104. “Appointing” Elders or “Setting them in Order”(kathistẽmi)? Titus 1:5

In Titus 1:5 the apostle Paul instructs Titus, his designated ministry leader for the churches in Crete, to “straighten out the things left unfinished and appoint (katastẽsẽis) elders city by city” (NIV Translation). Paul’s wording here has led some to suggest that according to the New Testament spiritual leaders appoint other spiritual leaders. It is not a matter that the congregation should engage. This verb kathistẽmi is used 23 times in the New Testament within the Gospels, Acts, Pauline letters and General epistles. Does its usage in Titus 1:5 support a practice or spiritual principle that elders are to appoint other elders in the church?

The verb kathistẽmi certainly can denote the action of appointment to position. In several of Jesus’ parables the master or estate owner, in his absence, appoints a steward over his servants and possessions. “The faithful slave” (Matthew 24:45,47; cf. Luke 12:42,44) is appointed (katestẽsen) by “the master” (ho kurios) over his estate to ensure that its produce will be ready when the owner returns. When a person approaches Jesus to arbitrate a dispute regarding inheritance, Jesus refuses, responding with the rhetorical question “Man, who appointed (katestẽsen) me a judge or an arbiter between you?” (Luke 12:14).

In Acts we discover the word used in Stephen’s defense speech before the Sanhedrin. God acts through Joseph’s many trials so that Pharaoh “made him ruler (katestẽsen) over Egypt and all his palace” (Acts 7:10).1 Stephen also refers to the incident where Moses tries to intervene between two Hebrews fighting and they challenge him by asking “who made (katestẽsen) you ruler and judge over us?” (Acts 7:27 = Exodus 2:14). This same quotation is repeated in Acts 7:35. We also find references to Old Testament practices of appointing the high priest in Hebrews 5:1; 7:28; 8:3. In Hebrews 7:28 the writer notes that “the law appoints (kathistẽsin) as high priests men who are weak,…”2 The Old Greek usage of this term (with various syntactical structures) to define appointments to position is carried over into the New Testament through references to these stories and events.

Two other meanings of this verb also occur in the New Testament. In Acts 17:15 we discover it used in the sense of lead or escort, as the Berean Christians escort Paul to Athens for his safety. The other meaning has the sense of “bring to pass” or when it lacks an object, “have become something, appear as.”3 In James 4:4 a person who is a “friend of the world becomes [or, proves to be] (kathistatai) an enemy of God.” Similarly in James 3:6 the tongue “is placed (kathistatai) among our members as a world of iniquity.”4 At the beginning of his second letter Peter urges believers to express specific qualities because “they keep (kathistẽsin) you from being ineffective and unfruitful in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”5

This leaves two other occurrences in the New Testament, which seem on the surface to describe the appointment of people for specific responsibilities. Let’s consider Acts 6:3 first. Dispute arises in the early church over the distribution of food to two groups of Christian widows — those among the Grecian Jews and those among the Hebraic Jews. The apostles propose a solution. The Jerusalem church should seek out seven men who show evidence of being filled with the Spirit and wisdom. The New International Version translates “we will turn this responsibility over (katastẽsomen epi + genitive case) to them.” The apostles would “appoint” these seven, selected by the Jerusalem church, to care for this matter. Note the careful description of the way in which the whole church is involved in this process. The apostles propose a solution; the congregation agrees and selects seven men; and then the apostles appoint these seven “over this need.” There is no mention of an official position or title for this role. Rather these seven are assigned a task to do on behalf of the church without specific title.

The other context is Titus 1:5. Paul tells Titus to put right the remaining issues and as the New International Version translates, “appoint (katastẽsẽis) elders in every town, as I directed you,…” The constructions with this verb in relationship to appointing have two forms in the New Testament. In the case of Matthew 24:45 and parallels (cf. Acts 6:3), the verb is followed by a direct object (identifying the person appointed) and a prepositional phrase (epi + genitive case) specifying the nature of the responsibility (e.g. “over the household servants”). A second construction has the verb followed by an object (accusative case) which identifies the person being appointed, with the office identified by a second accusative, sometimes followed by the prepositional phrase (epi + genitive) defining the responsibility. We find this structure in Acts 7:27 (quoting Exodus 2:14): “Who made you (object) ruler and judge (second objects) over us (epi + genitive)?”

In Titus 1:5 we find simply the verb followed by an object (“elders”), without any specific mention of the responsibility. This would be the equivalent of saying “appoint Bob,” but without indicating role or responsibility. In Titus 1:5 no specific position or responsibility is indicated, unless the mention of the role of “overseer”, two verses later in v. 7, is expected to fill that function implicitly.

It seems strange that the churches in Crete would not have already possessed elders, i.e. people respected because of age, wisdom and experience, leaders of households, who naturally would be regarded as the people generally responsible for church life. This would not be an office, per se, but rather a function in a house church that arises naturally because some Christians are the household leaders and people of seniority and wisdom, exercising care for the small group of Christians meeting in their house.

Perhaps then what Paul is instructing Titus to do, in parallel with the first verb (set in order), is to “arrange for, set in order” the elders, i.e. select from their number those who meet the qualifications to serve in the role of “overseer” (episkopos). The syntax does not suggest that Paul is instructing Titus to appoint people to the office of elder. Presumably, given the arguments of Campbell (The Elders. Seniority Within Earliest Christianity), elders were already present in the house churches of Crete by virtue of their role as senior family members. Paul sets his charge to Titus at the level of “city by city” and this suggests that there was need in Crete for multiple house-churches in each city to be led in a more coordinated fashion, if the attacks of false teaching were to be refuted effectively (cf. Titus 1:9-11). So perhaps the issue is not so much “appointing the elders” but getting them into a more orderly arrangement city by city, by helping them discern one of their number to be a general “overseer,” if he had the appropriate qualifications, to guide all of the house churches in that particular city. Perhaps we are observing the necessary shift historically between multiple house churches in a city or town, to a more coordinated city-wide congregational leadership. The play between the plural “elders” and the singular ton episkopon (v.7) is perhaps noteworthy.


  1. the inclusive process that the apostles followed in Acts 6 in the selection and appointment of specific people to a particular ministry responsibility demonstrates the care taken by the early church leaders to dignify the fact of their commonality in Christ. It is instructive for those who are entrusted with the spiritual oversight of the church;
  2. in the Pastoral Epistles Paul is concerned particularly for the good order of the church so that it can withstand false teaching. Do we sense the same relationship today between good order and the ability of the church to resist false teaching?

  • 1This is the verb used in the Old Greek translation of Genesis 41:43 (katestẽsen).
  • 2In some texts of Hebrews 2:7 the complete text of the Greek text of Psalm 8:7 (Hebrew Psalm 8:6) is quoted, not just the last half. In Psalm 8:7a the Psalmist praises God because “you made him ruler (katestẽsas) over the works of your hands….”
  • 3Colin Brown, gen.ed.,The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 471.
  • 4New Revised Standard Version.
  • 5New Revised Standard Version.

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