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reality bites: Titus 1 and the southern baptists

The ancient Cretans believed that most of the Greek gods were originally humans born on the island of Crete. Eventually, they were able to elevate themselves to god-status. Apparently, they were “from below rather than from above.” One of the gods was Zeus, the top dog “man-become-god.”  Zeus was a liar and a womanizer, and Cretans celebrated his shady, underhanded character by emulating him. For Cretans, lying was a virtue.

In writing to the lead pastor at the church in Crete, Paul goes after the idea that a true God would lie. It’s “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” Paul begins his letter to Titus (1:1-2). Notice how Paul exposes the Cretan “man-become-god” malarky with “God-become-man” veracity. The “God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior” (1:2-4; cf. 2:10).

“This is why I left you in Crete,” he tells Titus, “so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you” (1:5).

People are always warily looking for leaders they can trust. In contrast to the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent vote to reject women pastors, Paul believes that “anyone,” male or female, can be an elder if they are “above reproach” (i.e., “man” is absent in the Greek; 1:6a). The chief ethical prerequisite is not an adult human male, but blamelessness in one’s interactions with others. Spiritual leaders influence all people, not just God’s people.

Yeah, but the second qualification is “the husband of one wife” (1:6b). Well, that rules out adult human females—and all singles, widows, divorced people, and Paul himselfIf you take this rigidly, you must disqualify Paul from church leadership. Paul, like many leaders in the early church, was single and celibate. Therefore, “the husband of one wife” must be understood as an idiom of marital faithfulness. We used to do this in English. Pick up a book or newspaper from 50 years ago and you won’t find inclusive language. It was a common, acceptable practice to use “man” without excluding women (e.g., “all men are created equal”). Paul’s emphasis is not on being a married adult human male, but on the moral quality of loyalty and faithfulness. Spiritual leaders are deferential, patient, reliable people that one can depend on.

Yeah, but the third qualification is “his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (1:6c). Yet again, the masculine “his” is absent in the Greek! If you take this rigidly, you must rule out anyone that doesn’t have more than one child—which disqualifies Paul and any leader whose kids do not trust in Christ. The Greek, however, simply reads “faithful (pistos) children.” Is Paul referring to belief or behavior? The “not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” helps clarify. In a parallel passage, Paul highlights that it’s about caring for one’s own family in such a way that it flourishes in dignity and reverence (1 Tim 3:4-5). Spiritual leaders move people on from where they are to where God wants them to be.

Because the masculine “his” continues to be absent in the Greek, we can confidently say that spiritual leaders—whether adult human men or adult human women—must be humble, amicable, warm, levelheaded, devout, disciplined people who are “able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” because they are lovers of good and lovers of Scripture (Titus 1:7-9). Spiritual leaders are accountable to the Lord in all areas of life.

We are not making the Bible “gender-neutral” when we present a clearer understanding of what Paul intended. Southern Baptists are not rejecting women pastors; they are rejecting basic exegetical principles of interpretation.