I have said in other contexts that the Pauline requirements for ministry are character qualifications, and as such they are not analogous to the operation of counting rocks.
Though we are discussing the requirement of godly family management, let me illustrate the point with one of the other qualifications, also having to do with family. Paul says that an elder must be a one-woman-man. This sounds great, but what do we mean. Ever? It is obvious that we must draw a line at some point, and the first thing to do is admit this fact to ourselves. If we do not admit it, we will still draw that line, but the fact that we have done so will be invisible to us, and it will be entirely arbitrary.
For example, say that a man has been presented as a candidate for elder, and he has been married to the same woman, happily, for the last thirty years. But, when he was a young man, before he was a Christian, he was married to someone else who left him and divorced him after six months. This fact will be an item for discussion in his elder candidacy (as it should be). The question will be whether or not this man qualifies as a one-woman-man. Fine.
But suppose there is another candidate who slept with twenty-one women before his conversion, but was enough of a jerk not to marry any of them. He too is happily married now, and his past is treated in the elder election as a matter of irrelevance. But Paul doesn’t say “one-woman-man in marriage.” He says one-woman-man.
Now if you think you are counting rocks instead of evaluating character you will soon be at a point where you are not even able to count the rocks. You will think that the gold sanctifies the altar, and not the other way around. You will disqualify a man for being with two women in his life, and allow a man who has been with twenty-two women.
When we are looking at a man’s family, we are looking for what we want to see duplicated — for Paul tells us that it will be duplicated. So let me give a couple of examples that might test whether we think the altar sanctifies the gold or the gold the altar.
Let us say that a minister’s brother and sister-in-law are killed in a car accident. They were not believers, and their 15-year-old daughter was brought up in a thoroughly pagan environment. She comes to live with her believing uncle and aunt, and they of course have a number of challenges. Sexual activity is something she just assumes, along with liberal drug use, nothing too hard. They are doing what they can with a hard situation, and the minister’s own kids are all doing great. Now is this man qualified to be a minister unless and until he adopts his niece? As soon as he adopts her, someone might say, jabbing at Titus 1, he has an unbelieving daughter. Sure, the response comes, but why? The reason he has an unbelieving daughter is that he is the kind of man you want shepherding the flock.
Suppose you have a similar scenario, only this time the minister and his wife take in a foster daughter who is four-year-old. She was a crack cocaine baby, and her mom has been with seventeen different men during the course of her short life. She is taken in as an act of true mercy, and her foster parents are being Jesus to her. Would being Jesus disqualify them? Or would it disqualify them as soon as they decided to adopt her fully, instead of keeping her at the arm’s length distance of foster child? To think that such a thing would disqualify a man is to aspire to get one of those Fools-and-Blind awards that we see Jesus dispensing in the gospels.
At the same time, Paul did not give us these requirements in the Pastorals so that we could spend all our time thinking up ingenious exceptions to them. There is such a thing as mismanagement of a family, it is fairly common, and we can see it in the result of insolent and disobedient children. We can even see it in the complicated dynamics of the situations I described above. Suppose a minister adopts more scrambled kids than he can handle, and he loses both them, and his natural children drift away from the Lord in bitterness and jealousy. That’s not good either. A minister is not qualified in the broader church because he made of hash of things but meant well.
As I am fond of saying, there is a ditch on both sides of the road. In the circles I travel in, I see examples of both. In one ditch, wayward ministerial children are an unfortunate norm. It is already this way in the broader evangelical and Reformed world, and it is becoming increasingly acceptable in the conservative, family-oriented Reformed world. But it really shouldn’t be.
But in the other ditch, you have small churches that have such tight standards for the family of the elder that the church struggles along without any leadership at all. This kind of hyper-scrupulosity contrasts sharply with Paul’s actual practice. If you look at the time line carefully in one portion of Paul’s ministry, he appointed elders after about three weeks of ministry, right before he left town (Acts 14:23). Here is your Bible, these are the standards, seeya. I’ll write.