In the pastoral epistles, Paul gives several requirements regarding the children of elders. These are both discussed and disregarded with great regularity in the church.
At issue is whether the children of ministers and elders must be faithful Christians. In Titus, Paul says of elders that they should be “blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly” (Titus 1:6). In 1 Timothy, he requires that an elder must be one that “ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity” (1 Tim. 3:4). He goes on to add that if a man does not know how to rule in his own house, then he will not take good care of the church of God (v. 5).
When this particular discussion erupts, it is usually in the midst of a particular crisis “the unmarried daughter of the pastor is pregnant, the son of one of the ruling elders is in jail, etc. In that context, feelings usually run high and sometimes careful distinctions can be lost. So although these truths must be applied at some point, it would probably be best if we sought to work through them on the chalkboard first.
It is my purpose to argue that the requirement Paul gives here should be taken at face value, and that if a man’s children fall away from the faith (either doctrinally or morally), he is at that point disqualified from formal ministry in the church. But in order to take this stand, certain questions must be answered in order – exegetical, theological, and pastoral.
First, the exegetical question. Debate on this subject usually revolves around whether the phrase in Titus 1:6 should be translated “faithful children” or “believing children.” Of course, if the proper translation is “believing children” then there is no debate anymore, at least among those who believe the Bible. If an elder must have believing children, then how could there be debate on whether he must have believing children?
So for the sake of discussion, let us grant the translation “faithful children.” It certainly is a legitimate translation, and in the last analysis I would like to argue that it doesn’t really change anything. Faithful in what? Faithful to whom? When the translation “faithful children” is urged, it is generally with the thought that a child could be faithful and obedient in external matters, but still be unregenerate. In this thinking, an elder should be required to run his household with good external discipline, but he cannot be expected to have any control over whether his children come to a saving knowledge of Christ.
But the word pistos is used frequently throughout the pastoral epistles, and while it is commonly translated as faithful, we never see this dichotomy between true heart condition and external conformity introduced (see 1 Tim. 1:12, 15; 3:11; 4:9; 6:2; 2 Tim. 2:2, 11, 13; Tit. 1:9; 3:8). In context, the word faithful means faithful down to the ground. If a son is obedient when his father tells him to take out the garbage, but disobeys when he is told to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, in what Pauline sense can the son be described as faithful?
Nevertheless, a particular theological argument against this view has great force with many. The argument goes that the election of our children is in the hands of God, and not in the hands of parents. As Alexander Strauch has argued, “To say this passage means believing Christian children places an impossible standard upon a father. Salvation is a supernatural act of God. God, not good parents (although they are used of God), ultimately brings salvation.”
Now I have argued elsewhere that parents are invited by God to believe that their children will inherit the promises of God. This is not attained by parental works in any way, but is rather a promise appropriated by faith. But again, for the sake of discussion, let’s grant this point.
To place the salvation of an elder’s children outside his influence says nothing about this particular requirement. Suppose this to be the case, and God in His sovereignty has determined not to save one of the pastor’s children. Unless we alter the wording or meaning of this passage, this would simply mean that the sovereign God has determined to reveal His desire to have the pastor step down from his ministerial responsibilities in this particular fashion.
The pastoral argument involves our understanding of what constitutes a good pastor. We still think in terms of qualifications from graduate school, and professional certification. The pastor cannot step down, we argue, because this is his livelihood. How could we expect him to abandon that? But the ministry is not a profession, and the men who hold office in the church do not hold that office as a matter of divine right.
This is why it is important for us to consider the reason Paul gives for placing this requirement on us (1 Tim. 3:5). We have every reason to believe that a man will shepherd the church in the same way he shepherded his family. This, incidentally, is another reason for believing that the work in the home concerns the fundamental spiritual issues, and not just external discipline. We are evaluating the same kind of work in different realms.
A man is qualified for ministry through many instruments and means. But the spiritual condition of his children is right at the center of his qualifications.