As a missionary to Crete, Titus’ primary goal was to “appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:5), but not just any elders – qualified elders. After Paul described the qualified elder in verses 5-9, he then revealed why such qualifications were necessary. False teachers posed a clear and present danger to the Cretan church, but they weren’t always easy to identify. So, in verses 10-16, Paul explains who they are and how to deal with them.
“For there are many rebellious men, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced because they are upsetting whole families, teaching things they should not teach for the sake of sordid gain. One of themselves, a prophet of their own, said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth. To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him, being detestable and disobedient and worthless for any good deed.” (Titus 1:10-16)
As we’ve noted before, the Cretan church struggled to separate superstition and myth from scriptural truth, and religious syncretism ran rampant in the local culture. Elders needed to be prepared to identify false teachers and deal with them appropriately.
Verse 10 begins with a small but important word: “For.” This indicates that Paul’s description of false teachers (1:10-16) correlates back to his description of qualified elders (1:5-9). Paul is showing Titus – and us – that an elder must “be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (1:9) precisely because false teachers are so prevalent, and so persuasive. I’ve distilled Paul’s description in verses 10-16 down to 5 overall characteristics of false teachers.
1. They Are Rebellious
Paul describes false teachers as “rebellious men” (1:10), “detestable and disobedient” (1:16), “teaching things they should not teach” (1:11). He emphasizes the fact that preaching any aberrant gospel is inherently disobedient to Christ, who is the head of the Church. Elders must adhere to “the faithful word which is in accordance with the doctrine” (1:9), speaking only “things which are fitting for sound doctrine” (2:1). In contrast, false teachers are “men who turn away from the truth” (1:14), blatantly disregarding the doctrinal boundaries of the gospel, distorting the truth “to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16).
2. They Are Deceptive
The false teachers in Crete weren’t engaged in polemical debates with the big-name theologians of opposing viewpoints. Rather, they were gaining influence where influence truly matters: the family. Paul says they were “upsetting whole families” (1:11), using the Greek term anatrepo (“to overturn”) – the same term used in John 2:15 to describe Jesus “overturning” the money-changers’ tables. In other words, they wreaked spiritual havoc upon anyone who listened to them. And just like the money-changers on the Temple Mount, a false teacher’s entire business is “for the sake of sordid gain” (1:11).
You’ll never meet a false teacher who doesn’t “profess to know God” (1:16). But they themselves know the truth: they are “empty talkers” (1:10), “worthless for any good deed” (1:16), and neither their message nor their example contains any true spiritual value. So, by associating their foolishness with God, they gain a following. “They profess to know God, but by their deeds they deny Him” (1:16). Jesus described in one simple phrase how to distinguish between a false teacher and a qualified elder: “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:16).
3. They Are Worldly
The Cretan church was being swallowed up by corrupt cultural practices. In 1:1-12, Paul quotes the local poet Epimenides to make his argument for him: these false teachers were more Cretan than they were Christian. The sinful elements of their culture outshone the sanctifying work of the Word. But Paul wasn’t merely commending his own culture, either.
Ministry with a Judaistic bias was just as problematic as ministry with a Cretan bias. Paul is careful to point out that many of the false teachers in Crete were “of the circumcision” (1:10), teaching “Jewish myths” (1:14) rather than biblical truth. As a result, local churches were drowning in “foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law” (3:9).
False teachers – who, as unbelievers, have no identity “in Christ” – allow their cultural identity to characterize their ministry more than Christ. Their doctrine and practice often adopt hyper-cultural overtones suited to a mindless following. In contrast, true believers must allow their identity in Christ to outshine their cultural identity. Like all other human conventions, cultural identity must be thoroughly sanctified at the foot of the Cross. Every tribe, tongue, and nation are one in Christ. Later in his letter to Titus, Paul proclaims that Christ died “to purify for Himself a people (singular, “one nation”) for His own possession, zealous for good deeds” (2:14).
4. They Are Unclean
Referring to the false teachers at work in Crete, Paul makes this observation: “To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.” (1:15) His diction here calls upon the Old Testament language for ritual purity and impurity. The terms katharos (“pure”) and miaino (“to stain” or “defile”) are used heavily throughout Leviticus and Numbers in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The detailed cleanliness laws in Leviticus 11-15 served “to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean” (Lev 10:10, 11:47, 20:25). If a person was ritually pure, they were free to interact with the world around them – to eat and cook, buy and sell, and interact with family and neighbors. But if a person was ritually defiled, they were to be isolated immediately. They had become infectious. If they touched a pot, a piece of clothing, an animal, or a friend, that became contaminated, too.
In the context of his argument, Paul is saying that false teachers are like spiritual lepers. It’s not their flesh that’s rotting, but “their mind and their conscience” (1:15). To them, “nothing is pure.” In other words, if they are allowed to touch any element within the church – fellowship, service, or the pulpit – they will pollute it immediately. They are “worthless for any good deed” (1:16). They must be put out of the camp.
5. They Are Dangerous
What must be done with such men? Paul is clear: they “must be silenced” (1:11). There is no error for margin with the gospel. And false teachers must be given no wiggle-room in the church. For the sake of God’s own glory, His people’s good, and His gospel’s fidelity, all peddlers of falsehood must be forcibly removed from the fellowship of believers.
Defending Against Deceit
Clearly understanding Paul’s way of handling doctrinal dissent should inform our partnerships in global missions. The prosperity gospel – or any other false gospel – is spiritual leprosy. If it is not cleansed immediately, it will slowly and subtly infect an entire congregation, organization, or denomination until that institution’s doctrinal pain sensors are dead. The prophylactic that guards against that kind of corruption is the practice of strengthening local churches by raising up biblically qualified national elders, with blameless personal character.