But Blood Is Still Pretty Thick

We must begin with the foundational Christian axiom that water is thicker than blood. The call of baptism outranks every demand that might come from any other source.

“He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37).

Our allegiance to Jesus Christ has to be the arche of all our other allegiances. He is the only one who can keep them from becoming devouring idols, with a maw like Molech. The foundational claims of households, tribes, and nations must all be surrendered completely.

At the same time, precisely because Jesus is Lord, once surrendered, these other allegiances are supposed to be discipled, appropriately honored, and placed in their adjusted and very creaturely place. Some idols are destroyed upon repentance — like Molech, Baal, Dagon. Other idols are simply demoted — family, money, reputation, etc. The idols of households and tribes are idols that are called to come to Christ and continue their existence as households and tribes in their allegiance to Him. “And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). Blessed, not annihilated.

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:19–20).

Jesus tells us to baptize the ethnoi, not to eradicate them. The good news of the gospel is not simply good news for individuals — although it is obviously that — it is also good news for all kinds of human institutions.

“And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6).

Another way of putting this is that while in spiritual matters the authority of the church is much greater than the authority of the family, the spiritual authority of the family remains, and has to be considered as a very real part of the spiritual life of a congregation.

The Difference Between Pastors and Teachers

I was talking recently with a friend about the difference between pastors and teachers, and it got my thoughts churning. You know what Wodehouse said about some minds being like the soup in a bad restaurant — better left unstirred. But that’s too bad, too late now, etc.

Considered from one angle, this topic might seem a little theology wonkish — three office/four office debate and so on. But considered from another angle it could be considered the more controversial things I have written. (Overheard in the faculty lounge at Westminster West: “We’ll be the judge of that . . .”).

First, let’s get some of the biblical data out of the way. I understand the gifts that Paul describes in Ephesians to be four in number, not five (Eph. 4:11). That means that the fourth is a compound gift, that of pastor/teacher. This means that those who are called to this office should both instruct and shepherd the people of God. All pastors should be teachers.

But it does not follow that all teachers should be pastors. The gift of teaching is mentioned a number of times in Scripture as a stand-alone gift (e.g. 1 Cor. 12:28; Acts 13:1). A man in a seminary classroom, or a scholar devoted to the production of books, or engaged in similar activity, is doing something that is very valuable. But the fact that it is valuable and good does not mean that it is the same thing as a pastor. A screwdriver is valuable, but it is not a hammer.

So here is the difficulty. Because of the high value placed on intellectual rigor in the Reformed tradition, we have drifted into a position where the academic pastor is the highly prized pastor. He has a doctorate, hopefully from somewhere in the UK, he smokes a pipe, and there are bonus points if he sounds like Sinclair Ferguson. This is not a shot at Sinclair Ferguson, incidentally — he’s supposed to sound that way, and I am reading a fantastic book by him right now. So forget I mentioned it.

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?

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.

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.

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.