I was in my thirties before I understood what it meant that I was someone’s pastor. This is saying a lot, because I’ve pastored since I was twenty years old, and I’m now thirty-three. I understood pastoring in an intellectual sense, but it took a decade before I understood the fundamental nature of the calling, which is that the pastor is the living, breathing example of the gospel to God’s people.
This is well illustrated in Titus 1:5-9. Titus was called to serve as a pastor on the island of Crete. His charge was to “set right what was left undone,” which is a phrase with medical undertones. Titus was called to set right the spiritual bones that were out of joint in the Cretan believers. This was likely an issue of sanctification. Acts 2:11 says Cretans were present at the Day of Pentecost, which means there were many who became believers and subsequently took the gospel back to their island. While many of the Cretans were saved, they likely struggled with how to practice their newfound faith, thereby rendering them “undone.” Titus would help them mature in their faith by serving as their pastor.
In order to do this, Titus was to be “blameless,” a paramount characteristic ascribed to the pastor in Titus 1:6, 7, and also in 1 Timothy 3:2. This of course doesn’t mean a pastor has to be perfect, only that he needs to lead a life free of accusations. Paige Patterson says it’s likened to tossing loose mud on the wall—it just doesn’t stick. This is a lofty standard, which is why James cautions men who desire it (Jas 3:1).
This introduces an important theme that colors the entire Titus passage, which is that the fundamental role of the pastor is to mirror the power of the gospel to God’s people. The gospel doesn’t only save the unbeliever; it also sanctifies the believer, a process by which a follower of Jesus becomes holy and “blameless.” A Christian who is not being sanctified is “undone.” He is like an unset joint in the body of Christ. “I am sure of this,” Paul writes, “that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:6).
God calls pastors to be a real life example of how the gospel saves and sanctifies. People ought to be able to look at their pastor as a practical example of holiness. Paul expresses three ways pastors can accomplish this lofty task.
The pastor first illustrates the gospel in his relationships, particularly with his spouse (Titus 1:6). He is to be “the husband of one wife,” which in the Greek is literally “a one woman man.” This means a pastor is to be faithful to his wife in a way that testifies of the kind of relationship God desires with believers. In Ephesians Paul describes it this way: “Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph 5:25).
Ephesians 5:25 has as its backdrop Genesis 2, the narrative where Eve is formed out of Adam. Here God places Adam into a deep sleep in order for Eve to attain life. This deep sleep is a metaphorical death, showing that Adam “died” in order that Eve might live. This is a picture of the gospel in marriage—the husband dies for the wife so the wife can live for the husband. This illustrates the relationship between Jesus and the church—Jesus died for the church so the church can live for Jesus. In like fashion the pastor ought to express the gospel in his marriage by loving his wife in the same way Jesus loves the church.
If Jesus never loved the church by dying for her, then the church could never love Christ by living for him. People are to look at the pastor’s marriage and see a testimony of the faithful, unending love God has for his people. This is one reason why divorce is so devastating, especially for a pastor—it presents an inversion of the gospel. Paul shows how the pastor ought to also illustrate the gospel in his relationships with his children (Titus 1:6), and then ultimately to the flock over which a pastor has care (1 Pt 5:2).
A pastor also illustrates the gospel in his character. Paul offers eleven character qualities in two verses. Seven are negative and eight are positive. The negative traits illustrate a perversion of the gospel, while the positive traits illustrate the preservation of the gospel.
The negative traits are arrogant, hot-tempered, an excessive drinker, a bully, and greedy for money. Each expresses an inversion of the gospel, which is why they have no place in a pastor’s life; they communicate the exact opposite of what the pastor is supposed to exemplify.
The word “bully” for example means “a fist fighter.” I once served in a church where the former pastor physically assaulted his wife in the parking lot after she approached him about an inappropriate relationship with another woman. This was an inversion and perversion of the gospel’s testimony, and it set a dangerous precedent for the flock. One member for example imitated this approach when he threatened me in the same way after I approached him about an alleged inappropriate relationship he was having with a woman who was not his wife. He was merely following the example his previous pastor has set for him—an inverted gospel that sought ruckus over redemption.
On the positive spectrum a pastor ought to be hospitable, sensible, righteous, holy, and self-controlled. These exhibit a preservation of the gospel.
As an example, the word “sensible” means an accurate and balanced view of life. Pastors need to be able to see things from an objective viewpoint, instead of being limited by their own perspective. This is so crucial a characteristic that Paul lists it five times in the first two chapters (Titus 1:7, 2:2, 5, 6, 12). It testifies of the gospel because it seeks an objective measure of truth for the ultimate well being of God’s people.
A good illustration of this is Nathan’s parable to David in 2 Samuel 12. In this story a rich man has a multitude of lambs, while a poor man has only one. The poor man’s lamb is like a daughter to him. The rich man, however, took the poor man’s lamb in order to make dinner for a traveler, as opposed to taking from his own surplus of lambs. The parable was for David, which afforded him a “well balanced mind” about his sin with Bathsheba. He came to his senses and stopped thinking only about his side of the story, and discovered the objective truth, which was best for all parties involved.
Pastors can either pervert the gospel or preserve the gospel in their character.
Finally, a pastor illustrates the gospel in his proclamation of the gospel. He is to “hold to the faithful message” (Titus 1:9). This means faithfulness to God’s Word, trusting it as the inerrant and infallible Word of God. One scholar says it this way: It’s not about the pastor mastering the Word of God, but the Word of God mastering the pastor.
There is a saying often passed around the church—“Preach the gospel always. And if necessary, use words.” The Bible says it is necessary for the pastor to use words—to use the Word. A pastor isn’t called to illustrate the gospel merely in his relationships and character; he is called to verbalize it clearly from the pulpit and in his daily conversations.
Richard Baxter summarizes Titus 1:5-9 well in writing: “Take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine … lest you unsay with your lives what you say with your tongues and be the greatest hinderers of the success of your own labors.”
Pastors can serve as living, breathing illustrations of the gospel when they testify of the good news in their relationships, character, and teaching. The best part about this is that it’s the gospel that allows pastors the chance to do this. Paul says that Jesus “gave” some to be pastors (Eph 4:11). Jesus gave his life to allow pastors the opportunity to illustrate the gospel with their lives.
It truly is a “noble work” (1 Tim 3:1).