Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Reading Titus with John Chrysostom (1:5-11)

John's second homily on Titus addresses 1:5-11, the qualifications for elders:

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer is entrusted with God's work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. (NIV)

It should be noted that by John's time the episcopacy has been established for at least three centuries, so that these verses are understood exclusively in episcopal terms. I have used various titles to refer to church leaders below, but it should always be understood that John sees these passages as addressing bishops.

The text of the homily can be found here.

From God Be the Glory

“Retire from the earth, and look to that theater that is in Heaven.”

I found it somewhat ironic that in his exposition on a passage of scripture which gives a man (Titus) the means by which to judge the character of other men (potential elders) John should find the occasions to so vehemently reject the notion that Christians ought to care about the judgments of men. Upon further reflection, however, it seemed quite appropriate if the list of qualifications given is understood not as the human means of judging character but instead God’s. What is presented in Titus is God’s rubric for the character of a man, and that is the only judgment the Christian should consider.

For John there is nothing “so tyrannical, [and] so universally prevalent,” as the wanton pursuit of glory, i.e. human accolades. John sees in his congregation and in the hearts of all men the tendency to act primarily so that others will see and applaud our good works. The glory which is acquired is, nevertheless, utterly worthless. “…human glory is empty, and an imitation of glory; it is not true glory.” Only glory which is from God is true glory, and seeking that glory, according to John, is the only way to overcome the temptations of vainglory.

“When in doing any good thou considerst that it ought to be displayed to men, and thou seekest for some spectators of the action, and art in travail to be seen, reflect that God beholds thee, and all that desire will be extinguished. Retire from the earth, and look to that theater that is in Heaven. If men should praise thee, yet hereafter they will blame thee, will envy thee, will assail thy character; or if they do not yet their praise will not benefit thee. It is not so with God.”

When this true glory from God is understood as the real aim of our virtuous deeds and is sought accordingly, the praise which is received from men becomes meaningless in comparison. Thus, John exhorts us to become “as those who desire gold, but receive clay.” Whatever praise is given by men is to glory from God what dirt is to the most precious material man can imagine.

Having God as the sole judge, living according to His standards, comes at a price. God, who is always watching when a good deed is performed, sees every evil, even the “hidden” evil deep within the heart. For the pious, this is good news, for “thou obtainest glory for thy piety. If thou art truly pious, and conscious of no guilt, thou shouldest rejoice, not because thou are reputed pious, but because thou art so.” On the other hand, “if while conscious of guilt, thou art supposed by all to be pure, instead of rejoicing, thou shouldest grieve and mourn bitterly, keeping constantly in view that Day, in which all things will be revealed, in which the hidden things of darkness will be brought to light.” If God alone is judge, then the need to be pious becomes more important than the need to be seen being pious. If God alone is judge, it is more critical that one avoids being impious than that one avoids being seen to be impious. For this reason, John exhorts “Let us cast away the sheep’s clothing, and rather become sheep.”

In reading a text on the virtue of the leaders of the church, John sees the perfect opportunity (and perhaps justly so) to remind his congregants that the glory which is afforded to the great men of the church is from God alone. Whatever judgments are made in the selection of leaders and whatever honor is accorded to them because of their apparent virtues, the true judgment rests in the hands of God. The best that can be done here and now is to judge ourselves in view of what God requires of us, to find joy in the knowledge that He rejoices in our virtues and to be shamed by the fact that He will make known our vices.

Prescription for Christians from Descriptions of Elders

The elders being selected in Titus 1 are undoubtedly intended to be the pillars of the church, the cream of the crop, so to speak. What Paul offers is a list of qualifications that seem largely descriptive (though they are undoubtedly commands to Titus to select such men). John, however, sees in these ideal descriptions the grounds for which to make a number of practical assertions about everyday life for Christians.

The command that the elder should have only one wife is for John a tacit affirmation of the sanctity of marriage. In a modern context that does not seem all that crucial, but in early Christian times as far back as the New Testament, the question of the validity of marriage in God’s plan was widely questioned. Here, John goes further than many other authors who merely accept marriage either as permissible or inevitable. He declares that “it is not an unholy thing in itself, but so far honorable, that a married man might ascend the holy throne.” Leaders, and therefore all men, should have a high regard for marriage. Entering into a single marriage and never a second shows the high regard for one’s wife that Christ has had for his bride, the church.

John also has a word for absentee fathers based on the section relative to the orderly behavior of an elder’s children. Apparently, as is still the case, there were fathers in ancient times who were “occupied in the pursuit of wealth” such that they had “made [their] children a secondary concern, and not bestowed much care upon them…” This neglect is unacceptable to John, as it should be, and he places the sins of the children on the heads of the fathers (a nice reversal of biblical imagery). “Sins are not so prevalent by nature, as to overcome so much previous care,” John speculates. If fathers would dedicate sufficient time and offer adequate instruction, their children would not be delinquents. A father has not only a great length of time, but the force of laws and nature to inculcate virtue into his children. He must take responsibility for that.

Finally, John has advice for rulers of any sort, advice which seems obvious now but may appear strange given the authoritarian way the government and the church in antiquity are viewed. Beginning with the affirmation that an elder ought not to be “a striker” (NIV, violent), John concludes that “…a ruler without, as he rules by law and compulsion, perhaps does not consult the wishes of those under his rule…if he so conduct himself as to do everything of his own will, and share counsels with no one, makes his presidency tyrannical rather than popular.” Instead, leaders “ought to rule men with their own consent” so that their subjects “will be thankful for his rule.” Authoritarian leaders are not good leaders, a maxim as true in the fourth century as it is now.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me to take these qualifications for leaders and extrapolate them to other areas of life. Certainly the behaviors which are good elders who are fathers are good for all fathers. Surely virtues which are necessary of leaders in the church are necessary for Christian leaders in business, in the community, or even in the home. All men, in fact, ought to aspire to live a life worth of position of elder without the ambition, perhaps, to actually attain that office.

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