“Your vocation,” as noted in a previous article, “is how your station in life serves as a channel of God’s blessings to the people around you.” The Latin word vocatio means “calling,” and God calls us to serve as His distributors of blessings to others—in our families, in our congregations, and in our communities.
When a Christian congregation issues a divine call to a man to become its pastor, the members generally first review the qualifications for bishops and elders as found in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:3–9: “blameless … able to teach … the husband of one wife … not given to wine,” etc. For good reason, these verses typically are cited in congregational bylaws. Less familiar to Christians, and seldom cited in the bylaws, the next chapter in Titus provides guidance for the vocations of Christian lay persons within the congregation. Some readers may interpret Paul’s advice to Titus concerning Christian laity as a time-bound application for one particular congregation in the first century A.D.; the following study, however, suggests that twenty-first century congregations can benefit greatly by applying the same advice today.
Understanding the First-Century Context of Titus 1 and 2
Titus, a Gentile convert, previously had accompanied Paul, “an apostle of Jesus Christ” (Titus 1:1), to Jerusalem as an uncircumcised believer, with Paul insisting that circumcision was not necessary to the Christian faith (Galatians 2:1,3). As Paul’s “partner and fellow worker,” Titus labored in the ministry both at Paul’s side as well as on separate journeys, encouraging others with the Gospel and reporting back to Paul (1 Corinthians 2:13; 7:6,13,14; 8:6,16,23; 12:18; 2 Timothy 4:10). Paul had spent some time at Fair Havens, a port on the Mediterranean island of Crete, during his voyage from Jerusalem to Rome, where he was to await trial before Caesar (Acts 27:8). He later wrote the Epistle to Titus, “my true son,” to provide further instructions concerning the “reason I left you in Crete,” namely, “that you should appoint elders in every city” (Titus 1:1,4,5).
Following his opening salutation, Paul began the body of his epistle by stating the qualifications for these elders whom Titus should appoint (1:5–9). The last portion of this section emphasizes doctrinal integrity: “holding fast the faithful word as he [the elder to be appointed] has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and to convict those who contradict” (v. 9). Then Paul explained the urgency for doctrinal integrity: Crete was teeming with false teachers—liars seeking dishonest gain, followers of Jewish fables, and legalists insisting upon man-made commandments. “They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him,” Paul judged. In contrast to the elders whom Titus should appoint, these false teachers were “disqualified for every good work” (v. 16).
“But,” continued Paul, “as for you [Titus], speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). The remainder of the epistle identifies the content of “sound doctrine,” which Titus should teach and for which Titus should appoint elders, that they may teach “sound doctrine,” too.
What Is the “Sound Doctrine” of Titus 2?
The “sound doctrine” in Titus 2, continued also into chapter 3, consisted of exhortations to lead sanctified lives within one’s vocation in order that every lay person may become a herald of the Gospel, namely, of the message that “the grace of God that bring salvation has appeared to all men” (2:11), or, in other words, that “the love of God our Savior appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (3:4–5). Paul effectively wrote the same message to the Romans, whom he exhorted thus: “present your bodies a living sacrifice” in order that their sanctified lives may become living sermons to those in their midst (Romans 12:1). Pastors preach sermons; laypeople live sermons. Each thereby proclaims God’s love to the world. That is sound doctrine.
In summary, Paul assigned to Titus the task of training Cretan pastors to train up the members of their congregations for sanctified living that proclaimed, in a setting saturated with Pharisaical legalism, justification by Christ alone apart from works of the law. More specifically, Paul advised in Titus 2:2–8 that pastors should train up four distinct groups within the congregation for the inter-generational task of evangelism.
Which of the Four Vocations in Titus 2 Belongs to You?
Chapter 2 addresses the office of the pastor in relation to older men, older women, younger women, and younger men. The sequence follows a pattern common in Hebrew poetry, such as in the Old Testament prophets, known as a chiasm:
- A: Train Older Men: “that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience” (v. 2)
- B: Train Older Women: “the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things” (v. 3)
- B’: Who Shall Train Younger Women: “that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands,” and now the climax: “that the word of God may not be blasphemed.” (vv. 4–5)
- A’: Train Younger Men: “Likewise, exhort the young men to be sober-minded, in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works; in doctrine showing integrity, reverence, incorruptibility, sound speech that cannot be condemned,” with a restatement of the climax: “that one who is an opponent may be ashamed, having nothing evil to say of you.” (vv. 7–8)
Typically, the focus of the message in such an arrangement is neither the beginning (where an English writer might state the thesis in an introduction) nor the end (where an English writer might state the thesis in a conclusion), but rather just past the middle (where the Hebrew poetry arrives at a point of symmetry in the A-B-B’-A’ progression). In other words, Hebrew poetry is like a sandwich: the meat is in the middle.
It turns out that although the New Testament was written in Greek, the writers (like the rabbinically trained Paul) often employ Hebrew forms. So, what does Paul state in the middle of his “chiasm” sandwich? He writes A (train older men), then B (and also train older women), then B’ (to train younger women), and now, just past the middle, before going to A’ (train younger men), he reaches the climax: “That the word of God may not be blasphemed” (2:5).
The identification of this phrase, “that the word of God may not be blasphemed,” as the core of Paul’s message may be confirmed also by the term hina, “in order that,” which introduces this as the main purpose clause of chapter 2, as well as the broader context. Recall, for example, that following the qualifications of elders and bishops in 1:6–9, Paul warns against false teachers, “especially those of the circumcision,” who give “heed to Jewish fables” and replace the Word of God with “commandments of men,” all the while “profess[ing] to know God, but in works they deny Him” (1:10,14,16). In other words, the problem to be solved is that some people in Crete routinely blaspheme God by their words; the remedy is for pastors to train the congregation to glorify God by their actions.
At Titus 2:14, Paul explains that the Gospel itself is at stake in this exhortation to good works, since Christ “who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed” (the Gospel, the doctrine of justification), desires also to “purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (the fruit of the Gospel, sanctification). In other words, the good works of believers fulfill Christ’s purpose in the doctrine of salvation by grace alone. Our good works are not the cause of our salvation, but our sanctified lives might be part of the means by which God proclaims His salvation to the people in our midst. God preaches salvation by grace alone through the voice of the pastor, whose qualifications are found in Titus 1; and, God preaches the same message through the actions of lay people who live out the vocations identified in Titus 2.
Not all laypeople share the same vocation. Older men mentor younger men (Titus 2:2). Older women mentor younger women (v. 3). Younger women love their husbands and children (v. 4). Younger men give themselves self-sacrificially to their wives (Ephesians 5:25) as they “bring up [their] children in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). The “bishop,” or pastor of the congregation, shepherds all who serve in these cascading waves of loving service by especially mentoring the older men and older women (Titus 1:2,3), who in turn guide the middle generation of parents, who in turn raise the youngest generation (vv. 4–5).
Is Your Twenty-first-century Congregation Also a First-century Congregation?
So, what would it look like for a congregation to follow Paul’s advice to Titus today?
Pastors would challenge their congregations to reconsider the prevailing custom of child-centered ministry. Pastors instead would foster an inter-generational ministry by training the older generation to mentor the middle generation on how to develop a Christ-centered marriage around mutual love and respect and how to raise their children in the Lord.
Would the congregation have to abandon child-centered programs such as Sunday school and VBS? Not necessarily. But a congregation in tune with Titus chapter two would pursue these programs in a distinctive manner. For example, some congregations offer concurrent sessions for adults during VBS. Congregations with Christian day schools may require non-member parents to attend a Bible class—in part so that the parents may understand what the school is teaching their children about God’s Word, but more especially so that the pastor may minister directly to the parents who in turn have been called by God to raise up their children in the training and admonition of the Lord. In this way, the school will serve as a supplement to, not a replacement for, the parents’ vocation.
Similarly, confirmation class will be more effective when the pastor includes instruction for the parents on how to lead their children in home devotions grounded in God’s Word and encompassing all the doctrines summarized in the catechism. For example, some pastors hold three different types of instructional sessions: one for the parents alone, one for parents and confirmands together, and one for confirmands alone. In this manner, the pastor has opportunities to mentor parents for the Christian upbringing of their children while also establishing a direct relationship between the pastor and the soon-to-be adult members of the congregation. This coordination of efforts between parents and pastors for the benefit of children ensures that the Christian faith will be passed down as an inter-generational legacy. By pursuing a family-centered, rather than child-centered, ministry, and by equipping parents for their vocations in the home, a congregation avoids leaving the impression that church is childish—that religion is something that kids do in VBS or Sunday school, but that grown men and women don’t need it.
The advice in Titus 2 also offers a place for people without children, or without spouses. “Older men” and “older women” include more than just grandparents; any person of mature faith who has accumulated wisdom over the years may serve in this capacity. Notice, too, the prudence of Paul’s advice that older women guide young wives and mothers, rather than pairing up a young homemaker with a man in the church who is not her husband. Consider further the value of having separate Bible studies for men and women, fostering opportunities for the older men to mentor younger men and older women to mentor younger women for their distinctive vocations.
Reviving an Ancient Formula for Church Growth
As congregational membership dwindles in the twenty-first century, those who remain in the church experience much anxiety about the future. Can Titus 2 help? Well, this chapter certainly addresses two of the biggest risk factors that are statistically associated with people dropping out of a congregation.
First, children whose fathers do not attend church are at the highest risk of leaving. So, again, pastors need to train up older men to train up younger men to keep their families in the congregation.
Second, and closely related to the first point, about 55% of children baptized in the Lutheran church today are not present to be confirmed in the church a decade and a half later. A generation ago, folk wisdom warned that young people leave after confirmation unless the congregation provides a vibrant youth group to keep them interested; whether or not that was ever really the case, the numbers for today’s congregations speak clearly of a different problem: by the time confirmation comes around, most children already have left the congregation. This means that dad and mom either left or else never fully invested themselves in the first place. In other words, the child-centered efforts of VBS, Sunday school, preschool, and the like have failed to integrate the family into the congregation. Even more sobering is the realization that operating a K–8 Christian school provides only a tiny statistical boost to the congregation’s retention rate of children between baptism and youth confirmation. These patterns reveal that child-center ministry does not actually deliver the intended results of bringing and keeping children in the church.
God has called parents, first and foremost, to raise their own children in the Christian faith (Deuteronomy 6:6–9; Ephesians 6:4). In order to do this, today’s dads and moms need spiritual mentoring from older men and women just as surely as the Cretan Christians needed guidance back in the days of Paul and Titus.
So, find your own place in Titus 2, and speak with your pastor about how your congregation can develop an inter-generational approach to ministry that reaches children through their parents, rather than reaching around parents in hopes of attracting children. “Sound doctrine” in the first century meant that Titus should exhort pastors to train up the older generation to mentor the middle generation to raise the youngest generation in the Christian faith. What will that look like in your congregation? And how has God equipped you to fulfill one of the Titus 2 vocations?
Dr. Ryan C. MacPherson is the founding president of The Hausvater Project. He lives with his wife Marie and their homeschool children in Casper, Wyoming, where he serves as Academic Dean and Professor of History and Philosophy at Luther Classical College. He previously taught American history, history of science, and bioethics at Bethany Lutheran College, 2003–2023. For more information, visit www.ryancmacpherson.com.
- A helpful discussion of how New Testament writers employ Hebrew poetic styles can be found in Kenneth E. Bailey’s Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes. For another example of a chiasm, with the climax just past the center of the symmetry, consider the Healing of the Paralytic in Luke 5:17–26:
- A: People carried a paralyzed man to Jesus because he could not walk (v. 18).
- B: They lowered him through the roof for Jesus to heal him (v. 19)
- C: Jesus forgave his sins (v. 20)
- C’: The Pharisees objected that Jesus had no authority to forgive sins (v. 21). Climax: Jesus said, “in order that [the chief purpose clause] you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins … ” (v. 24a)
- B’: Jesus healed the man of his paralysis. (v. 24b)
- B: They lowered him through the roof for Jesus to heal him (v. 19)
- A’: The man, no longer paralyzed, walked without need of being carried (v. 25).
- A: People carried a paralyzed man to Jesus because he could not walk (v. 18).
- The statements above summarize findings from two demographic studies that jointly encompassed the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod, together with comparative data indicating that the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, follows a similar trajectory. See Becoming Less Fruitful and Generational Generosity.