Tag Archives: Elders of the Church

Don’t Waste Your Shake Up

If we adopt the policy I am suggesting in the larger church — that of asking elders and ministers to step down if their children are excommunicate (or the moral equivalent) — this solves some problems, but not all of them. It actually creates a few interesting problems.

One interesting problem it could create is that of establishing an institutional disincentive when it comes to excommunicating the children of elders and ministers. Say that the child in question richly deserves it, but everybody knows that if this happened his father would lose his position — so welcome to the world of perverse incentives. We don’t want to get into a place where we disobey one text for the sake of obeying another one.

There is another issue. Drawing the line at excommunication does address the problem of overt disqualification in a minister’s family, but it doesn’t address the trickier problem of moral authority. Say that a pastor has three daughters, and say that every two years, three times in succession, they each got pregnant out of wedlock, from the oldest to the youngest. Say further that each of them repents honestly and fully, and is attending church regularly. One of them married the father, and the other two are single moms. Everyone is in fellowship. What about that?

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Parents Playing God

Not surprisingly, there are objections to this position I have been urging about the minister’s qualification in his family. One of the more potent arguments is that this position presupposes that the father somehow has salvific powers, which runs counter to what we know the Bible teaches about the sovereignty of grace. Only God can forgive sins (Mark 2:7).

This is why a minister who sees such questions being raised about his household might feel that his adversaries are just trying to pick a fight with him. When the king of Israel received a letter requesting that he heal Naaman’s leprosy, his reasonable conclusion was that somebody was trying to pick a fight (2 Kings 5:7). When people start demanding that you do something that only God can do, it seems clear that they just want conflict.

Now it is quite true that this truth — and any other biblical truth — can be used in this way. There are accusers — devils — in most congregations who can turn words of grace into spears and javelins. But the use is not nullified by the abuse, whether here or anywhere else.

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A Minister’s Family As Pace Car

I have mentioned that we should begin any attempt to institute familial qualifications for the eldership with children who have been excommunicated. We could begin here for pragmatic reasons (we have to start somewhere), but I want to argue that there are exegetical grounds for having this be the place where we draw the basic line.

Here are the key words from Titus again. The elder must have  “faithful children not accused of riot or unruly” (Titus 1:6). There are just eight words here in the English, but a lot rides on them.

Let’s begin with “not accused.” The minister’s children must not be open to the charge of certain things. We will get to what those things are shortly, but the word underneath accused here is kategoria. It is a legal term, and has to do with the bringing of formal charges. It is not a word you would use to describe a couple of gossips whispering about the minister’s son’s girlfriend. This is the same word that is used when Paul tells Timothy not to admit a charge (kategoria) against an elder without two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19). This is a place where the accusations are serious, and they are on the record.

The King James says that the charge that should not be able to be brought is the charge of riotous and unruly living. The words are asotia and anypotaktos, and we can get a sense of their meaning by looking at a range of translations. We find “dissipation or insubordination” (NKJV), “debauchery or insubordination” (ESV), or “dissipation or rebellion” (NASB). In other words, we are not talking about a child who has sinned by snitching his sister’s quarter and is repentant, but rather someone who is given over to high-handed sin, and who rebelliously refuses to repent.

Now let’s look at a striking parallel to this in Deuteronomy 21.

“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear” (Deut. 21:18-21).

Notice the parallels. You have a child of the covenant in both cases. You have remarkable similarity in the description of the sin involved. You have a judicial proceeding. You have a proceeding before the elders. And you have a terminal judgment. The one place that is not in parallel is the fact that this is something that happens with a family in Israel, and in Titus it is being applied to the family of a church officer. But before addressing that issue, let’s consider all of these in order.

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A Reasonable Expectation

One of things we need to do in our discussion of family qualifications for ministry is examine some of our background assumptions. As with many other issues, our understanding of Paul’s requirement here (1 Tim. 3:2-5; Tit. 1:5-6) is affected not only by what the text clearly says, but by the eyes we bring to the text. What we see is sometimes a function of what is there to be seen, and other times a function of how good our eyesight is. There are times when certain assumptions about what the text “could not possibly be saying” will shape what we allow it to say to us.

One of those background assumptions (for moderns) is individualism. Now of course God did create us as distinct individuals, and we go to Heaven or Hell by ones. Moral responsibility is fundamentally located in the individual. But there is more to moral responsibility than that. Our lives are intertwined, and this is particularly the case when we are talking about parents and their children — Girard calls us interdividuals.

When we consider the scriptural examples, there are many instances of wayward children, which we will look at in due course. But one of the things we must do is look at what is exactly happening when that happens — and we are not left in the position of having to guess. Sometimes we are just told what happened (as when Jacob’s sons sinned over the rape of their sister). But other times, we are also told why — and not surprisingly, in certain cases, it was a matter of parental negligence.

Let’s look at a couple of specific examples, and then move on to some general statements that are made in Scripture about this.

In the period of the judges, an unnamed man of God once came with a message to Eli, chastising him for preferring to honor his sons over the Lord (1 Sam. 2:29). And in the next chapter, the first prophetic message that Samuel had to deliver was one of judgment to Eli, because his sons had “made themselves vile” and he had not restrained them (1 Sam. 3:13). Now it is true that Eli did eventually deliver a verbal rebuke, but that was plainly an instance of too little, and too late (1 Sam. 2:22-23).

Another example had to do with how David brought up his sons. Adonijah had a lot going for him, but one of his problems was that David had never crossed his will. “And his father had not displeased him at any time in saying, Why hast thou done so?” (1 Kings 1:6). Keep in mind that David’s sons were also priests — not in the public cult tended by the Levites, but probably within David’s palace (2 Sam. 8:18, ESV).

In these instances, Eli’s sons and David’s were clearly responsible for their own sin. They were responsible moral agents. But they had gotten into the position they were in because of what their father had not done in how he had brought them up. Their responsibility was individual, certainly, but it was not solitary. There was a shared responsibility in this, on the part of Eli and David.

We have already acknowledged the reality of certain exceptional cases. But we also have to remember that there are proverbial cases, general truths. For example, a son who is lazy during harvest is a son who brings shame (Prov. 10:5). Shame to whom? Clearly, the answer is that he brings shame to his parents. This is not a lazy man who brings shame to himself; he is a lazy son.

An industrious servant is going to be privileged in the inheritance over a son who causes shame (Prov. 17:2). Again, this is referring to shame coming upon the parents. And a son who is a wastrel is a son who brings shame (Prov. 19:26).

Now as already noted, individuals can certainly bring shame down on their own heads. It is shameful to answer a matter before you have heard it out (Prov. 18:13). To throw yourself into controversy hastily is shameful (Prov. 25:8). And of course, pride and haughtiness is a set up for shame (Prov. 11:2). But when the shameful person is being considered as a child, that shame is shared. And it is shared for a reason.

“The rod and reproof give wisdom: But a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Prov. 29:15).

In the instances cited above, the shame comes to pass when the child is older. The shameful son is old enough to work the harvest, and doesn’t. He is old enough to receive an inheritance, and the servant gets it before he does. He is old enough to run up his parents’ credit card.

And in the examples from the households of Eli and David, the problems were adult problems, but the causes had been laid down many years before. A child left alone brings shame, and that leaving alone is something that can start happening as soon as the child is born and able to be left alone. Leave a two-year-old kid alone, and bad things start happening. What do you have to do to have a garden fill up with weeds? Well, nothing, as it turns out.

So, then, we want to avoid the charge of wooden legalism in this matter. A wooden legalist would be someone who cannot allow any sort of complication or exception. He thinks the law of God is made out of pressure-treated two by fours. But we must also acknowledge that God teaches us that it is generally true that a child who is brought up poorly is more likely to turn out poorly. To reason from the fact of some exceptions to a desire to have the proverbial wisdom never apply is to choose squishy relativism over wooden legalism. But the law of God is not made out of orange jello either.

The proverbs I have cited are proverbs. They are not “all triangles have three sides” kinds of statements. But proverbs are still generally true, or at least the the good ones are. A stitch in time usually saves nine. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and once in a blue moon you win the lottery — but don’t count on it. You should count on something else.

Now because proverbs are generally true, we may be assured that a father like Eli, who has trouble confronting his sons, will have trouble confronting others in the church who need to be confronted. How the family is managed is, the apostle Paul teaches, a predictor of what you can expect within the congregation. To expect in one place what you saw in the other is a reasonable expectation.

With Laces Untied

So let’s begin our work on this tough topic by getting two obvious things on the table.
The first obvious thing is that the apostle Paul teaches us that how a man behaves in his home is a predictor or indicator of how he will behave in the church. If you want a godly and competent leader in the church, then you need to look for a godly and competent leader in his home. The apostle couldn’t make his point plainer.

“For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?” (1 Tim. 3:5)

The word rendered rule here is proistemi, which means preside, rule, maintain. And the word used with regard to pastoral work is epimeleomai, which means to take care of, or provide for.

This is a simple if, then statement. If a man does not know how to do x, then he will not be able to do y. We will examine what that connection is later, but it should suffice for the present to show that there is such a connection. We should refuse to call a pastor based on certain realities in his home, and we should do this as a matter of obedience to God. If a pastoral candidate were not very good at racketball, or was not a competent hunter, or had never been hang-gliding, we would not be within our rights to say that obedience required us to reject him. There would not be a connection between these activities and the possibility of him being a good pastor, and there is a connection between him being a good father and being . . . a good father.

But the second obvious thing about this is that the world is a messy place, and that application of this qualification requires that we make judgment calls. Some of the judgment calls will be more difficult to make than others. This requirement is not like the requirement that our Constitution sets for the president being 35-years-old (Art. II). All you have to do to determine if the qualification is met is be able to count. Or to take an example from the Old Testament, the requirements for the priesthood were more objective and physical (Lev. 21:16-21), and therefore easier to check..

But what we must not do here is set these two obvious things at odds with each other. We must not assume that because there is a requirement that a man manage his household well, that there will never be difficulties in deciding what to do. Simplistic thinking is the badge of the legalist. But neither may we acknowledge that there will be hard cases, and conclude from this that the familial qualification is functionally meaningless. The requirement must be held as a real requirement — meaning that certain men are kept out of office because of it, and they are men who otherwise would be ordained to office.

So how do we balance these two things? There is a legal adage that says that hard or difficult cases make bad law. You should let the simple requirement drive the majority of your cases, and deal with your exceptional cases as they arise.

There is another adage that says that the exception proves the rule, but this adage is almost universally misunderstood. The phrase is frequently taken as the exception somehow establishing the rule, with the word proves taken in the sense of what you do to get to a conclusion in an argument. But the proverb was developed when the word prove had the meaning of test. The exception tests the rule.

Let me give you a made up example that will show how an exception can be made which tests, or honors, the rule, and then make up another example where it does nothing of the kind.

Say the congregation is considering a pastoral candidate, and it comes out in the interview that when he was 19, shortly before he became a Christian, he was shacked up with a girl for six months. She got pregnant and left him because she was a strident atheist and didn’t like the spiritual direction he was taking. He has had no legal recourse, and his son from that union was brought up as an atheist, and is one screwed up kid. After your candidate was converted, he finished college, went to seminary, and met his current wife while studying for the ministry. They married, and have five lovely children, all of whom love God, love Jesus, love their parents, and love church.

Now suppose you have another candidate, one who has five children, two of whom are sullen and disobedient. The other three might be okay, you think. But the two are bad attitudes with sneakers, laces untied. The pastoral candidate is the photo negative of the centurion in the gospels (Matt. 8:9). When the father saith come, the child goeth. When he saith go, the child cometh. When he says do this, the teen-ager doeth it not.

In the first example, the exception tests the rule — it makes you think hard about the rule, and it makes you see how the rule actually still applies. We are checking to see how this man manages the children he has, not how he was a father to a child he never had the opportunity to father. It is easy to see how the pastoral search committee could determine that his atheist son (whom he had met three times in his life) was not the kind of situation that the apostle Paul had in mind. With the children he has, the congregation can see how he rules in his household, and they can expect that he would take care of them on that basis.

But in the second situation, you can immediately see that the two exceptions were not instances that tested the rule — they were instances where the rule excluded the candidate. The bad things you saw in the household meant that if you called such a man, you should expect to see bad things in the church, bad things that were somehow related to his weakness in his home.

So the requirement in 1 Tim. 3:5 is clear, but requires wisdom to apply. And the application of wisdom should never be treated as though it were relativism.

The Neglected Qualification

For various reasons, I need to begin an extended series of posts on “the neglected qualification.” The spiritual state of the preacher’s kids has long been proverbial, and not in a good way, and yet we continue to have the following in our Bibles.

“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife . . . One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) (1 Tim. 3:2,4-5).

“For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless . . .” (Tit. 1:5-7).

The majority of the Christian world has workarounds and explanations for these verses, while the minority that wants them to mean what they appear to mean, sometimes applies them in a wooden or legalistic fashion. While wanting to avoid both extremes, we still need to affirm that these words mean something, and that they apply sometime. I want to explore what that something might mean, and when that sometime might be.

Let us throw all the difficult cases on the table right away. This is talking about making someone an elder, not talking about someone who has been an elder for thirty years already. We are not told what to do if the child of an elder sins significantly, but repents just as thoroughly, and is now walking with the Lord in the state penitentiary. We are not told if the passage applies to an elder whose five natural children are all faithful, but the crack cocaine baby they adopted when she was just a toddler has completely fallen away. Suppose the wayward child is the oldest, a stepson to the minister, and all his children are faithful. One of the reasons we need judicious and godly men to be our elders is that they must make decisions like this. And I grant that the right process for dealing with all such tangles is not easy, simplistic, or formulaic.

I also grant that there are textual and broader theological issues. What about Jacob’s children? They were kind of a mess, especially Levi — destined for ministry. And then King David had a bunch of kids that we wouldn’t exactly put on the cover of a homeschooling magazine. What about them? These guys can have kids that are a disaster zone, and they can write a bunch of the Bible, but if a man has a kid who is only one tenth that bad, he can’t preach from that same Bible? Okay, I get it.

But if we want reformation in our time — and we should — we need to return to the Bible, whether or not we are flattered by what we discover there. Our task should be to seek out what faithful obedience in this area might mean, what it might look like, and then to obey. This obedience is not just to be found at the individual or familial level. This is an area where the entire church needs to be involved in learning together, and coming together. Until we come to a consensus on how to draw this particular line, we will continue to be frustrated by a pandemonium of voices from every direction.

Suppose we tentatively set a very straightforward standard. Suppose we said that if the child of an elder or minister is ever excommunicated, then the elder or minister in question will submit his resignation. And if there are extenuating circumstances — as there will sometimes be, no doubt — then the decision about any exceptions will be referred to presbytery, outside the context of the local church. We would be applying the wisdom of the Westminster theologians showed on the subject of divorce — saying that in such tangles those most closely involved should not be judges in their own cases. Suppose we started with something like that?

I want to argue for this kind of approach in the posts that follow, and I do want to cover the subject as thoroughly as I can. Because the subject is such an important one, I want to encourage debate and discussion in the comments, as well as suggestions for questions that need to be addressed in greater detail at some point. I will try to get to them all.

As has been said, obedience is the great opener of eyes. Drawing the line in the wrong place is preferable to refusing to draw it at all. Once we start doing something together when a child is excommunicated, we might be a position to deal with, say, high scandal repented of. As we begin to obey, the Lord may continue to give us more obedience. But in order to wade in from the shallow end of the pool, we do have to get into the pool in the first place.

Representation in Church Government

My friend Steven Wedgeworth has some good thoughts about head of household voting here. Voting by household is fairly common in the CREC, but at the same time it is not so settled as to have no discussion swirling around it. So in addition to what Steven says, let me throw some loose pocket change into the mix.

I believe the broad outlines of church government are taught to us in Scripture jure divino, but that this divine authority does not extend down into the details. For example, we have scriptural warrant for broad, representative assemblies of the church. We have no biblical warrant for the office of secretary or stated clerk, but we do have the full authority to create such offices — using the light of Christian prudence. It is lawful for us to keep minutes (about which the Scriptures say nothing), and to follow a rudimentary form of Robert’s Rules (about which the Bible says even less).

The details of voting belong to both categories. We have ample scriptural warrant for the people selecting their leaders, but we have precious little on voting procedures. When the apostles appointed elders in Acts 14:23, the word used there (cheirotoneo) originally meant to elect by a show of hands, but it remains hard to distill constitutional processes from the etymology of one word.

That said, here are just a few practical observations. First, in our circles, our churches are governed by elders, not by congregational voting. We are small republics, not small democracies. This means that our congregations vote on one or two issues only (selection of church officers, and sometimes constitutional amendments). Other than that, the decisions are made at the session level, by the board of elders.

Also, churches that practice head-of-household voting are not churches that exclude women from voting. We held a joint head-of-household meeting just last night with our sister church Trinity Reformed, and there were women in attendance, heads of their households. It is true that women don’t vote, as women. It is also true that men, as men, don’t vote either. We vote by household, an arrangement that we find convenient, and consistent with Scripture — although we would not maintain that every detail of what we do is required by Scripture.

What do I mean by convenience? Here is an example of just one — as paedobaptists, this solves a practical problem for us concerning when children start voting. When they are first communed? When they get their driver’s license? When they can vote in civic elections? When they can buy a beer in a restaurant? We can simply say that dependent children are represented by their household until they have their own household.

Because we live in a time when egalitarianism is running a full court press, who cannot see that if a disgruntled woman insists on defining herself as “excluded” because her husband cast a ballot (when she did not), that she will continue to see herself as excluded even if she could vote? The vast majority of the votes determining the future of the church will be taken at the session level, which really does exclude women (1 Tim. 2:12).

As a practical matter, when a man and wife agree, all you have done is multiply the entire vote tally by two. When they disagree, all you have done is cancel out the voice of that particular household. What needs to be emphasized in churches that practice this is that the man is representing his household. He is not acting like the one person in that household with something worthwhile to say. Suppose a man thinks a particular elder candidate is “okay,” but his wife has seen him be really cold to his wife on multiple occasions, and the teenaged children in that household, two of them girls, have been in Bible studies where the candidate’s handling of the text was “terrible.” The man votes, representing his household.

One of the great and pressing needs of our day is to get men to take responsibility. This is one device (not an inspired one, but a good one) for helping us do just that. Those pushing against this particular arrangement need to understand that in North America getting men to check out of church is not really a hard thing to accomplish, and that once you have done it, the heartaches are of an entirely different kind. So be careful what you agitate for.

One last thing. I do think there are reasonable questions to ask about this whole thing, and I also believe that there are ways for us to improve what we are doing. But when a certain kind of women gets really worked up over this issue, saying that we are saying that “women are too emotional” to let them “get their pretty little heads” entangled in “the manly business” of church politics, I can only say that this is not my position and I am not arguing for it at all. But if I ever were to change my mind, and decided to argue for it, that kind of woman would be the very first one I would search for because I would need an Exhibit A for my newly adopted position.

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The Right Kind of Bright in Their Eyes

Many conservative Christians know that the culture war we are fighting is a desperate battle for our children. Now fighting for your children and grandchildren is a noble enterprise. It is what we are called to do. When such fighting is necessary, as in a fallen world it constantly is, it is something we are called to do for the sake of others, and this includes our children.

“And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses” (Neh. 4:14).

But as good as this is, we need to move past it. Once we realize that we are in a long war, a war in which the first blood shed was that of Abel, and the last blood shed will be that of the final martyr, an honored someone who will no doubt not be born for many centuries yet, we will finally recognize the importance of the time we are called to invest in our children.

Because it is a long war, it crosses generations. In a very short space of time, your children will join you in the line, and a short time after that, their children will join them. This means that we begin by fighting for our children, but we must end by fighting by means of them. We must do two things simultaneously — we must fight today’s battles, and we must recruit and train tomorrow’s warriors.

If I am allotted more than the proverbial three score and ten, I hope that as my children and grandchildren are hitting their stride, and my contribution is that of making penetrating geezer comments from the corner of the living room after sabbath dinner, I will see myself as still fighting through them.

I see this in my own father — still fruitful in his own ministry — whenever he hears of any skirmish or battle that his descendants have gotten into. He is an old war horse, restless in his stall, wanting to get into it himself. But he actually is “into” it. None of us would be where we are now without him, and I hope that I have the same privilege that he has been given — that of seeing a lot of downstream damage done to the work of the adversary.

Decades from now, when my descendants are giving fits to whatever progressives are calling themselves in the 22nd century, I hope that my name is a hissing and a byword to them. That’s a pious wish. So a short-sighted man who throws himself into ministry, neglecting his family in order to do so, is not just demonstrating for us that he doesn’t understand his wife and kids. He is demonstrating for us the fact that he doesn’t understand the nature of true ministry.

“One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” (1 Tim. 3:4-5)

“If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly” (Tit. 1:6).

This is not just thrown in there as a mindless rule, so that ecclesiastical fussbudgets might have something to agitate about during elder elections. If a man’s children don’t care what he believes about the Bible, then why should we? This is a line of argument that Paul endorses. If his children have walked away from what he says is important about the Bible, but we are still hanging on to his every word, the chances are good that we have adopted a false and unbiblical set of weights and measures, and are hanging on to the wrong words, or to good words for the wrong reasons.

Jesus said that we were to evaluate teachers by the kind of fruit they produced. And what better place to check than their garden at home? A man who is wrong about children will find it difficult to be right about anything else.

So what we need are more children with the right kind of bright in their eyes, like Jonathan after he ate the honey. But in that case, it was in spite of his father’s foolish prohibition. May God spare us from the indignity of having children who do well despite us. We want children who have that kind of bright in their eyes because they have fathers who gave them the honey.