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I love the pastoral epistles. I ought to; I’m a pastor. I love them for their clear-sightedness, practical usefulness, and rich reliance on Jesus Christ and His work to save us. Any pastor that doesn’t regularly dip into the pastorals is likely a pastor trusting too much in his own wisdom or burned out from using worldly techniques.

Recently I read through Titus in my morning meetings with the Lord. As we met together, the Lord gave me fresh appreciation for the letter. Perhaps it’s owing to our upcoming move to DC to plant a church in what some think is a tough community. But as I read the letter, I saw more clearly the Cretan context into which the Lord sent Titus. It’s a context in which many Christians around the world labor, and a context many other Christians needlessly avoid.

The Context

At least three things stand out about the situation in Crete. First, God had a people there, but they were unorganized and unled (v. 5). That’s why Paul left Titus in the city. Second, the people of the community were known for being difficult and immoral. Their own prophets said this and Paul was compelled to agree (Titus 1:12-13). Third, Crete was a community with material needs and poverty, thus Paul’s repeated emphasis in the letter on doing good works.

This sounds like a lot of the “tough neighborhoods” we find around the world. Every city has them, places where social problems and material deficits get concentrated then stigmatized. They’re called “barrios” in Latin America, “townships” in South Africa, “slums” in India, “ghettos” and “hoods” in African America, and “trailer parks” in white America. Whatever we call these places, people made in the image of God live there and God has set His name on some of them. Thus, they need sound churches ministering there.

The First Strategy: Find, Recruit, and Grow Qualified Leadership

Job number one for ministering in a Cretan context is appointing qualified spiritual leadership. The issue is not that no leadership exists. Oh, there’s plenty of leadership in every community–just not the kind that you’d want God’s people to follow. There are drug dealers with exceptional leadership skills. There are political hucksters who mimic leadership very well. There are street corner and barber shop philosophers who shape thinking and feelings. There are even religious pretenders who carry on about religious myths and seek to control whole families (Titus 1:10-11, 14).

Precisely because there is so many leaders hawking their opinions, ministry in a Cretan context begins with and depends upon a radically different kind of leader, a godly, spiritually mature leader. So Paul begins his instructions to Titus with the well-known words, “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…” (v. 5). Then Paul lists the particular qualifications Titus should seek in fellow leaders: above reproach; the husband of one wife; children are believers and not open to charges of being wild; not arrogant, quick-tempered, a drunkard, violent or greedy; hospitable; lover of good; self-controlled; upright; holy; disciplined; and able to both teach and defend the truth (Titus 1:6-9).

Why would such leadership be important in a Cretan context?

First, think about what a concentration of such leadership would mean for painting a visible alternative to the models of manhood, family, character and service in a community. In the church would be a brilliant display of the good life and good leadership, one that would outshine other forms of leadership the way the noonday sun outshines a match. Many such communities are starved of leadership, especially healthy masculine models . Daddy deprivation drains entire blocks and neighborhoods. Think of the promise and possibility of a cadre of God’s men living personal, family and community lives marked by holiness, truth, goodness, strength and gentleness!

Second, this kind of leadership is necessary for leaning into the harsh winds of ungodly resistance. The Cretes of the world need genuine shepherds, not hirelings. Crete needs men who will not only stand for something but also die for it if need be. Crete is accustomed to boastful talkers who seek their own gain. Such men flee at the first sign of trouble. What Crete isn’t used to are men who stand on principle, who stand for people, and who will stand when problems arise–on behalf of the people. The gospel always meets resistance from the world, the flesh and the Devil. Satan looks to steal the seed of the gospel from the hearts of the people as soon as its scattered (Luke 8:12). Ministry in Crete is spiritual warfare; so it requires spiritual warriors who stand in Christ. Most of Crete has never seen such leadership. Seeing it will change the hearts and minds of many.

Most importantly, ministry in the Cretan context begins with leadership because nothing will change in the context without it. Crete needs to be organized or put in order so that other things may follow: correction, good deeds, shepherding, gospel proclamation and so on. None of that happens without leaders to facilitate it. The power comes from the Spirit through the word, but the facilitation comes through godly leaders.

The temptation will be to jump right into obvious and pressing problems in the community, or to get on with the work of evangelism and preaching. Those are good and necessary in their place. But recruiting, training and deploying leaders comes prior. That’s the most foundational work assigned to Titus. It’s the most foundational work assigned to anyone working in a “Crete.” Training and appointing spiritually-qualified leaders is not only how the work goes forward, it’s how the work lasts beyond our lifetimes. When we die all the good and all the preaching we could do dies with us. But if we’ve trained leaders in Crete, then, as one preacher put it, God may bury us workers and carry on the work. If we care about Crete, that’s what we want–the continuance of gospel ministry in the hands of faithful gospel ministers.

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5 thoughts on “5 Strategies for Ministering in a Cretan Context”

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  2. Kim Kargbo says:

    I see ONE strategy – are the other 4 coming later? Looking forward to using your insights in our ministry among the poor in West Africa! Thank you!

  3. Wes says:

    When I saw the title of this series I thought, “Oh no! Are we really going to get another missional strategy. Has the man who preached ‘Fine-Sounding Arguments’ — How Wrongly ‘Engaging the Culture’ Adjusts the Gospel’ in 2010, been drinking the Kool-Aid?”
    Nope, still drinking the pure milk of the word. Nothing more than solid biblical exposition faithfully applied for the glory of God and the edification of the saints. This should be sent out to all who labor in God’s harvest. Even those who are not presently in Crete. It is an example of how to rightly observe, interpret, and apply the scriptures in our gospel labors.
    The length of time it is going to take to uproot all of the bad missional/ cultural engagement/ relevant/ incarnational teaching in the reformed camp is highly underestimated. Praise God for this series. Keep proclaiming the God-breathed sufficient word.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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