standard. Leadership in the church is to be based on Christian excellence and not secular success. It is ones character that counts and not ones achievements. What this means practically is that we are to be as committed to being what God wills for us as the successful person is committed to being successful.
When we have a task to do in the body of Christ, we are to do it with the same determination as one who will win a gold medal if they strive for excellence. The complaint is heard far and wide that excellence is out and mediocrity is in, for nobody wants to be bothered to give so much energy to the things we do as Christians. The result is that our young people grow up thinking church things are secondary, and mediocre is good enough for church. The world also sees and concludes that if Christians don't take God any more serious than they do, why should I bother?
The witness of mediocrity is that God is not worthy of excellence. But this is contrary to all that the Bible tells us. Psa. 8:1 says, "O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth." Psa. 36:7 says, "How excellent is thy loving kindness." Psa. 148:13 says, "Let them praise the name of the Lord: For His name is excellent." The name of God represents His whole being, and everything about God is excellent. Only excellence can reflect in any measure the glory of God. Chuck Swindoll wrote the book Living Above The Level of Mediocrity, and as he comes to the end he writes, "As I have emphasized throughout this book, a commitment to excellence is neither popular nor easy, but it is essential." That is the message of Paul to Titus, and the message of this letter to all God's people.
Now let's get specific as to just what excellence means for leaders in the church. The leaders are called elders. The Greek word for elders is presbuteros from which the Presbyterians take their name. The word originally meant, "old man or bearded one." When we say to youth that they should respect their elders, we just mean people who are older. The elders in Bible times were the older people. It is assumed that people who live longer get more mature and are better qualified than to be leaders. This is not always the case, but it is a valid rule of thumb that an older Christian is wiser. These elders Paul refers to are not all that old by our standards. They still have children at home. They are not senior citizens, but just older than most in the church.
The beard was a sign of maturity in the Eastern culture and it commanded respect. Steward Briscoe tells of going to Bangladesh where he was warmly received. The young missionary he stayed with said to him, "I don't get anything like your reception among the people even though I have been working among them for years. I can't wait until I can grow a beard." Briscoe had a beard and this gave him instant respect. This is the point of elders being the key leaders in the church. They should be people who command respect because they are seen as mature people. Age is not the key, but maturity. Young men who are mature can qualify as leaders.
This concept has guided God's people from the beginning. In the Old Testament the elders were the leaders of each city. They made the laws and enforced them, and they settled disputes at the city gate. Later on the synagogue developed the governor of the synagogue, and he was an elder or presbuteros. Paul was just following the tradition of God's people when he said to appoint elders. Tradition is not always good, but when it is based on very good logic it is unwise to change it. The older a Christian gets the more he or she should exhibit Christian excellence in their character and conduct. That is why they should be the leaders. It is not age but excellence that qualifies them.
An old Christian who is slipshod and indifferent to excellence is no more qualified to lead than a junior high youth, and maybe even less so. The bottom line is excellence, for this is the sign of Christian maturity. The first way this excellence is to be manifested in his role as a husband. A mature Christian is one who will have only one wife. An immature Christian is one who lacks this commitment and keeps looking for the ideal woman even after he is married. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence to the immature man. He thinks he would be more successful and more loved if he had another woman for his wife. It might even be true, but it is immature, for when you marry you are making a commitment for life, and not just until something better comes along.
To be blameless means to make the right choices so that no one can say you are a jerk in your relationship to the opposite sex. Excellence in relationships means commitment. A leader has to be committed to his mate or he will not have the respect needed to lead others. Excellence in a leader means he is a one woman man. The implication is clear. God's best for male and female is a life time commitment to each other. Man is ever toying with this, but he can't improve it by any other arrangement.
We need to pause here, however, and recognize that our culture has produced what was rare, or even nonexistent in the Bible, and that is masses of singles. Does this passage say a man who has no wife cannot be an elder. Or what if he is married and has no children? Does that disqualify him? Not at all. Paul is dealing with the typical situation and not the exceptional. If you become a legalist here, Paul himself was not qualified, for he had no wife or children. This text does not rule out singles and childless men. They just did not exist like they do today. The focus of Paul is on the excellence of the lives of Christian leaders. Jesus lived the most excellent of all lives as a single and as one who was childless. Paul would not want his words to be interpreted so as to exclude the Lord of the church from being a leader in the church.
Paul says that the leader, or elder, must also have children who are believers and not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. In other words, a leader is to be an excellent example of a father, and show by his own family discipline how children should be raised. This implies that the children are under his discipline. If a child is old enough to be out on his own he is no longer responsible for their behavior. But as long as he is responsible the leader is to have disciplined children who set the example for others.
The point of Paul is that the Christian is to be committed to excellence. The only way the church can have an effective witness to the world is by producing better people. If the world can produce people as good or better than the church, why should they pay any attention to the Gospel that the church preaches? How is it good news if it does not make its possessors better people? Leaders of the church need to be examples of just what kind of excellence can be achieved by lives based on faith, knowledge of the truth, and hope.
Then Paul in verse 7 writes of the overseer or bishop, and people get confused about this office, but it is just another word for the elders. Both Catholic and Protestant scholars have concluded that these words are interchangeable, and so Paul is not switching channels on us and going to another office. He is still talking about the same leaders and giving more qualifications for those who are to appointed to this leadership role.
Blameless is a term Paul uses again, and this sounds like Paul is saying that Christian leaders are to be perfect. But as Calvin points out, if this is what Paul meant, Titus would have to find his leaders from another planet, for no such creatures exist on this one. The point of Paul is that the leader has to be one who is not marked by disgrace, and under any accusation of immoral behavior. A Christian who is charged with some crime is not to be a leader of the church. The image of the church is to be one of excellence. If a life is tarnished by a bad reputation but makes the world skeptical of the church, that person should not be a leader in the church. Leaders are to exemplify excellence. The church may be filled with people who are poor examples of godliness, for the church exists to minister to such people, but the leaders are to be examples of the best that godliness can produce.
It would be very easy to develop a spirit of pride as a church leader. One could feel that by being chosen to this position they are superior to the rest of the body. One could learn to look down their nose at the second class Christians of the flock. This would leave the leader unqualified, for they would no longer be blameless and excellent examples of Christ likeness. One of the ways a leader shows his superiority is by the love and encouragement he gives to those who are inferior in their Christian growth.
Howard Hendricks is one of the greatest Christian leaders, teachers and authors in America. As a boy he was a major trouble maker. His 5th grade teacher had to tie him to his desk and gag him because he was so wild and unruly. His 6th grade teacher did not treat him that way. She loved him and told him she believed in him and his good qualities. He became a good student for her. The 5th grade teacher would see him in his classroom sitting and clothed in his right mind and wonder how it could be. Love had changed his life. As a leader he teaches other leaders that they can change lives too by loving those who are far from what they ought to be.
The reason Paul has a high standard for leaders is because he knows that only those who reach a level of excellence will be able to adequately love and care for those far from this goal. Leaders are not in their position to be praised and glorified, but to be servants of the rest of the body, and helping all to climb to a level of excellence. All job descriptions tend to be ideal and rightly so. Maybe nobody can fully live up to them, but they establish that the goal is always excellence. The real may not match the ideal, but it should always be pointing in that direction.
Even among the Cretans, a people known for their low life level, the standards of Christian leadership are high. What a Christian leader is at home is a key factor in his qualification to be a leader. What he is as a husband and a father is basic. A Christian leader is not one who can look good on Sunday, but is one who all week long in his home exhibits excellence. A loved wife and disciplined children are the evidence of Christian excellence.