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.