This summarizes our views on the qualification of elders with respect to the faith of their children and the management of their household. Some have stated that an elder is not qualified if one his children became a Christian, but later became disobedient to the faith in some significant respect.
We believe that all of the elders at Bay Area Church of Christ are fully qualified. (The two lists of qualifications are found in Titus 1 and 1st Timothy 3.) Here is our reasoning.
Framework for Interpretation and Application
The most relevant verses are Titus 1:6 and I Timothy 3:5:
• "An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient." (Titus 1:6, NIV)
• "He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)." (I Timothy 3:4-5)
The context, as always, is important. In his commentary, Coffman writes, “The common subject of First Timothy and Titus is the sound doctrine and the order of the church as the house of God.” In both letters, Paul gives instructions on how the evangelists should choose elders. The two lists are not the same, but they both characterize very mature, godly men.
Following are some observations that help us to interpret and apply the passages addressing the qualifications of elders:
The most restrictive and limiting interpretation of these passages will disqualify everyone except Jesus Himself.
These qualifications are requirements, but an expectation of perfection will likewise disqualify everyone but the Lord.
Many of the qualifications are character traits, so observed behavior must be evaluated with judgment and wisdom to choose men for the eldership.
Several common-sense qualifications of elders are unstated in scripture, e.g., not lazy, full of the Spirit, and not forsaking the assembly.
The main principle underlying the qualifications is to choose mature, spiritual men with the skills, temperament, and reputation to carry out the duties of an elder as one who cares for the church.
Since the most limiting interpretations are incorrect and judgment must be used to evaluate character and answer difficult questions, we should not assume we hold the only correct interpretation; some humility and respect for differences of opinion are called for.
A man must be measured on each requirement so that an overall judgment can be made about whether he is worthy of being God's shepherd, without requiring perfection on any attribute. We must evaluate the man with a spiritual mind. That is the thrust of Paul’s instructions.
In the end, we will surely decide to appoint an exceptional but imperfect human being, because we believe he will properly carry out God’s will for being an elder.
In the specific case of “a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild or disobedient,” our interpretation is that the man must have raised trustworthy children who became believers as an apparent result of their upbringing in the candidate's household. While they are under the candidate's control—living in the household and responsible for obedience—, the candidate must “see that his children obey him, and he should do so in a manner worthy of full respect.” No one is perfect, but we would expect a preponderance of the behavior of children under authority to reflect this favorable description. And when they leave, they should leave as faithful followers of the Way.
The Greek word for children here is Tekna. In the New Testament, it is used variously to refer to offspring of any age as well as children under the direct authority of their parents. In Ephesians 6:1, it is used to refer to children under the direct authority of their parents: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” MacArthur writes about this passage, “Tekna (children) is a general term for children and is not limited to a specific age group. [Here] It refers to any child still living in the home and under parental guidance.” Of course, a child can live in the home at any age, and in doing so, they come under their parents’ authority.
In the same way, Tekna in I Timothy 3:4-5 is obviously speaking of a child who remains connected to the household, where the elder “must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him.” A man does not manage and command his adult children who have left and started their own families/households.
All of our elders fulfill these requirements.
Consider that a literal application would disqualify every man except Jesus, since elders must be blameless, i.e., without sin. This is literally what the Bible says, but by understanding context and using common sense, we understand that this qualification requires an exceptional, not perfect, level of moral excellence.
The most limiting interpretations also give rise to difficult questions that might cause us to disqualify men who have proven themselves to be highly effective elders or elder candidates.
For example, what if a man seems qualified, but his faithful wife has passed away? What if a man raised children properly and served well as an elder for many years but the children have recently died? Or what if a child put on Christ in baptism and later struggles as a teen with sinful behavior but seems always to repent? Or what if the child became mentally ill or incompetent? Or what if a man divorced his wife for unfaithfulness and has since remarried? Or what if a man was divorced before becoming a Christian and later married a godly woman? Are we certain of all our answers?
Even “a man whose children believe” is open to some interpretation, since the Greek word can mean simply “trustworthy” or “faithful,” and the immediate context argues for that interpretation over the meaning of “baptized believer.”
And how do we apply the requirement of “not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient” to children? We may not agree on what counts as wild and disobedient. What if they gossip, use alcohol, or sell used cars? What if they struggle with an addiction in their life, but they are otherwise moral and faithful?
What if believing children grow up, leave, and later become unfaithful and disobedient when they are not under the oversight and authority of the elder? Does this reflect on the candidate so as to disqualify him?
We believe not. Assume the candidate has shown that he manages his family well and that his children became believers through the teaching, example, and rule of the parents. If later the children disobey God, that does not necessarily reflect on the father, because the children have agency and can choose to go astray. In adulthood, they are not subject to his rule and discipline, but to God’s alone. How can the parents be held accountable for their offspring in that circumstance? If some flaw in the man clearly caused his children to go astray, that would be another matter.
We know that a good elder would do all he could to bring his wandering child back to the faith, just as he would any wandering member of the church of God. He would seek and search and struggle in prayer. This is what a good shepherd does. But the prodigal may not return. The parents of the blind man who was healed by Jesus at least had a point when they said, “Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.”
Of course, we want to believe that by parenting faithfully we can prevent children from straying. But it is not so. We are looking for the man who guides them properly into Christian adulthood and entrusts them to God. At some point, his descendants’ decisions do not disqualify him.
One might pose that if the man had done something differently when the children were younger, this would have prevented apostasy in adulthood. Is there some trait of a father that guarantees his children will be faithful unto death? Or can anyone be fully credited for causing their children to be faithful for life?
Rather, it was Paul’s purpose to illuminate the character of the men who might be chosen by Timothy and Titus as they appointed elders. Eventual unfaithfulness of a man’s adult offspring does not illuminate his character.
But what if God simply wanted to make sure no unfaithful child of any age would ever sully the reputation of the church? It is easy for the world to point to supposed hypocrisy, however unjust it might be. “That man was a great elder for thirty years. Now look, his fifty-year old son has become an atheist. The church is a laughingstock.” The person who takes this position is unreasonable and will always find an excuse to ridicule faith. Does God mean for that critic to hobble the church by preventing a very good man from serving as an elder?
Could unfaithfulness of an elder’s adult child cause members to be led into carelessness about raising their own children? We rather think that they would become more vigilant and know that the elder can empathize with their struggles.
In sum, we must choose men of exceptional character by making sure they fulfill the requirements, applied using wisdom, judgment, and common sense.