Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sermon: Titus 1: 10-16 False Teachers

Imagine that you’re the apostle Paul. You’ve spent twenty years preaching about Jesus, travelling around planting churches. It’s exciting as you see people come to faith, and their lives are transformed by the good news about Jesus. You obviously can’t be present in all your churches at the same time, but you still hear what’s going on. Imagine, then, that you hear of people working their way into your churches, and leading people astray. They’re teaching things that are totally contradicting all that you’ve given your life to teach. And people are following them. What would you do? How would you react?

Or imagine that you’re part of a congregation within a denomination, and all around, you can see leaders teaching those contradictory things. How would you react? How should we react?

We’re working our way through Paul’s letter to Titus, and Titus is faced with this very problem. Titus, you might remember, has been left on the island of Crete to appoint elders - church leaders, and a fortnight ago we saw how they should be godly men, depending on God’s grace. Verse 9 gives us the focus and strategy for dealing with the false teachers and false teaching we encounter in our reading this morning. Let’s remind ourselves of that verse: ‘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.’ We would love that verse to end at the word doctrine, and only have the leader’s task as one of positive teaching. Yet we’re only too aware that there are times and situations where a rebuke is needed when God’s word is being contradicted or ignored.

That’s what was happening in Crete, and it’s why Titus needed to be on the ground, appointing elders, and taking a lead himself in rebuking and correcting. We’ll see the dangers of false teaching, and how to deal with it, with a progression as we go along.

First up, false teaching must be silenced. Look at verse 10. ‘there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party.’ All these are ways of using words in a wrong way - in being insubordinate, they refused to submit to authority - either that of the church leaders, or even of God’s authority; on top of that, they were empty talkers - speaking for the sake of it, their words just meaningless; and also deceivers, leading people astray by their words.

Paul says that they are teaching - for shameful gain - things they shouldn’t be teaching. But as they do that, they are upsetting whole families. Just think about it - if your family has become Christian, seeking to grow in the Lord, learning more about what it means to follow Jesus; then your family will be upset if someone gives you false teaching!

So the first response to false teaching is there at the start of verse 11: ‘They must be silenced.’ Rather than being allowed to continue to speak false things, Paul says they are to be muzzled, gagged, silenced. But we need to go further than just silencing them, Paul says to Titus. We need to go deeper to see the root of their false teaching.

Second, false teaching suits our sinful nature, but must be rebuked. Have you ever been on diversity or equality training with work? You’ll have to go on a course for a day or two and learn how to speak about people from other cultures, everything politically correct, so as to avoid offence or upset. Well, it seems that Paul has never been on one of those courses - look at what he says next, in verse 12: ‘One of the Cretans, a prophet of their own, said “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”’ He’s quoting one of the philosophers from 600 years before, who made this observation of the Cretan character - and then Paul simply affirms it: ‘This testimony is true.’!

Why does Paul use this quotation? What is he saying as he includes it? Remember that he’s writing to Titus, and giving him instructions for his task on the island. We’re, as it were, looking over the shoulder of Titus as he reads it. We have to understand what Paul is saying to Titus first, before we understand how it applies to us and our situation.

Paul is reminding Titus what the Cretans are like if left to themselves. So before they’re a Christian, this is what sinful human nature will look like and express itself in the Cretan character and culture. Liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons. False teaching in the Crete context will come from these ways of thinking and behaving, but will also cater to and suit the very same sinful nature.

So think of what we’ve already seen of the false teaching - empty talkers and deceivers fits with being liars; lazy gluttons fits with them teaching for shameful gain; evil beasts undergirds the whole set up. This is what Titus had to face up to in Crete.

Titus is called to know his mission context. If we were sending someone overseas, there would be a lot of time spent on understanding the culture and norms of the people the missionary was being sent to. Yet we rarely bother thinking about the culture we’re working in if it’s our own culture. What would Paul have written of us? How would you fill in the blank: ‘People in Dundonald are...’ or ‘People in Northern Ireland are...’

Despite what many people think, our culture and norms are not Christian by default! We’re just as anti-God and anti-gospel as the Cretans or any other people. It’s why we need to be saved and converted, transformed by God’s word in an ongoing, daily way, becoming more like Jesus and less like the world. We need precisely what the Cretans needed - ‘Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.’

Titus, and therefore church leaders must administer this rebuke in order to take people from their sinful nature to being sound in the faith. That word ‘sound’ is also used to suggest being healthy - we want to be healthy in the faith, but if we’re stuck in our sinful nature then we’re not healthy, we need the treatment of the gospel.

So far we’ve seen that false teaching needs to be silenced; and that false teaching suits our sinful nature so needs to be rebuked. We come now to the third and final point: False teaching denies God and must be corrected by godliness.

Look back, for a moment, to the very first verse of Titus. In 1:1, we find the driving force for all of what Paul will say throughout this short letter. ‘for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.’ Faith and knowledge will lead to godliness. What we believe must affect how we behave. The gospel will lead to godliness.

Yet here at the end of chapter 1, we’ve been seeing that the same relationship exists when you begin with false teaching. So you put in false teaching - what you believe is deceit/lies/false; what you believe affects how you behave - it leads to indulging the sinful nature, leading to the very last words of the chapter - ‘they are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work.’

We see a bit more about what the false teaching consisted of in verse 14. Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. Elsewhere (1 Tim 1:4) these myths include endless genealogies - made up stories and unimportant things which are elevated to be the essential. You see, as people turn away from the truth of God, in the words of GK Chesterton, ‘it’s not that they’ll believe nothing, but they’ll believe anything.’

In those commands of people who turn away from the truth we’re reminded of the Pharisees Jesus encountered, who ‘break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition.’ (Matt 15:3) So they ignore God’s truth (that all things are pure to those who are pure), and instead draw up long and complicated rules about conduct and practice and religion. It all comes from their defiled mind and conscience, in seeking to be religious.

It comes to a head at the start of verse 16. It’s true of all false teachers, and here’s what it says: ‘They profess to know God, but they deny him by their works.’ False teaching isn’t going to come with flashing lights and a big sign saying ‘this is false teaching’. Of course the false teacher is going to claim to know God. Yet their works will expose their real position, far from God, because what they do doesn’t match up to what they say.

False teaching had to be silenced; false teaching which suits the sinful nature had to be rebuked. How will Titus deal with false teaching which leads to ungodliness?

Sometimes it may be said that the world knows what the church is against, but not what the church is for. If we spend all our time protesting or complaining about the world, it looks as if we’re just a bunch of moaners who enjoy a good rebuke. In the right moment, to silence a false teacher or to rebuke sinful nature is the appropriate thing to do. But Paul also calls Titus to be much more positive. Remember 1:5 earlier? ‘knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.’ We see it now as Titus counters false teaching with the positive teaching and application of the gospel - Look at the contrast between the false teachers and Titus from 1:16 - ‘They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work. But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.’ Sometimes those chapter breaks come in the wrong place, and we split what should really be together!

At times we may need to silence a false teacher. At others, a rebuke is needed. But sometimes, perhaps even most times, we just need to preach the gospel, the faith, and what accords with sound doctrine.

As we briefly seek to apply this, perhaps it’s good to think about who we are listening to. Where are we getting our teaching from. Are you making sure that we are teaching the truth of God and not just indulging your sinful nature? What about if you tune in to the God channel or some religious radio stations. Be careful to weigh what you listen - make sure it is the truth, and not just empty talk.

As we’ve seen already, and will continue to see in Titus, what you believe affects how you behave. So make sure it’s the gospel you’re believing, and not some sort of false teaching. Who are you listening to? What are you building your life on? Let’s pray.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 23rd January 2011.

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