Whirled Vision

My brief post on the reversal of the turnaround at World Vision generated some questions and comments, so let me chase them here.

Start with the central thing — and that would concern our duty of not being the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. If the subject is sin and repentance, it should go without saying that we should never sneer at a broken and a contrite heart. How many times do we forgive someone? Jesus dealt with this famously when He said the right number was 70 times 7. And that does not mean that once the sinner gets past 490, then pow, right in the kisser. Our forgiveness for others should imitate God’s forgiveness of us, and it is obviously impossible to outshine Him.

Jesus taught that someone could sin against us seven times in a day, and that upon a profession of repentance we should forgive him each time. Now, along about the fourth or fifth incident, I might begin to suspect that my friend is not dealing with the root issues — but I am still to forgive (Luke 17:4).

So, how does this relate, if at all, to World Vision? Our problem is that we have confused two categories that must never be confused. In the church, we must learn to maintain an understanding of a fundamental difference between qualifications for fellowship (on profession of repentance) and qualifications for leadership (as found, for example, in 1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1). The former is not based on the record at all — the publican in the Temple professed himself wretched, and went home justified. But the latter is very much based on proven character over time.

No Emotional Hostage Taking

In order for a minister’s family to fit with the qualifications that Paul addresses in Timothy and Titus, there has to be a large measure of intentionality in it. Such families do not happen in fits of absentmindedness. The minister and his wife are obviously where it starts, but as the kids get older they become part of the process. By the end, everyone in the family knows how much they like each other, but everyone also knows that this is connected to the Pauline requirements.

But there is a delicate balancing act required here. One the one hand, you don’t want the kids to be oblivious to their position. A minister’s family is an essential aspect of his ministry. To take an obvious example, a minister must be hospitable, and this is difficult if he has three sullen teenagers, glowering at the dinner table. Being a member of the minister’s family is not a church office, but it is a key part of the church’s ministry.

One the other hand, you don’t want the whole matter of elder qualifications to turn into tangled forms of emotional blackmail and hostage-taking. “If you don’t straighten up, young man, your dad will have to resign. Why can’t you think about anybody but yourself?”

The short answer to that question is that he has learned to think about himself by watching his parents closely. When he misbehaves, their first reaction is what it will mean to them. They are not thinking first about God and His Word, or second about what this sin might be doing to their brother and son. No, rather, the first impulse was to ask “how do you think this makes us feel?” But people aren’t shamed into selflessness. If shame could make us good, we’d all be good by now.

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.

Excuses and Evasions

Up to this point someone might be excused for thinking my purpose in tackling this issue of elder qualifications in a man’s family has been to explain to us all what the standards do not mean, and all the circumstances where they don’t apply. This has been a regrettable necessity because our modern approach to this subject is likely to fall into one of two extremes. Either we have our shoes laced up so tight that we find ourselves incapable of finding anyone who is qualified to be in church leadership at all, and so we struggle along with that form of unbiblical government, or we lapse into the common view that the ministry is just another profession, and how a man’s children are doing has nothing whatever to do with his craft competence. But an ability to take tests at a graduate school level is not the same thing as leading and shepherding people.

This is why I began where I did. Having shown (I trust) that when I do the exegesis of Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3, I do not make clunkity clunkity noises as I go, it is time to begin addressing what the standards do in fact mean, and to begin dealing with some of the excuses we have developed for not obeying them. And this is what it comes down to at the end of the day — obedience.

Since we have been addressing those situations where wisdom really must be used in how we apply the passages, let’s start by considering those areas where expedience suggests we do nothing, and suggests we take a pass in the name of wisdom. Here are some of the evasions that come readily to mind

1. The minister’s children are grown and out of the home. The qualifications do not apply.

In fact, the standards as they are given in Titus assume that the children in question are older. The elder’s children must not be accused of debauchery or rebellion. Now you occasionally meet a two-year-old that brings such words to mind, but generally this would refer to someone who is capable of being out of the home.

And who cannot see that the harvest can tell us something about the time of plowing and planting? Scripture teaches us to judge by the later fruit, which tells us something about the earlier root.

Pursuing the One

The calling of a pastor can be a demanding, rigorous, and often thankless calling. For every televangelist with white shoes raking it in, there are a hundred men laboring in obscure corners of the Lord’s vineyard.

For those who are aware of this reality — the fact that congregations are sometimes critical, fussy, envious, and spiteful — to adopt strict views of the minister’s qualifications in how he governs his household seems to be just asking for it. The family already lives in a fishbowl, people are already wondering why his wife doesn’t play the piano, and more than one comment has been made about how infrequently their teen-aged son has to mow the lawn. Why would anyone volunteer to make “the treatment” worse than it already is?

The answer is that the requirement is in the Bible, and so there must be a way of doing it right. But doing it right does not just mean having a conscientious pastor, or a conscientious session, but also a faithful and wise congregation. If they are wise, they will know (because they have been taught) the difference between responsibility and humiliation. When a minister’s child starts to waver, the congregation wants to know who to help, not who to blame.

Let me illustrate the heart of the point without reference to a minister. All parents are parents of children who sin. This is a fact of life. When we live in community, those sins will be visible and apparent to others. Wise and godly parents deal with it, taking it in stride. Parents who are still dealing with things on the surface are embarrassed by it.

In a social setting, a child being hauled off to be corrected should be as unremarkable as a child being taken to have his diapers changed. These things happen, and good parents know that they are responsible to deal with it. But if, instead of dealing with it, they are simply ashamed of it, they are inviting others to blame them instead of helping them.

My wife and I have the great privilege of seeing our sixteen grandchildren interact with one another on a regular basis. There is a good bit of terryhooting and good times, but cousin sin has been known to occur. If our response is “oh no, sin!” then we simply do not know what kind of world we are living in. One of the greatest blessings of our lives is that of watching our children as parents give a heads-up to one another about some developing state of moral disorder at the two-foot grandkid level, with nobody getting defensive. Just doing the business.

Not the Same Door

As we continue to consider the implications of Paul’s requirements for the minister’s family, a few other considerations need to be introduced at the front end. These considerations are not in the interest of governing through exceptions — just the reverse, actually.

We are coming (soon enough) to a statement of what this high standard means in application, and when we get there, the discomfort levels will be as high as the standard is. There are many ministers and elders who are not qualified to hold the office that they do, and they are not qualified because of the spiritual condition of their children. When we get to that point, I want it to be as plain as it could possibly be that the expectation of a godly family is not wooden legalism. This means granting the complications and exceptions first.

That said, the apostle is teaching us about the selection of elders. This is what the requirement is at the front end, which cannot be applied straight across once a man has been ordained and installed. There is a corollary to this, which is that the more tightly the biblical standards are held at the front end, the less frequently will you have a bad and awkward situation with an existing officer.

If you are going to be picky, the place to do it is when you are making your selection. Think of marriage and divorce as an example. A man might decide not to pursue a woman because of the color of her hair, or her height, which he has every right to do. But he cannot use such criteria in deciding whether to divorce her. The doorway in and the doorway out are not the same door.

In the same way, someone might vote against an elder candidate because he is too excitable, not dignified enough. This is part of the Pauline expectation for the church officer. A man must be sober, temperate (Tit. 1:8). In the judgment of the person who votes no, the man concerned lacks the judicious temperament that he will need to help govern the church. Let us also say, for the sake of the discussion, that this person voting no is correct in his assessment, but that the congregation votes the other way, and the man is ordained as an elder. This is not the end of the world; what we have is a simple disagreement.

Once in office, let us say that the fact he has the wrong kind of temperament becomes increasingly and gradually obvious. It was obvious to the man who voted no on the first day, but once the man is ordained, that man should wait patiently until it becomes obvious to others.

It is the same with a man’s family. It is not the case that once a man is installed, he is like a termite in the woodwork. We should not see ordination as an irreversible affair. Churches are bound together by covenant, and the terms of the covenants we are to use are set down for us in Scripture. A man might kept out of office because of the state of his family, or he might be removed from office because of the state of his family. But given the nature of the case, those thresholds should be in different places.
If two-thirds of the congregation vote against a man because they “had a feeling in their gut” about that man’s surly teenage daughter, they have every right to do so. If they do, he will be kept out of office. But if that man is already in office, then the existing government of the church is required not to entertain a charge against an elder except on the word of two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19).

Before he is in office, views about his family are a judgment call. After he is in office, they are a charge. Beforehand, nothing needs to be proven. A feeling in the gut is fine. Voting no is not the same as bringing a charge. Afterward, in order to remove a man because of his family, everything needs to be proven. That is, everything needs to be proven if the man is of a mind to make everybody prove what is now obvious.

This leads to one of the more important characteristics that a minister or church officer needs to have. Before a man accepts the office, he needs to determine that he will not cling to it desperately if his family starts to wobble. He needs to be the first one to suggest stepping down, and not the last one sitting in a deserted church building with the lights out. We will consider this more in detail later, but he needs to be the kind of shepherd who will leave the 99.

I knew, growing up, that if I or any of my siblings walked away from the Lord, my father would be out of the ministry later that afternoon. And I knew this without it feeling like emotional blackmail — the apostle Paul teaches that masters should “forebear threatening,” and so I am not suggesting that a man should use his vocation and livelihood as a cudgel on his children. “If you kids don’t continue to love Jesus, your mother and I will be on food stamps.” My wife and I had the same standard for ourselves that my father had with regard to our children. And we still do, even though they are grown. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

One of the things you should want in the culture of the church is for the elders to be harder on themselves in this regard than the congregation is. The opposite disposition, where the congregation is critical and the minister defensive, is an explosion waiting to happen. And when it happens, it will be ludicrous — a congregation might want a minister to step down because one of his daughters wore lipstick once, or a minister might not want to step down even though three of his four sons are in the penitentiary.

If you have the right kind of man, the subject will be broached first by him, and not by his ecclesiastical adversaries. At the same time, the congregation should not be so emotionally attached to their pastor that they prevent him from obeying the apostle even though it has become manifestly obvious that it is past time to step down.

Reformation in the church is not going to come in the church as a result of us preventing the next wave of unqualified ministers — think homosexual ordination. Reformation will be the result of us dealing with the previous waves of unqualified ministers. We need to be more concerned about our past compromises than our future ones.