The “Not a New Convert” Rule for the Eldership
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, January 28, 2010 at 8:57am
QUERY: Paul left Titus in Crete to “appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5). But where would he be able to find someone who was “not a new convert,” as 1 Tim. 3:6 requires?
ANSWER: The history of the churches on the island of Crete, including Paul’s relationship with them, is largely a matter of speculation since there is no reference in the Book of Acts to the Apostle’s missionary work there. Acts 27 shows that Paul may have touched there as he was being transported to Rome as a prisoner, but this cannot be the incident Paul mentions in Titus 1:5 when he says he left Titus in Crete.
Since the Book of Acts ends with Paul in prison at Rome, it is generally assumed that at the end of that two-year period (Acts 28:30) he was released and was able to do more evangelistic traveling before he endured a second imprisonment, which ended in martyrdom. His itinerary during this interim between imprisonments is not known, but during that time he probably did visit Crete for a period of preaching and teaching, at the end of which he left Titus on the island that he “might set in order what remains, and appoint elders in every city as I directed you” (Titus 1:5).
The question is this: how could Titus do this without appointing elders that were new converts, contrary to 1 Tim. 3:6? The main thing to keep in mind is that there is a lot we simply do not know about the history of the churches on Crete. We cannot assume that there were no churches there until Paul and Titus visited the island. We know from Acts 2:11 that there were devout Jews present on the Day of Pentecost, who heard Peter’s gospel message; it is reasonable to assume that some of these were among the 3,000 converts on that day (Acts 2:41). It may well be that many of these returned to Crete and planted churches there. We do not know this for sure, of course.
Something else we do not know is the amount of time Paul himself spent on the island before departing and leaving the work of the church in Titus’ hands. Much of the time he spent there would no doubt have been devoted to teaching both old Christians and new converts, bringing them to spiritual maturity at an accelerated pace. We also do not know how much time passed between Paul’s departure and the writing of the letter to Titus. The main point is that we should not assume that all of this happened at once, or within a month’s time or even six months’ time. There would be time for limited growth and maturing, at least time enough to see who the natural leaders were among the Christian men in the churches there.
In American culture, where “church” has been present for centuries, we are accustomed to seeing young men become converted, spend years serving in other capacities, and through such service show themselves to be worthy of the office of elder. We have “time” to let the testing process be drawn out. However, in missionary situations where churches are being planted for the first time, “new converts” may be a relative term. I heard the missionary Max Ward Randall talk about his work of planting new churches in many African villages, where the gospel had not been heard before. Many times almost entire villages would be converted. He advised the new churches to select from the men who had been converted the ones who were already proven to have leadership ability and who were already respected as such by the people. (See the instructions in Numbers 11:16, which I know is not an exactly parallel situation.)