Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Pastor's Kids, Again

By Douglas Wilson

Several issues ago I wrote on the subject of a pastor's domestic qualifications for office. I argued that the spiritual condition of a pastor's children was directly relevant to his qualifications for continuing in the pastoral office. I granted for the sake of the discussion that the phrase in Titus 1:6 should be translated "faithful children" as opposed to "believing children," but asked in what Pauline sense faithful can mean externally obedient and internally rebellious.

Since the appearance of that column, I have received (some) thoughtful responses from readers which require me to pursue the subject a little further. In order to do this, it is necessary to begin with a few background qualifiers.

First, I trust that we can have a truce of sorts between all those who believe that the passages in question (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9) mean something. The great problem of our time is that Paul teaches that an elder's qualification for office is established in the home, but as far as the general leadership of the Christian church in our nation today is concerned, this text is a dead letter. General agreement should be possible among those who exhibit submission to this text through an observable discipline of pastors and elders. Too often Reformed pastors want others to submit to them, but they themselves submit to nothing or no one.

Second, I have written regarding another pastoral qualification (an elder should be a one-woman man) that we are evaluating character, not counting rocks. The world is a messy place, and this is frequently hard on perfectionists. Thus, all questions flowing from weird circumstances not addressed in the text should be acknowledged to be anomalous, and dealt with on a case-by-case basis. What about an elder who adopts his fifteen-year-old nephew whose parents just died, and that nephew never comes to faith? What about a child fathered out of wedlock ten years before the father was converted and married? The man's six legitimate children are all faithful Christians. My point is not that we should apply Paul's requirements in a wooden manner, with our eyes shut tight, but rather that if we are careful to obey him in those areas which are clearly addressed in the text, we will have the wisdom necessary when we come to the difficult cases.

Third, we should distinguish the loci of decision-making on this issue, which vary according to the circumstance. In short, we should be fully convinced in our own minds concerning those conditions in our own families which would cause us voluntarily to step down, and those conditions in the life and household of another that would justify a fight at presbytery. Whatever we understand Paul to be saying, our standards of application should be tighter for ourselves, and more charitable for others. For example, a man might decide (and, I think, should decide) to step down if one of his six children denies the faith. But if another pastor in his presbytery in the same situation does not decide to do so, and his other five children are saintly, only a crank would express his disagreement through a big church fight. But say another pastor has six hellions, and how all this happened is a grand mystery to him, questions about his fitness for office should be raised and pursued.

With those qualifiers, we can turn to some of the more formidable objections. One objection is that this whole discussion distracts attention from the issue Paul raises in this passage, namely, the character traits of the man who would be an elder. In other words, why are we talking about his kids' character instead of his? The answer is that children frequently make excellent mirrors; they reflect more than we usually want to have reflected. We commonly turn away from gaining a knowledge of a pastor's character because we refuse to follow the trail of clues. They would lead us directly to that man's arrogant and harsh demeanor around the dinner table. Finally, when one of the kids has had his fill of the hypocrisy, he leaves the faith, but we don't ask any questions because the pastor is so saintly in the pulpit. But many men find it far easier to act saintly there than they do in conversation with their wife and children.

A second objection is that this standard runs contrary to the words of warning Christ gave His apostles in Matthew 10. "And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death" (Matt. 10:21). Two responses can be made to this. The first is that Christ is telling his apostles what will happen to them, as indicated by the pronoun you used throughout the discourse. In verse 21, He shifts to the third person, and then goes back to you in v. 22. The apostles were not going to be doing the work of ministry all by themselves; they were going to be working with congregations, and many of the families in those congregations were going to be divided, as we know was the case at Corinth. The second response is that this situation could contribute to the occasional anomalous situation referred to earlier. Suppose a father brings his children up in a false religion, but when they are grown, he is then converted. His family turns on him, but he remains faithful. The point of division is the gospel here, and not twenty years of ladling reformational arrogance and conceit over the tops of the childrens' heads.

A final caution. Children learn far more unspoken theology than we tend to think. Suppose parents have operated with the doctrinal assumption that the kids might or might not turn out, who knows? Why should the children have any confidence about it? Unbelief is the constant, unspoken option. And one day, the option is spoken out loud. But it was always there, hidden away in the hearts of the parents, who always hoped for their childrens' faith, but never believed for it.

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