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.