Shepherds Without Blemish

In his instruction to the missionary (or apostolic delegate) to the island of Crete, Paul informed Titus to appoint elders in every city. The foremost quality for these leaders is that they be “blameless” (Paul uses two different words for “blameless in 1 Tim. and Titus; cf. the same word applied to deacons in 1 Tim. 3.10 and synonym “above reproach” in 1 Tim. 3.2, 5.7, and 6.14; and yet another synonym, “of good reputation” in Onosander’s The General, ca. AD 45. This last work describes of what makes a good Roman general; several of the terms used by Paul occur there).

What then does “blamelessness” mean in the context of church leadership? A sketch of context of the letter to Titus provides the background for why Paul sought this particular quality in an elder.

A. The Literary Context of the Letter to Titus.*
Paul states his purpose for writing the letter in 1.5, where the he (re)assigns Titus two tasks: (1) to set unfinished things in order and (2) to appoint leaders in every city. The rest of the first chapter elaborates on the second of these tasks. In 1.6-9, Paul enumerates the qualities needed for leadership in Crete. The last quality in v. 9, “to refute those who contradict,” prepares the reader for Paul’s assessment of Cretan society.

The populace of Crete lacked moral character, which the apostle supports by quoting Epimenides, a Cretan poet, who lived in the sixth century BC. Additionally Titus must deal with “those of the circumcision” (see Acts 10:45 and 11:2; cf. also Col. 10, 11),” a Jewish element, exploiting the church by “ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach,” and making a profit in the process (v. 12). The severity of the situation in Crete should not be minimized; it is the seriousness of the situation in Crete that called this letter into being, and forms the backdrop for understanding the qualities required of elders.

In chapter two, the apostle expands on the first of the two tasks (“to straighten out what was left unfinished”) mentioned in 1.5. In 2.1 Paul encourages Titus to teach “what is in accord with healthy teaching.” What “healthy teaching” (a better translation of the traditional “sound doctrine”) entails follows. In 2.2, Titus is to teach the older men, in v. 3, the older women, who themselves are to teach the younger women (vv. 4, 5). Why is Titus not to teach the younger women? The text gives no direct reason, but if homes are being disrupted and the reputation of the Christian community is at stake, the suggestion is appropriate. In this way, Titus will model “blamelessness.”

Titus is to teach the young men (vv. 6ff.) and slaves (vv. 9, 10). The ethical behavior sought for each group finds its biblical foundation in the appearance of God in Christ (vv. 11-14). The single goal of these ethical demands are strategically placed in the “so that” clauses of vv. 5, 8, and 10:

v. 5 … so that no one will malign the word of God.
v. 8 … so that those who oppose may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.
v. 10 … so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive (NIV).

The common denominator here is that these ethical instructions are to have a profound effect on those outside the church—it has to do with, what we call today, public relations and image. Again this backdrop shapes Paul’s understanding of “blameless.”

Before explaining the relationship between the church and Cretan society, Paul reminds Titus (v. 15) of what he has already stated in 2.1, though ending with a surprising exhortation, “Do not let anyone despise you.” Again, this is a clue into the Titus’ situation: Paul anticipates opposition for Titus as he does for elders (see Tit. 1.9).

In 3.1 and 2 Paul continues his ethical exhortation, but the focus now shifts from relationships within the household and church to relationship of the church to society. In 3.3-8, almost as a reminder that Titus must continue to have compassion on Cretan society, Paul recalls that they too were once outside of fellowship with God, but now God had changed this when he save them, implying that he could do the same for depraved Cretans. The apostle finally returns to the problems described in 1.10-16, telling Titus to avoid such things (3.9-11). Final greetings fill 3.12-15, but in v. 14 we see that the apostle could not dislodge from his mind the gravity of the moral problems in Crete.

B. The Meaning and Use of “Blameless”
This brief overview invites a couple of observations regarding the word “blameless” and its function in Titus. The ethical state of the inhabitants of Crete is the opposite for what Paul is looking for in leaders for the church. This may suggest to Titus that finding good leaders may be difficult in that mission field—but also critical.

The word itself comes from the Hellenistic legal arena. It does not occur in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the OT current in the first century, (outside of 3 Macc. 5.20) and does not therefore reflect the sacrificial language of the OT regarding animals that were to be without blemish, though the thought is similar. It literally means “un-accused” and “indicates one whose character and conduct has not been called into question, or one who is free from accusation.” (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, 2nd ed. [Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth, 1988], 171. Währisch offers, “The other adjectives used in this context indicate that the meaning is beyond reproach, in the ordinary sense of common respectability. Thus in addition to qualifications of a spiritual nature, ordinary standards of decency are made into a preconditions of office in the church, for the sake of the church’s good name in the world.” (Colin Brown, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 3 [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978], s.v. article by H. Währisch).

In Titus, “blameless” occurs at the top of the list of qualifications or qualities Paul required in church leaders and seems to be the premier quality explained by those that follow in the list. V. 7 offers a theological rationale: the elder serves as God’s steward, God’s household manager. As such, he, and the other elders, represents God. They serve as God’s ambassadors to the church and the world (see v. 9).

C. Implications for Leadership Today
“Blameless”-ness is closely related to integrity. J. Robert Clinton defines integrity as “that uncompromising adherence to a code of moral, artistic, and other values that reveals itself in sincerity, honesty, and candor and avoids deception and artificiality.” (J. Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development [Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988], 58.) However, integrity is an internal quality while “blameless” has an external quality about it. It is what others think of an elder. There can be no charge brought against him, not just in his “public” life, but in his private as well. It is concern with not just what the church sees, but what the world sees. “Blameless” gets its force vis-à-vis the world—they cannot bring a charge against God’s household manager!

* The material in this section is adapted from my article, “Titus 2.5—Must Women Stay at Home?” in Carroll D. Osburn, Essays on Women in Earliest Christianity, Vol. 1 (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1993), 367-77.

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3 thoughts on “Shepherds Without Blemish”

  1. Suppose a man is falsely or perhaps mistakenly accused of a substantive sinfulness of which he is not guilty. If his community’s incorrect perception of was lasting and significant, would that disqualify him from serving as spiritual pastor, that is elder, of a congregation in that area. I suspect it would as ability to best serve should be the standard, not “most deserving” of service. By comparison a qualified song leader might not be the most deserivng, just the best qualified to serve.

    Is that why Paul chose “blameless” instead of “guiltless”?

  2. James,

    I see you found the place where I leave various musings.

    The straightforward response is that the reputation of the church in the community outweighs the “need” for any single individual to lead.

    Even, if falsely accused, the accusations would have an impact on how the community would perceive the church, and from Paul’s perspective, how the community would see the Word of God.

    That is precisely why Paul uses “blameless,” the legal category over the sacrificial, without-blemish, category. No one is blameless, but Jesus, when it comes to the second.

    Those who believe themselves to be “most deserving” have already disqualified themselves, don’t you think?

  3. James, I thought of a situation in the first century where a falsely accused elder would be permissible and honourable: when the Roman government falsely accused Christians because they were Christians would be an exception. 1 Peter envisions this as a real possibility for Christians in general.

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