Friday, July 20, 2012

"...appoint elders in every town..."

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

I was recently reading through the book of Titus when I saw something that I'd never thought much about before. It's related to both what Paul writes and what he doesn't write.

We know that Paul left Titus on the island of Crete to help with order in the churches and to appoint elders. The above verse is clear enough on that. What fascinates me is a little prepositional phrase that comes immediately after Paul writes the word elders.

Paul mentions to Titus that he left him to appoint elders "in every town." Interesting. Notice that Paul did not say that he left Titus to appoint elders "in every church." This is a key difference.

If Paul had written that Titus was to appoint elders in every church, we would see a suggestion on Paul's part of the validity of separate local churches within the broader Christian community of a city (much like we see today). However, that is not what we see. Instead, Paul instructs Titus to appoint elders in every town. What does this suggest? The answer is that Paul saw a need for recognized elders within the church in each town.

This is significant because it hints strongly at one component of the biblical model for the church: all Christians in a town compose the church there. These Christ-followers are in need of elders, so Titus appoints them. Paul does not suggest that anything smaller than entire Christian community in a town is a valid descriptor.

In most of Paul's other letters he writes to churches in a particular city or town. Nothing smaller than this exists in the apostle's mind. Therefore, when it comes to Crete, Paul understands a need of the churches there.

It is a foreign concept (biblically-speaking) for an elder to serve as such only within a smaller local body but not the broader community. Paul expects the elders in the towns on Crete to serve all the Christians in the town where they live.

This little prepositional phrase speaks volumes about both the definition of church and the unity of the church. All believers in a town make up the church in that town. I live in Savannah, Georgia; therefore, I'm part of the church in Savannah. Anything smaller than that is a man-made, artificial division. This, of course, does not mean that all Christians in a town have to all meet together all the time. Rather, the bible speaks of Christians getting together frequently in various sizes, shapes, and places.

Paul's phrase also clues us in on his expectations for unity. All the Christians in a town are to be united as the church in that town. No division ought to occur between them. Anything that does draw dividing lines (such as denominations, local membership, and church covenants) fails to have any sort of biblical mandate. Instead, Paul recognizes all in a community as the church there.

In light of this, we would do well to think about our own understanding of the church in a certain area. Do we think like Paul thinks? Or, do we think according to cultural traditions and momentum? Maybe more importantly, do we live like the church in our town includes every Christian in our town? If we did, what would this look like?


Marshall said...

This is a point of helpful understanding for the present times, and as you write, "speaks volumes about both the definition of church and the unity of the church".
The prepositional phrase kata polin or "according to city" or "in every town" seems to leave some room for a elder/older shepherd (or overseer) to visit house-to-house in his city as the Spirit may show for need?

David Rogers said...


Watchman Nee and Witness Lee made a big deal about the idea of only one church in each city. From my perspective, they went overboard on it and this led them to extremism, which, in some cases, proved unhealthy. I wrote a paper about this which has been published online. You can access it here:

On another note, recently I read a book by a German theologian/historian named Peter Lampe called "Christians in Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus." His thesis, which he convincingly backs up, is that the church in Rome during the first two centuries met in different house churches, each with their own elders (or generally, one elder per house church), and that the Christians in Rome considered themselves collectively to be "the church in Rome," but only in a very loose-knit way, with no centralized administration or supervision. I think his thesis is quite compatible with what you are suggesting here.

Eric said...


I agree that it leaves some room for what you are suggesting. It makes sense that the elders would serve various groups of folks as opposed to only one.

Eric said...


As the church spread and the Christian populations in cities rose, my guess is that it would have been impossible for all of them to gather together (at least on a regular basis). As this occurred, it makes sense that smaller groups would form within the larger church in the city. People tend to gather with those they know. Within this framework, elders could generally serve those they knew best. Any group that gathers regularly needs elders as a part of it.

One key in all this is boundaries. If the church in a city is viewed as the church there, then the elders would serve any Christian they know in that capacity. If the boundaries are drawn tighter, as if often the case today, then the elders function only within that tighter body.

If the definition is correct, then hopefully the functioning can be as well.

Drewe said...

Another interesting thought - your reading of this verse does not work well with 'multi site' mega churches with video broadcasting (all other issues aside)....

Eric said...


I'll give mega-churches credit for being consistent. They always go for whatever is most pragmatic for growth regardless of whether or not it has any biblical support whatsoever.