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Titus for You: Doesn’t “Rule,” but Still Good Reading

Titus for You: Doesn't "Rule," but Still Good ReadingChester, Tim. Titus for You. The Good Book Company, 2014. Hardcover, 121 pages. ISBN 978-1-90991-961-7.

Mostly, this book is very good. It is doctrinally reformed (“The Spirit gives the desire and the ability to respond to the gospel. Because God has made us alive, we hear the gospel and respond with faith” [15]; “God has done the choosing, so God will do the persuading” [17]) and does not try to evade widely unpopular biblical truths (such as “Christian teaching on headship within marriage” [64]: “It is not that younger women cannot have a career. But if they are wives and mothers, home is the primary place where they are to serve. The call to be ‘busy at home’ is not just to counter the temptation to be lazy at home, but also to counter the temptation to be over-busy elsewhere” [59]). Overall, Titus for You is edifying, pleasant reading, a devotional commentary suitable for individual or small group study.

Some things that Chester writes don’t quite work for me, however. Perhaps they will not work for you, either.

Most minor of these failures-to-work is Chester’s portrayal of “individualism” as something wholly negative. Such lack of nuance has become prevalent among Bible teachers concerned about contemporary disintegration of Christian community. While concern to preserve or reestablish Christian community is laudable, simplistic portrayal of “individualism” as entirely bad could someday lead to (for example) erosion of personal liberties many of us consider sacrosanct gifts from the God who created us. Chester writes: “the problem in Crete is that these Christians do not want to be part of the flock under the shepherd. They want to be like solitary, wild animals. They want to think of themselves individually, not as part of a collective. But sheep do not do well as wild animals. They need a flock and they need a shepherd. And that holds just as true amid the rampant individualism of western culture today as it did…then” (45, paragraph break removed). This passage strikes me as pushing Scripture’s analogy between Christian believers and sheep a bit far. After all, is the point of Scripture’s analogy the superiority of sheepishness over individualism, or humans’ inescapable state of sheepish dependence on either the good (divine) shepherd or some other (non-divine and not-so-good) replacement? Whether Chester’s use of the analogy is excessive or not, limitation of possible options to “solitary, wild animals” on the one hand and “sheep….[who] need a flock and…a shepherd” on the other still seems simplistic. Of course, one can only expect so much nuance from a relatively short devotional commentary, and simplistic individualism-bad, collectivism-good rhetoric, though irksome, hardly rises to the level of heresy.

Similarly sub-heretical but not entirely satisfactory are some of Chester’s statements on church authority. On authority, he at one point writes (based on his understanding of Titus 3): “If our elders deny the gospel in any way, then we should challenge them. If they get ‘these things’ wrong, then confront them. But on all other matters trust them” (107). Does Paul really give church leaders a blank check when it comes to every biblical teaching beyond the gospel? Is testing leaders’ assertions by the standard of authoritative Scripture really only laudable when it deals with core gospel truths? While we certainly don’t want unruly and overconfident sorts disrupting churches in the name of novel interpretive schemes unknown among Spirit-guided interpreters of prior generations, the sad truth is that much or most of the doctrinal error that we find in our churches—initially concerning matters not obviously and directly affecting gospel essentials, but typically proving a “gateway drugs” to later errors that do affect gospel essentials—originates with our leaders. In our day, when inspired apostolic guidance does not reside in any living persons we can consult but is limited to a written text we must interpret, and when persons can be deemed specially qualified for church leadership because of past high-profile secular careers (from athletes to executives), Chester’s position seems insufficiently nuanced.

Chester’s discussions of rules, legalism, and controversy (45-56, 103-9) also don’t entirely work for me. Concerning rules and legalism, Chester wishes to draw a very broad application from Paul’s condemnation of the unruly (“literally ‘insubordinate…’”[44]) false teachers troubling the church in Crete, particularly (or solely: Chester believes “that is” is likely the best translation of “especially” [KJV “specially”] [45]) those teaching the necessity of circumcision for salvation (Titus 1:10; see also Acts 15:1). Chester proposes the following understanding of Titus 1:10-12: “Paul is saying that these religious rules do not enable their followers to escape the influence of the world. Rather, the result of rule-keeping is to completely succumb to it.” (47). Is Paul saying that any and all rule-keeping will necessarily lead to greater worldliness, or is he just pointing out how rules promoted and followed by unsaved persons in place of the gospel have this effect? Is Paul claiming that rules that accord with Scripture’s teachings and that are neither claimed necessary to salvation, nor set forth as sufficient in themselves to bring about godliness, are necessarily bad and to be avoided?

This seems a bigger claim for Paul’s meaning than the text supports. Yet, it is the meaning Chester suggests. He believes that “laws and rules” invariably “reduce godliness to ticking some boxes” (47). The idea is that once you start setting up rules, anything you don’t have a rule for becomes a free-to-do-as-you-like zone irrelevant to determination of how godly or ungodly you are. One can pursue godliness either by formulating rules or by making “a whole-life commitment”—one cannot, Chester apparently holds, do both. If you formulate rules, you adopt “a legalistic approach that wants to limit godliness, diluting it down…to a part-time project” (48); “a set of dos and don’ts” necessarily “reduce[s] the demands of godly living” (49); calls for “clearer rules on how to be godly” in one’s behavior must be rejected (Ibid.).

I don’t buy this. Is it not the case that specific rules for various real and potential situations can be formulated given a whole-life commitment to God’s authority and Spirit-directed study of Scripture? Does adherence to a rule in one area of activity necessarily mean disregard of God’s will in areas where one has not set up rules to follow? Scripture is rich enough in moral principles and directives to permit formulation of many rules accurately describing how Bible-believers should act in many concrete situations; I cannot credit the idea that Christians should avoid formulating such rules.

Chester is of course correct that “Grace is not just for the beginning of the Christian life, it is the fuel for the Christian life” (50). Does it follow from this, however, that “adding rules has no power to change [any of] our lives” (Ibid.)? Without doubt, unsaved persons, persons dead in their sins, cannot come alive spiritually or achieve any degree of godliness by adhering to rules. But if a person indwelt by God’s own Spirit, someone to whom God has given spiritual life, strives in the Spirit’s strength to follow rules derived from Spirit-guided understanding of the Bible, does that striving really do nothing to improve that person’s life? Chester’s answer seems to be that, indeed, such a person does not benefit from such striving and should in fact stop all such derivation of rules from Scripture. Derivation of rules from Scripture and efforts to follow such rules are always “legalistic,” always treat rules as “substitute fuel” in place of God’s grace (Ibid.), Chester believes (apparently). This understanding strikes me as too simplistic, applying the label “legalism” to entirely too broad a set of activities.

I cannot help but suspect that such fear of broadly, vaguely defined “legalism” has made even the most doctrinally sound of our pastors afraid to offer specific guidance (rules, “dos and don’ts”) on moral matters where Scripture permits formulating such guidance quite readily and properly. Granted that following rules does not make anyone righteous and never captures the full importance of all that Scripture teaches, does rules’ limited value mean they have no value and that believers’ requests for specific guidance should be rebuffed? If any tendencies among contemporary Christians are more prevalent than others, those tendencies are toward doctrinal and moral drift. Refusal to give specific moral guidance where it can readily be given favors moral drift; doctrinal drift is favored by the next aspect of Chester’s commentary that does not work for me: too broad an understanding of the sorts of “controversy” Paul intends Christian disciples to avoid.

Like his discussion of rules and legalism, Chester’s discussion of controversy suggests applying Paul’s words in a broader manner than those words seem to justify. Chester’s application of Titus 3:8-9 (taking the gospel summary of 3:5-7 into account) reads as follows: “Stress the gospel and avoid controversies. We stress the gospel because it is excellent and profitable, and we avoid controversies because they are unprofitable and useless” (104). Further, “we should avoid talking about things that divide, simply because they divide” (105). The implication of Chester’s words is that all controversy, all discussion about topics of disagreement, is bad and to be avoided according to Paul. However, the New International Version (NIV) wording that Chester works from has Paul counseling Titus to “avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law,” which is quite something other than avoidance of all controversies of any sort. The statement is not, “all controversies, which are foolish,” but “foolish controversies,” a locution which itself implies the existence of controversies that are not foolish. (The King James Version [KJV] wording is “foolish questions,” which similarly implies the existence of non-foolish questions.) Given earlier identification of “the circumcision group” (NIV and Chester’s wording) as the false teachers making trouble in Crete, the “about the law” seems naturally taken to mean “about the [Jewish ceremonial] law” rather than about moral (or political or economic) implications of the laws of Moses, so that not even all discussions we would today identify as “about the law” would seem to be in view. If one reads “arguments” and “quarrels about the law” as separate items to be avoided (the KJV translators’ punctuation favors this: “contentions, and strivings about the law”), rather than as a single item (“arguments and quarrels about the law”), one can see here a call to avoid “arguments” (“contentions”), but one would still seem obligated to limit the range of this prohibition to arguments on such topics as context indicates Paul has in mind when writing to Titus. Claiming Paul opposes all argument or contention hardly fits with what we know about the man’s activities as a promoter and defender of the faith and opponent of heresy and error.

So, while Chester is doubtless correct that “We should talk about the love of the Father, the grace of the Son and the renewal of the Spirit more than we talk about anything else” (105), so that we should expect more Christians to be called to emphasize these central gospel matters than are called to focus on less central matters where professing Christians disagree, Chester’s identification of all controversy as something bad to be avoided goes beyond the text and does not seem justified. Mean-spirited disagreement that prevents cooperation on important matters where there is agreement is certainly to be avoided, but no controversy is “foolish” that concerns truths found in (or by good and necessary consequence inferred from) the whole counsel of God, whether or not those truths fall within one or another Christian’s identification of the essentials of the gospel. While it is reasonable to assume that most Christians will be called to focus most of their attention on the things that matter most, which are indeed such truths as the doctrines of grace, a God who inspired a whole Bible covering many topics (not just a series of gospel tracts) can be expected to call some of his people to focus on scriptural truths beyond the core tenets of the gospel, even if those truths have become unacceptable topics of discussion among many who consider them too unimportant to require that Christians do more with them than “agree to disagree” to avoid “controversy.”

I find arguing about things, or just disagreeing with people (or being disagreed with), one of the most unpleasant things there is. (If my own experience is any indicator, one reason many called to controversy are less winsome or pleasant than others might like them to be is that they find the need to debate so disagreeable. Far from being lovers of controversy, these persons love truth and only enter into controversy because they see no way in good conscience to avoid it.) I’d enjoy nothing more than just focusing on uncontroversial “good works” while ignoring contentious topics. Alas, many contentious topics matter; God’s written Word speaks to them. When persons who profess to believe Scripture adopt and promote beliefs that run contrary to what one understands God’s Word to teach, controversy is unavoidable if one desires to honor the Bible’s authority. Admission of one’s own fallibility as an interpreter should of course prevent such controversy from being conducted in a spirit of hostility or enmity, as should regular revisiting of truths upon which parties to controversy agree, but the idea that there is something “useless” about any and all controversy does not seem supported by Scripture, either in Titus or elsewhere.

I am not claiming that Scripture’s various teachings, whether plainly stated or necessarily inferred, cannot be ranked in order of importance. The person and work of Jesus Christ, the triune nature of God, the “crimson thread” of salvation history—clearly these matter really are of highest importance. But that does not make anything else that Scripture teaches unimportant, much less “useless” to debate. “Controversy” in the sense of mean-spirited and self-centered divisiveness doubtless should always be avoided; “controversy” in the sense of fervent but peaceable debate, in contrast, seems a wholly acceptable activity for those who would apply authoritative Scripture to the whole range of topics on which it speaks, whether directly or by implication. While the supreme importance of those truths most obviously central to the gospel should always be underlined, this should never be done in a way that suggests other things in Scripture are unimportant matters about which Christians should just “agree to disagree” and discuss no further.

One final for-what-it’s-worth remark. Near the end of the text, Chester offers (with reference to Titus 3:3) this summary of one point of Reformed doctrine (Total Inability or Total Depravity, the “T” in the famous—or infamous, depending on whom you ask—T.U.L.I.P. summation of core Calvinist tenets): “We could not turn to God, because we were in chains. And we did not even want to turn to him, because we were deceived….Unless we become new people with new hearts and new desires and new loves, then we will never turn back to God” (98). In addition to reinforcing my initial statement that Titus for You is “doctrinally Reformed,” this passage provides me an opportunity to quibble over traditional wording. Perhaps this quibble will show me less soundly Reformed than Chester, but I offer it anyway. I tend to prefer speaking of “Total Inability” as “Total Unwillingness.” The point of the doctrine is not that fallen humans lack any of their original volitional equipment; they are every bit as free to choose what they want to choose as Adam was. The inability, though every bit as total as Chester indicates, is entirely moral or volitional: fallen humans cannot choose spiritual life because they do not want to, and only God can turn their wills so that they do want to. This understanding of matters is what enables me to see the justice in God’s holding those he does not save morally responsible for their unbelief: they are not deceived against their wills; rather, they collude with the Deceiver (see Romans 1:18).

Final aside aside, my extended criticism of aspects of Titus for You that don’t work for me (and might not work for you) should not be taken as general dissatisfaction with, or unwillingness to recommend, the book. On balance, it worthwhile, edifying, and enjoyable reading. Christians looking for something devotional yet sound could do worse.

This review also appears on Goodreads and, less nicely formatted, on Amazon.

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