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.
2. The minister’s children are small, and still at home. The qualifications do not apply.
In addition to being at the other end from the previous objection, this still fails. While it is granted that fruit is harder to identify when the children are little, and granting that there are fussers who think that any happy home with a bunch of kids is by definition disorderly, it remains a fact it is possible to have a manifestly mismanaged home when the kids are still little. So remembering what we addressed earlier, we have to distinguish between sin that is addressed promptly and in love, and sin that is just left there, festering.
Say that a five-year-old boy is insolent to his mother, in the presence of his father, the pastor, and he does this during the fellowship hour after church, in front of about twenty people. If dad hauls him off to the Star Chamber immediately, all twenty observers should go home reassured. Their pastor’s kids sin, and their pastor deals with it. But if that sin happens in front of everybody, and mom goes off humiliated, and dad looks at his son with disgust, and then continues his conversation, there ought to be about twenty thought bubbles over about twenty heads, with the word yikes inscribed in them.
In a situation like this, incidentally, I don’t believe that a minister ought to be removed. But I do believe that a wise session will require him read books, take classes, or get some mentoring, because they see the disqualification coming and they want to head it off. This is the sort of situation that I think would disqualify a man from becoming an elder, but not be grounds for removing him. But it is only grounds for not removing him if something proactive is being done, something that will be effective.
3. I feel sorry for him, and for his wife, who is wonderful, and so harried by everything. The last thing they need right now is for him to lose his job.
In the first place, the ministry is not a job. It is a calling, and those who labor in that calling answer to the Lord who called them. Tending your family is an essential part of that job. It is not our “position,” to alter or adjust as we see fit.
Second, as I tell people in counseling from time to time, there is no situation so bad but that you can’t make it worse. Once it becomes obvious, postponing the hard talk or the hard decision usually makes things worse for everybody. You can do the hard thing now, or a much harder thing later.
Third, we need to start leaning against the common Christian tendency to assume that whenever a Christian is hired by Christians a sort of automatic tenure sets in. Our vocation is our calling, and when we are called, it is to the Lord who called us. That calling summons us to efforts that reflect “my utmost for his highest,” and not “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”
4. I don’t have the votes on the session to remove him. Nobody else agrees with me.
This may well be the case. One faithful man might not have the votes to have an unqualified man removed. But one faithful man has the voice to ensure that if that minister is kept on, he will have been kept on through a conscious decision, and not because the fog of inertia kept anybody from saying anything.
Incidentally, I am not saying that a refusal to deal with a disqualified minister is grounds for leaving a church, although it may be. That depends on the circumstances. But I will say that one of the reasons why our informal means of dealing with church failures through church splits is as common as it is, is because we fail to be vocal about clear issues early on. There are many times when you can object, and still remain after the decision goes against you. But if you have kept silent for ten years over twenty issues, when the twenty-first issue bursts through the dam, you often discover that all the water behind that dam — and there is a lot of it — is toxic.
5. The minister is just a year from retirement. It would be heartless to require him to resign now.
The answer here is to not be heartless. Assuming the disqualification to be serious and obvious, there are still numerous ways to not be heartless and still honor the scriptural requirements. First, the fact that he is disqualified from pastoral ministry does not mean he is disqualified from everything. Have him teach history in your Christian school. In extreme circumstances, the church can take responsibility for finding a way, up to and including a generous severance package.
So what do we do? One of the things that I want to urge is for our churches to institute a standard that acknowledges the authority of Scripture in this, and which is formulated in the absence of a particular crisis.
For example, we could include a section in the church constitution that says something like “if a natural child of an elder or minister, having grown up in his father’s house, is lawfully excommunicated by the church, the resignation of his father will be required at that same time.” This would require positive action to prevent a resignation instead of positive action to initiate one. And while it does not cover all the instances where a resignation would be in order, it is a start, a step in the right direction.