A Scandal to the Church The Question of Titus 1:6 and the Children of Elders
The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) seeks to be a biblically faithful denomination. All that is done should subject to the teachings of the Bible. Recently questions have arisen, however, about whether individual congregations and the denomination in general deal with ordained officers whose children are either delinquent or unbelieving in a biblically faithful way.
There are few issues so difficult to discuss openly and clearly as the question of unbelieving or disobedient children of officers, and especially, the prodigal children of pastors. Jokes are made about the behavior of ‘the preacher’s kids’, stories are whispered, heads are shaken, and tears are shed. Pastors, ruling elders, and deacons feel privately ashamed, and perhaps publicly defensive. Men may believe secretly that they are failures in their calling because one or more of their children are prodigals and may struggle with whether they should resign from office. If a man is not an example to the flock in the area of parenting (1 Peter 5:3, cf. James 3:1), should he remain in office? If the session or presbytery does nothing, is it a sign of an ‘old boys’ network’ where men ignore the failures of others because they don’t want their own failures examined?
To be sure, allowance may be made for the special pressures on leadership families. They are on public display. Often there are high levels of stress. But these explanations have the feel of excuse-making, and many men are uncomfortable with even talking about their private struggles. There is both envy and shame when the families of other officers seem to do so well with few or minor problems arising with the children. A general weakness in ministry may be laid at the feet of the man who has ‘failed’ with his children because they are not Christians or are disobedient. There is often much emotion, but very little light thrown on this topic. It is difficult to discuss this without sounding either judgmental or self-serving, depending on the position taken. This topic demands biblical treatment.
Just as important as personal struggles are, equally important is the question of a disjunction between belief and practice. As we will see, most translations render Titus 1:6 this way:
An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.
The vast majority of commentators leave no doubt that Paul means an elder’s children are to be Christians. Yet, in effect, that understanding does not function as a norm in actual practice. Ordained men with prodigal children are rarely approached, admonished, or encouraged. Does this mean that the church is failing to obey the clear teaching of Scripture? If there are officers whose children are living in disobedience to the gospel, why is not more being done? Can we claim to be those who live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord if we selectively obey God’s commands, because we do not want to seem heartless?
There is another possibility. Perhaps we have failed to understand Paul’s words in Titus 1:6, clear though we believe them to be, in light of the fuller teaching of Scripture about the church and about the covenant. This is what we will set out to discover.
The Standard OPC Position?
Many in the OPC would say that they agree with the position taken by veteran OP pastor, Lawrence Eyres on the Timothy and Titus passages:
It is sadly true that the children of some very godly men grow to an adulthood of unbelief and rebellion against God. Is a man to be disqualified because his children have not been born again? I think not…All that Paul requires is that these children, while in the home, are to be in submission to their father, and that they do not behave in the community so as to be a scandal against the name of Christ.1
This understanding is being challenged by teaching circulating on the Internet and in print. And the truth is that once a man has completed his trials for licensure or for ordination, presbyteries – or in the case of ruling: elders and deacons, sessions – rarely continue to exercise concern for the families of officers. Anecdotal evidence is arrayed about such and such a man whose impeccable character is marred by disobedient children, or of a prodigal child finally returned to the church thus vindicating the church’s reluctance to act against the perceived failure, but increasingly voices are raised where the plain meaning of Titus 1:6 is being ignored.
In the context of Reformed theology there are standard responses. ‘The salvation of anyone is a work of the Spirit of God.’ ‘There were apparently non-elect children born into covenant families in the Bible, like Ishmael, Esau, and Absalom. It is a matter of sovereign election.’ This retreat into the doctrine of election is unsatisfying to many, and once appeal is made to Titus 1:6, arguments that make room for prodigal children sound like special pleading. No one can be completely objective when there are real-life situations of bewildered and sorrowing mothers and fathers – be the father an officer or not. Let us try, however, to see this problem in light of our theology of the covenant and of baptism and apply it to the dilemmas that confront both churches and individuals when the children of officers fail to believe in Christ.
Looking at Titus 1:6
The underlying goal of Paul’s letters to Titus and Timothy has to do with the question of establishing and maintaining order in the church (1 Timothy 3:15). Paul warns many times about false teachers but he also gives instruction about selecting true teachers and leaders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. When we look at the context we should notice that Paul is giving ‘front-end’ instruction, that is, what should happen as men are being considered for the offices in the church (1 Timothy 3:1, cf. Titus 1:5). What should the church look at when it examines men for the ordained offices? We need to remember this when these verses are applied to questions of men after they are in office, when problems with children appear.
1 Timothy 3:4-5, 12 and Titus 1:6 all mention the family. When a man is being considered for the office in the church, the home is a natural point of reference. Notice the measurable quality of many of the things Paul discusses. 2 We are not left guessing because there are observable things upon which judgments can be based. The question of a man’s home life is one of these measurable, observable criteria. It is not the only one, but it is an important one. The home is a testing ground because the church will be able to see in how he is handling his family, how he will manage the church. A man manages his house by leading his family and assuming responsibility for what goes on there. If he doesn’t show care and concern for his family, how will he ever show concern and leadership for the flock of God? If a man is careless when it comes to the needs of his children and wife or if his home is chaotic, the church will not fare any better. Paul thus argues from the lesser (the home) to the greater (the church).
A man’s potential leadership of the church will be seen in how he is leading his children. These are children under his authority. He is ‘having them in subjection’ (1 Timothy 3:4, Titus 1:6). This idea of submission indicates that Paul is thinking of children who are still in the home and subject to the father’s rule, not those who are grown and living apart. When considering a man for office if his home is chaotic, he would fail to qualify for ordained office. A man must rather rule over his children with dignity or seriousness. He takes his responsibilities as father seriously and carries them out in a manner in keeping with respectability. The father’s behavior with his children will be visible to all.
The response of the children is not described in 1 Timothy 3:4-5 except by way of inference, that is, that they are in subjection to their father. In Titus 1:6, however, Paul does elaborate on the response of the children. There is a negative component, the children who are under the father’s charge are not to be riotous in their behavior (asotias, cf. Ephesians 5:18, 1 Peter 4:4 ff3). This is extreme wastefulness and profligacy, something very visible and very reproachable. Paul uses a second strong word, ‘unruliness’ (anupotakta, cf. 1 Timothy 1:9, Titus 1:10, Hebrews 2:8 ff) which means wild and untamed, like an unbroken horse. This also is very observable. The question of whether a man is managing his house, then, is seen in negative terms by the behavior of his children which is dishonoring to Christ and to their father.
There is, however, a positive command in Titus 1:6 regarding the matter of ‘believing’ or ‘faithful’ (pista). Here questions arise. The King James and New King James both opt for the translation “having faithful children.” This translation is virtually unique among the standard English versions of the New Testament. The New American Standard’s “having children who believe” and the New International’s “whose children believe” are joined in similar language by a number of other modern versions. Simply on the basis of the preference of translators since the beginning of the twentieth century, the phrase ‘having children who believe’ dominates the field.
A similar situation obtains when commentaries are consulted. 4 Among standard Reformed commentators some take pistos in the sense of ‘faithful’ like Matthew Henry and George Knight, that is, children who live, while in the home, in ways that do not dishonor their father. This is what Dr. Knight notes:
Should pista in this clause be understood as ‘faithful’ or as ‘believing’? The range of usage shows that either meaning is a possibility…If that [the contextual argument] is so, then pista here means ‘faithful’ in the sense of ‘submissive’ or ‘obedient’…5
Many other commentators, like John Calvin and William Hendriksen, however, take pista in the sense of ‘believing’, that is, that an elder must have children who are themselves Christians. As Hendriksen puts it,
A man whose children are still pagans or behave as pagans must not be appointed elder.6
It is to be noted, of course, that both Calvin and Hendriksen are addressing the ‘front-end’ criteria, but that is little comfort to those struggling with this issue. If men shouldn’t be considered for the office of elder if their children are not believers, should men remain in office if their children are not believers?
If sheer numbers determine the matter, than ‘having children who are also Christians’ holds the majority position. Again we ask, why hasn’t the church adhered to that position by removing men from office when their children appear to be prodigals? Further lexical study of pistos shows that it is an adjective with a broad range of meaning in the New Testament. The rules of context must be observed to accurately understand the meaning of pista in Titus 1:6. If we say that Paul uses it in the sense of ‘trustworthy’ or ‘obedient or ‘submissive’, then the phrase “are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient”, explicates that characteristic. Thus Paul would mean that the children of the elder are viewed in terms of their outward behavior rather than their inward heart condition. Let us look at more than the single word ‘faithful’ or ‘believing’ applying our understanding of the covenant to the question.
Practical, Covenantal Questions
Some men, either being considered for office or already in office, will not be married, or not have children, or have children who are too young to express any faith. In some cases, such as having no children, the ‘test’ of Titus 1:6 would not apply. But to hope that you wouldn’t have children because of the ‘danger’ of the Titus 1:6 ‘test’ flies in the face of the biblical view that children are a blessing and gift from God (Psalm 127:3) and the Reformed view of the covenant and its promises. If we view children as a potential impediment to serving in ordained office or as a cause from removal from office, we are not thinking covenantally.
God does not call upon us to engage in supposition about what might happen in the future. The covenant is meant to lead to the anticipation of God’s blessing, not of something negative happening. God makes great promises to parents which are to be believed. To approach the office in the church with fear of what the future will bring for our children, is to approach the covenant in a negative way.
Inherent in Paul’s words in Titus 1:6, is the double-sided character of the covenant. 1 Corinthians 7:14 speaks of the child of a believer being set apart in the covenant (and by baptism). The Bible makes very clear that some covenant children may not continue in covenant faithfulness but instead may be seen to be rebels, dissolute, untamed, covenant breakers. Their breaking of the covenant does not exempt them from the sign of the covenant, however. That covenant breaking is a potential outcome in covenant homes, is seen by the many passages in Proverbs which warn of a rejection of parental discipline.7 There are children who are baptized members of the congregation, yet reject the claims of the covenant. The OPC acknowledges the reality of sin in the life of the child in its baptismal service. 8 Having a child baptized into a covenant family does not automatically mean that that child, whether he is the child of an officer or of a member, will lay hold of the promise and live in faith. The new life of the covenant is not acquired by the will of man but by the supernatural act of God (John 1:13). People who are baptized may move away from the promise as well as toward it. Some may fail to embrace the promise set before them. God alone grants citizenship in His kingdom (John 3:3-8), a citizenship to which the covenant sign of baptism calls us. He is the One who gives faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). The thrust of Romans 9 is that God is the administrator of covenant grace, giving to one what He withholds from another. 9 Parents are commanded to bring their children to receive the sign of inclusion into the covenant because this is God’s appointed means for fulfilling His covenant promises to be God to us and to our descendants after us. He establishes the covenant so that our faith and hope may be in Him alone, not in our performance as parents. Parents bring their children to God in faith that God will fulfill His promise in the covenant. He, in His character of faithfulness, is the ground of our hope. We seek to diligently fulfill our duties in the covenant, yet we trust not in our performance, but in his promise.
God works out his covenant, not only through the nurture of the home, but also through the discipline of the church. All members, baptized and professing alike, are subject to the church’s discipline for the covenant promise – or covenant curse – is worked out temporally in the lives of the church’s members. Every session realizes, in receiving a member by profession of faith, that it is not predicting what might be the working out of the covenant promise in that individual’s life. The elders, in fulfilling their function of binding and loosing (Matthew 16:19), are making a judgment that a profession of faith is credible within the limits of their knowledge.
Church discipline, in service to the covenant, is part of the promise parents receive when their children are baptized. They are not alone in desiring to see the covenant promise of life fulfilled in their children’s lives. For the man whose children presently are not faithful (in either sense of pistos), the church’s discipline is a comfort. God may grant the fruit of repentance as discipline is applied. If he is a man looking to church office, the discipline of the church may open the door for ordination if the Lord blesses his labors and that of the elders. On the other hand a man with young children need not fear. He is not automatically excluded from office because the congregation does not yet know whether his children will prove to be believers. The discipline of the church is at work along with his labors as a father.
Apply this to a man who is already ordained and installed as an officer. His children are growing and some may prove to be covenant-breakers. We should not read back into his ordination a mistake on his part or the part of the ordaining body. Here we are challenged to ask, ‘Should he then be removed from office?’, ‘Was the church wrong to ordain him in the first place?’, ‘Where was the mistake made?’, ‘Has God’s providence shown that he should step down from office?’ Some of those questions require a power of prediction which God has not given to the church or a reading of God’s providence which is unbiblical. Rather, we must look to covenant discipline in the present. A rebellious son or daughter is a covenant member of the church and should receive the benefit of the discipline of the church. God may be pleased to grant them repentance and faith. The father is likewise subject to the discipline of the church. Here there is a tendency to focus upon the parenting choices made by the parents. Everything from having a television in the home to not home-schooling the children is seen as evidence of a man’s lack of wisdom, godliness, or control in his home. This may lead to elevating personal preferences to the level of biblical principles. Should a man serve as an elder if he does not home-school his children and that is thought to have led to their rebellion? If he permitted his children to listen to secular music and that is thought to have led to their rejecting the faith, is he subject to discipline? If we are not careful we begin to set extra-biblical criteria for office which Scripture does not establish.
To avoid the subjectivity and personal preference that abound in churches when the matter of parenting is considered, it is better to ask: Was he faithful to the vows he made when his child was baptized?10 If he neglected bringing his children to worship, praying with them, or privately instructing them, is not the case more clearly seen? Then discipline can have a salutary effect on the church, the child, and the man. He may, indeed, be removed from office voluntarily or involuntarily, or take a leave of absence to pay increased attention to questions at home, or the church may rejoice to see a covenant child live in obedience to the gospel. Such an approach leads us to focus on questions of patterns in fulfilling publicly-made vows, rather than leaving the matter to many different judgments that might be made about parenting styles or preferences. No one is completely consistent, but is the pattern of the elder’s life that he tries to be faithful to his baptismal vows? The ordaining body in this way has a clear direction for action.
This approach is consistent with the approach of God himself to the covenant. God fulfills his covenant responsibilities of instructing (Psalm 32:8-9) and disciplining (Hebrews 12:5-10) his children, applying his covenantal Word for that purpose (2 Timothy 3:15-17). God is not chargeable with failing to keep his covenantal promise though some of those within the covenant reject the call to covenant faith. In a similar way the parenting of an officer of the church (or any believing parent) must be seen in terms of faithfulness to the vows made when their child was baptized, not in terms of the response of the child, which response rests finally upon the electing grace of God.
The biblical material regarding children is complex. Godly parents see ungodly children arise in their homes (cf. Ezekiel 18:1-20). The Lord Himself raises sons who revolt against Him (Isaiah 1:2), but He is faithful to His promise. The covenant and its promises to parents stand. Because God is the sovereign administrator of the covenant, time is not of the essence in the administration of the covenant. A prodigal may return home in repentance while another prodigal may continue to live in the house and receive the father’s call to repentance coldly (Luke 15:11 ff). We are not privy to God’s plan for the outworking of His covenant promises, but we act in faith upon His word that He will bring blessing within the covenant.
We live in a day when there is a subtle idolatry of the family which tends to see parents and children as abstracted from the larger covenant community. We love our children and certainly want them to love Christ that they might have life. We must, however, trust in and worship God alone, not in our parenting techniques, our home-schooling, or how we plan to ‘make them believe’. “Proper child rearing” does not guarantee salvation. To believe that it does is to have a view of grace which approaches the ex opere operato view of the Roman church. It loses the biblical focus on grace and allows works to enter in. Covenant grace is not automatic, it is living and dynamic, because it comes from the living God who is fulfilling His word in time and in the lives of those He has called. Our expectations for our children, even if they are godly expectations, can be idolatrous seeking the outcome we desire rather than God Himself. The covenant is not about us getting what we want or desire but about the Lord fulfilling His word for His glory.
Let us Summarize Several |Points
The church must apply the guidelines of 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and Titus 1:6 prior to a man being considered for office.
The church must treat the prodigal or rebellious child of an officer as it would any other baptized member of the congregation, as the beneficiary of ecclesiastical discipline. He or she must be called to repentance and faith in the Savior of sinners and be removed from the congregation if he or she continues stubbornly in disobedience, all the while earnestly praying for restoration.
The session must focus on the officer’s fulfillment of his baptismal vows, prayerfully bearing with him his sorrowful burden (Galatians 6:2). Asking, without a judgmental attitude, how he is doing, is gracious and encouraging. We ask if he has rebuked his child or sought the intervention of the elders. If there is a pattern of neglect or failure in fulfilling his vows then he is called to repentance and either restored to service, or removed from active service either voluntarily or involuntarily.
No one, not parents or elders, can create or mandate faith in anyone, including our own children. Faith is a gift of God, given as he is pleased to do. We can labor to nurture faith in our children, but we always remember it is God’s to give, not ours to demand. We can pray, however, in full confidence in the promise-keeping God who declares that he will, indeed, be God to us and to our children (Genesis 17:7). He is gracious to use parents as means in fulfilling his covenant promise, but he is not bound by us as his means for we are sinful, fallible instruments in his hands. Parents have good hope that God intends blessing in our families for the glory of his great name.
As the inspired Psalmist expressed it:
Posterity will serve him.
It will be told of the Lord to the coming generation.
They will come and will declare His righteousness
To a people who will be born that He has performed it. Psalm 22:30-31 – NASB
What is proposed is a way of understanding the question of the children of elders which is in keeping with a Reformed understanding of the covenant and of electing grace within the covenant. Titus 1:6 is taken to mean that an elder must exercise sober and faithful rule over his covenant children, applying through the church, covenant discipline when necessary. Pista in Titus 1:6 is taken to mean ‘faithful’ in the sense of children submitting to their father’s rule while living in the home. Judgment of an elder, in the case of covenantally disobedient children, is to be made on the basis of his faithfulness to the vows he made at his child’s baptism. This is the basis – rather than the unbelief of his child – since the response of faith to the covenant promise, on the part of the covenant child, is ultimately a matter of sovereign grace.