Bishops and Cretans

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on September 3, 2006 under Ask the Pastor | Be the First to Comment

A visitor to our website asks:

“Was Apostle Paul inspired by God when he wrote in Titus 1:5-14 concerning bishops? If so, how come White Baptists don’t have bishops in their churches and Catholic bishops are not married? Also, if Paul can say “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons… Therefore rebuke them sharply,” can’t we say that others are always liars and evil beasts; and deceivers especially Cessasionists who are to be rebuked sharply?”

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Dear Friend,

Thanks for visiting our website, and for sending your questions. You’ve asked several questions; but I’ll try to give an answer to each of them.

First, you ask if Paul was inspired when he wrote the words of his letter to Titus concerning “bishops”. In that passage, he writes (as it’s translated in the New King James Version), “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you – if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict” (vv. 1-9).

Paul was ordering Titus – the pastor of the church on the ancient island of Crete – to set things in order and to appoint qualified men to serve as elders in the church. And the reason he specified their qualifications was so that the men appointed to this role would be capable of defending the faith with good, sound doctrine; and to thus exhort and contradict those who opposed the truth of the gospel. “For there are many insubordinate, both idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole households, teaching things which they ought not, for the sake of dishonest gain. One of them, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men who turn from the truth” (vv. 10-14).”

So, as to your first question, I’d answer ‘yes’. Paul wrote these words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and are authoritative instructions regarding the appointment of leaders in a church. In the introduction to this letter, Paul hints at the authority of his words as inspired by God (1:1-3). He there calls himself, “Paul, a bondservant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ”; and in calling himself an apostle, he is asserting his authority to speak as one sent by Jesus Christ to speak forth a message that Christ appointed him to speak. He said he was so appointed, “according to the faith of God’s elect and the acknowledgement of the truth which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before time began, but has in due time manifested His word through preaching, which was committed to me according to the commandment of God our Savior …” (see also Acts 9:15-16; 1 Cor. 15:3; Gal. 1:11-12; Eph. 3:1-7). Even Peter acknowledged the divine inspiration of Paul’s letters; calling them “Scripture” (1 Peter 3:15-16).

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Paul writes in these words about the qualifications of “bishops”; and that leads to your next question concerning why it is that many traditions in the church appoint “bishops”, while others do not.

The Greek word that the Bible translates “bishop” is “episcopos”. It is a word formed by joining two Greek words together: “epi”, which means “upon”; and “skopeĆ³”, which means to “pay careful attention to, or look out for” something. An “episcopos”, then, is someone appointed to the role of safeguarding or overseeing something – and in respect to a church, it means someone who is the “overseer” of that church. (The word “bishop” comes from the Old English word “bisceop”; which itself came from the Latin “ebiscopus”.)

It may help to know that, in the Scriptures, three words are used to describe the same office in the church: “pastor”, “elder”, and “bishop”. These three words highlight different aspects of this one office – the word “pastor” or “shepherd” tends to emphasize personal care and nurture (1 Peter 5:2); the word “elder” or “presbyter” emphasizes the spiritual maturity and moral character that befits the one holding that office (note how, in verse 5, Paul mentions “elders”, and then goes on to describe moral qualifications in verse 6); and “bishops”, emphasizes the function of providing for the spiritual oversight of the church (note how Paul then says, “For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God …”; that is, as one into whose hands God has entrusted the care of His church).

These three functions are often very clearly used in Scripture to describe the same office. In Acts 20; Paul calls the “elders” of the church of Ephesus together and tells them, “… Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock [i.e., "shepherd/pastor"], among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [i.e., "bishops]” (v. 28). Peter mentions all three when he writes, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I whom am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers …” (1 Peter 5:1-2). Even in the passage you asked me about, we find that Paul writes that Titus should appoint “elders” and gives their specific qualifications (v. 5); and then says, as the reason for this command, that “a bishop must be blameless …” (v. 7).

The New Testament, then, presents these three words as describing one office. But “elders” and “bishops” do not appear to be considered distinct offices in the church until the Second Century. Since that time, many traditions in Christianity (including Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Scandinavian Lutheran) retain a distinct office of “bishop”; but they do so on the basis of tradition – not on the basis of a clear distinction in the Scriptures. Hence, some churches have a distinct office called “bishop”; while churches that have their roots in the reformed tradition simply see “bishop”, “elder” as describing one office. Many churches include “pastor” as a word to describe this office as well (Eph. 4:11).

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Paul mentions that “elders” are to be “the husband of one wife, having faithful children …”; and this leads to your third question: Why are Catholic bishops not married?

The practice of “celibacy” (that is, the state of being unmarried for the purpose of religious devotion and service) has its roots in the idea that, in order to be fully devoted to God’s service, someone should separate themselves from the physical and material demands that marriage and family would place upon them. Paul hinted at this as a desirable thing, if it could be done (1 Cor. 7:32-35). And, of course, John the Baptist, Paul, and even Jesus Himself have been looked upon as examples of celibacy. But Paul was careful not to insist upon this as a standard requirement (1 Cor. 7:28). Elsewhere in the Scripture, Paul warns against those who “forbid” marriage (1 Tim. 4:3). And, as you’ve pointed out from this passage, the Scriptures suggest that a “bishop” may marry (some even say, “should marry”). In the fourth century, however, celibacy began to be a standard that was required of clergy, and that was greatly advanced by the monastic movement; and so the Catholic tradition carries this practice on even today.

Personally, I believe that celibacy should never be made into a standard for service in ministry. The Scriptures clearly permit a church leader to be married. And in some cases, I believe it’s better for a pastor to be married and have children than not. Some say that Paul means that a man should be a “one-wife kind of man”, rather than absolutely require that he have a wife. But however someone understands Paul’s words, it’s obvious that “celibacy” is not a required biblically defined qualification of a bishop.

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In your fourth question you ask, because of Paul’s seemingly harsh words, whether or not we’re permitted to call others “liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons”; and whether or not we are permitted to sharply rebuke a particular group so “that they may be sound in the faith”. The particular group you specify is “cessasionists”.

“Cessasionists”, as I suspect you are using the word, refers to those within the Christian faith who believe that the remarkable spiritual gifts that characterized the apostolic era of the church – such gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit as miracles, healings, tongues, and prophetic utterances – ceased when that era came to an end and the New Testament Scriptures were completed. Cessasionists stand on one end of this debate; and on the other end are those of the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions. There are groups that fall between these two: closer to the cessasionists’ end would be those who believe that the Holy Spirit still may at times perform such miracles, but would insist that such manifestations are very rare, not at all normative, and should be evaluated with caution; and closer to the Pentecostal/Charismatic’s end of the argument would be those of the “Third Wave” movement who believe that many of those New Testament manifestations are being performed by the Holy Spirit today and are normative, but that they are not required as necessary proofs of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Now, I would consider this to be a debate that occurs within the perimeters the family of God. It is an “in-house” debate – not a debate between those who are in the family of God and those who are not. Representatives from views all along this continuum are sincere believers who love and trust Jesus Christ, and who make legitimate appeals to God’s word to support their argument. So I don’t believe that it would be appropriate to use Paul’s words in the Titus passage to “sharply rebuke” a fellow believer on this issue or for being a cessasionist; or to call them liars, evil beasts or lazy gluttons. That would certainly not be in keeping with the context of Paul’s words. (And by the way; those were not Paul’s words. He was quoting from one of the plays of the Cretan poet Epimenides, simply to show that this was the testimony of the Cretans concerning themselves. Paul didn’t make a practice of going around talking about people in that way.)

Paul was not speaking of the ‘cessasionist’ debate at all in Titus. Rather, he was plainly speaking about rebuking those who were “idle talkers and deceivers” (1:10); and in his letter, he goes on to describe them as subverting whole households with false teaching for dishonest gain (1:11), as embracing Jewish practices in a legalistic manner (v. 14), as living in a sinful manner that denied their profession of faith (1:15-16), and who concentrated on foolish disputes, genealogies, contentions and strivings about the law (3:9-11). We are always safest when we interpret a passage of Scripture in accordance with its context.

In Christ’s love,
Pastor Greg

(All Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)

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