I’m guessing that your church’s elders/pastors/shepherds/overseers/bishops – Biblically, all the same office – are not required to have children, right?
Given that opening question and the title of this article, you might be expecting me now to try and convince you that they should.
Nope, that’s not it.
I am going to make the argument that elders should have children. But not because I want to persuade you of this. No, rather because I hope my argument is wrong and I want you to show me why. I can’t see the flaw, but perhaps you can. And if so, please leave a comment and tell me what it is. I’d be very grateful, as I am rather uncomfortable with an interpretation that has been in the minority throughout much of church history. Think of this as a personal doctrinal loose-end that I’d like to tie up.
Why do I raise this now?
The topic came up in the comments on an article posted at www.extremetheology.com. A youngster called Joel (he’s 22) made the comment that he thought he met the Biblical qualifications for elders, except for not having a ‘wife and kids’. That brought a sharp rebuttal from Chris, the original author of the piece being discussed. Now, Chris is one of the genuine good-guys, and I respect his opinions greatly as a seasoned contender for the faith, even if I don’t always agree with absolutely everything he says. Chris questioned Joel’s ability to handle Scripture properly, on the grounds that the Biblical qualifications for eldership did not include marriage per se or, by implication, children.
‘Not so fast’, I thought. I then posted a somewhat lengthy comment, setting forth my own current tentative reading of Scripture on this matter. (I’m pleased to say that harmony has subsequently been restored between Chris and Joel.) It is that comment, somewhat reworked, that forms the basis for the remainder of this post.
I believe both in the reliability and authority of Scripture as the true word of God. I’m hoping you do too. So, whether or not elders have children is a question that should be settled based on what the Bible says. And nothing else. Not on our church constitutions. Not on our church traditions or confessions. And certainly not on our own opinions. This is what we in the Reformation traditions mean when we say that we believe in sola scriptura (‘by Scripture alone’). Scripture alone determines our doctrine, and that Scriptural doctrine should determine our practice. How do we properly interpret Scripture? We pay close attention to the text, its grammar, and its grammatical and historical context.
The topic under discussion at extremetheology.com was the qualifications required of small-group leaders within the church. Chris had quoted some relevant texts from the ESV Bible. I reproduce two of these here.
1 Tim. 3:1–7 (ESV):
1The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
Titus 1:5–9 (ESV):
…appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, 8but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. 9He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
It seemed to me that Joel had been trying hard to be faithful and sensitive to the text in a way that I think is commendable. Was he not merely stating what a plain reading of the ESV English translation quoted about says – that ‘an overseer must be…the husband of one wife’ (1 Tim. 3:2)? And the same idea is repeated in the ESV translation of Titus 1:6.
Now, I suspect that Chris, who has studied Biblical languages, was very aware of the Greek text of these phrases, mias gunaikos andra (lit. ‘one-woman man’), and probably has read at least as many commentaries and scholarly articles on this topic as I have. He was probably therefore understanding this as I do, which is that the intended emphasis here is almost certainly upon the mias (‘one’), rather than on the gunaikos (‘woman’). That is, the intent of this phrase is not primarily that the elder has to be married, but rather that he should have an inherent character of sexual fidelity (i.e. that he should be ‘a one-woman kind of man’).
Thus, Chris’s interpretation of this requirement as being that an elder should be ‘sexually under control’ is probably not a bad dynamic equivalent to the intent of the Greek. Myself, I’d have translated the Greek phrase simply as ‘one-woman man’, which I think would have conveyed the likely meaning rather better than the more interpretive translation of ‘the husband of one wife’ that is used by the ESV and several other translations. But then I like formal equivalence as a translation principle, even at the expense of slightly less readability. Of course, I’m but a novice with NT Greek, so what do I know? <grin>
Thus, with regard to the marriage qualification, I agree with Chris. At least, I would do if mias gunaikos andra were the only phrase under consideration. But it is not. There is also the question of the phrases translated in the ESV as ‘keeping his children submissive’ (1 Tim. 3:4) and ‘his children are believers’ (Titus 1:6).
Take the equivalent phrases in the NKJV, with some additional context (my italics):
‘an elder must be…one who rules his own house well, having children in submission’ (1 Tim. 3:4)
‘if anyone is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children…’ (Titus 1:6)
In the English, each passage is a list of independent qualification clauses, every one of which must be met by the subject of the sentence (i.e. ‘an elder’).
What does the Greek say? Well, tekna echonta en hupotage (‘having children in obedience’) for 1 Tim. 3:4, and tekna echon pista (‘having believing children’) for Titus 1:6. I’d say therefore that the NKJV is spot-on in its translation, and the ESV has chosen to convey the same idea but with different grammar. Both are therefore reliable in this case (although I prefer the more formally equivalent NKJV).
So, whether we are reading the English or the Greek, what is the qualification conveyed by a simple literal reading of the actual text of these phrases? It is that an elder is to have children, and that those children are to be submissively faithful. Now it might be that this is not the final interpretation, but we would have to do rather more work to get there. The immediate simple plain-text meaning is straightforward enough and, perhaps, should not be lightly dismissed.
Now, I have read far and wide on this issue, and it is true that most (but certainly not all) commentators and scholars say that Paul means that if an elder has children, they are to be faithful. However, that is not what the text actually says (or am I mistaken?), and I have yet to find a treatment of the grammar and context of these passages that demonstrates from the text that it is legitimate for us to interpolate an ‘if he has children’ clause into our understanding of the passages. What one nearly always finds in the commentaries is something that is effectively along the lines of ‘Paul says this, but he really means that’, with just a dismissive wave of the hand rather than any attempt at justifying such a conclusion. I don’t like that approach to Bible interpretation. The Holy Spirit could very easily have inspired Paul to write ‘and if an elder has children, they are to be faithful’, but He did not choose to do so. Why was that? It certainly wasn’t because Paul expected all Christian men to get married and to have children, and so was only dealing with the common situation (cf. 1 Cor. 7:8).
Furthermore, it is interesting, I think, that Paul considers the case of ‘an elder’ (singular) in 1 Tim. 3:2-7, but deals with ‘deacons’ (plural) in 1 Tim. 3:8-12. He says that ‘Deacons’, as a class, must ‘be the husbands of one wife, ruling [their] children and their own houses well’ (v. 12, NKJV). [Note: The ESV mangles things a bit in 1 Tim. 3:12 by adding an ‘each’, which obscures the point I am about to make. And don’t get me started on the NIV’s rendering of this verse. Go with the NKJV or the Greek.] Thus, there is certainly room within the strict plain meaning of the text for a particular deacon to be childless. This is because the statement ‘Deacons must be the husbands of one wife, ruling [their] children and their own houses well’ holds true of ‘Deacons’ as a group, even if a particular deacon happens not to have children. But, the deacons as a whole must meet the requirements Paul lists. So, if a deacon happens to have a child, that child must be ruled well. In contrast, Paul says with regard to elders that ‘if anyone [singular] is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children…’ and ‘an elder [singular] must be…one who rules his own house well, having children in submission’. The inference is that, unlike with deacons, each and every elder must meet the stated conditions.
Given that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to use plural language with respect to deacons (treating them as a class) that would easily accommodate an individual deacon being childless, shouldn’t we ask ourselves why the Holy Spirit did not inspire similar syntax for the case of an elder? Why the difference, for what are essentially parallel lists of qualities? And if this grammatical detail is truly insignificant, what do we make of the fact that Paul chooses in Titus 1:5 to introduce his topic with the plural ‘elders’ (presbuterous), but then, quite pointedly, switches to the singular with ‘if anyone’ (ei tis) in Titus 1:6 immediately before making his list of qualities?
Now, it is important that we look at context. I certainly would agree that the general thrust of these passages is to deal with the overall character and qualities that an elder must possess. Thus, it is, I think, legitimate to argue that these lists are not so much an exhaustive check-list of qualifications, but rather an indication of the kinds of characteristics that an elder must possess. But we must be very careful not to use such arguments to dismiss the actual, specific, plain meaning of the text. That’s exactly the kind of thing that those who deny the authority of Scripture like to do.
So, considering the context and overall dynamic of the passages, what do we make of the apparent requirement for children? After some thought, might this not in fact be a very wise precaution for the protection of the church? After all, we know from experience that children, especially younger ones, tend to pick up and imitate the worst character traits of their parents. The children see their parents every day, behind closed doors. They reflect in public the true private character of the would-be elder, regardless of how fine a persona he might wear in public. If the children are turning out to be faithful and obedient, that public witness alone tells you much about the character of their parents in private. Furthermore, is it not excellent training for an elder to have to learn to manage and discipline his children, and to arbitrate sensitively between their competing needs and requests for attention? Elders are to be ‘examples to the flock’ (1 Peter 3:5). What better proof of their fitness for this office than the demonstration that they have been godly examples to their own children? Elders are to be, as 1 Tim. 3:2 tells us, didaktikon – skillful in teaching. What better sign of this capability than the evidence that they have brought up their own children in the ‘training and admonition of the Lord’ (Eph. 6:4)?
I suppose some might object that Paul was unmarried. But Paul held the office of Apostle in the Church, not Elder of a local congregation. Is there any example in the entire New Testament of an Elder who is expressly stated to be unmarried or without children? I haven’t found one, but if there is, I shall concede the entire point immediately. (I am aware that some try to prove that Paul was an elder by connecting 1 Tim. 4:14 and 2 Tim. 1:6, but that is a rather desperate attempt and logically does not in any case prove the intended point.) Another objection might be that Paul commends singleness, because it enables one to devote one’s attention more fully upon the Lord (1 Cor. 7:7-8, 32-35). Yet Paul includes women in his recommendation of singleness there, and so it is most doubtful that he has eldership specifically in mind (cf. 1 Tim. 2:12). Paul knows full well that there are many ways that we can serve our Christian brothers and sisters other than by being an elder. (The Lutheran view of what constitutes a good work is distinctly helpful in demonstrating this.)
One final objection might be that there are many fine overseers/elders/pastors/shepherds who are unmarried or without children. That is undeniable. But the fact that God in His boundless grace might use us despite our sinful conduct should not surprise us at all, for we are all sinners who sin daily, saved by grace through the death of our dear Lord on the cross. His righteous life is put to our account and it is that which has already given us God’s favour – we do not earn it by our own perfect living out of His commands. We should not therefore determine doctrine based upon our experience, but rather upon the written word of God.
In his response to my comment, Chris offered this quotation from the commentator Lenske (actually, I think it might be ‘Lenski’). This gives some helpful historical background, which lends credibility to the interpretation of the ‘husband of but one wife’ that both Chris and I hold:
Four personal qualities are then mentioned: “one wife’s husband—temperate—sober-minded—orderly.” The emphasis is on one wife’s husband, and the sense is that he have nothing to do with any other woman. He must be a man who cannot be taken hold of on the score of sexual promiscuity or laxity. It is plain that Paul does not say that none but married men may enter the ministry, that every pastor must be married. Since the days of Origen the question has been raised as to whether a widowed pastor is here forbidden to remarry. The fact that Origen stoutly affirms this is not strange when we remember that he castrated himself; his exegesis is dominated by his peculiar asceticism. Others conclude that remarriage is here forbidden because they think that “one husband’s wife” which occurs in 5:9 refers to a widow who had never had more than one husband. But the two passages are identical in wording, their sense is entirely the same so that we are able to get nothing out of the one that is not already contained in the other. We need not review the protracted discussion of this item, the non-exegetical arguments, the church legislation, etc.
Paul had a reason for beginning with “one wife’s husband.” In those days mature men were chosen for the eldership, who, as a rule, were married and had families; there were no seminary graduates who were awaiting calls. The bulk of the membership from which the elders had to be chosen had come from paganism. What this means as to sexual vices is written large in the New Testament and in the moral records of the day. Even the early apostolic conference in Jerusalem warns against “fornication” and uses this wide term to cover all the prevalent pagan sexual excesses (Acts 15:29). The epistles fairly din the word into their readers’ ears. There was the regular institution of the hierodouloi, pagan temple prostitutes; the common custom of having hetaerae (“companions,” see Liddell and Scott ἑταῖρος), girls from non-citizen families who were used by unmarried and by-married men; and thus, besides these standard practices, all the rest of the vileness that formed the soil from which these grew. Converts to the gospel did not at once step into perfect sexual purity. Hence this proviso regarding the “overseers”: to begin with, a man who is not strictly faithful to his one wife is debarred.
I most definitely agree with Lenske that Paul does not mean to imply in any way that a remarried widower (or even a widower who has not remarried) would be disqualified from eldership.
Observe however that, in this quotation, Lenske does not address the ‘having children’ requirement at all. It’s possible that Chris simply didn’t include that, so this might not be Lenske’s omission. Nevertheless, Lenske’s summary of the list of qualifications as ‘one wife’s husband—temperate—sober-minded—orderly’ suggests that he might be meaning to include all of the family-related qualifications under his discussion of ‘one wife’s husband’. If so, in the absence of a treatment of the ‘having children’ clauses, Lenske’s claim that ‘Paul does not say that none but married men may enter the ministry’ would be a typical example of my earlier complaint regarding commentators who make assertions without attempting to justifying their conclusions adequately from all the relevant text.
Now, it remains the case that to think that an elder should have children is a minority view (Lenske, I suspect, would not agree with the proposition). And I would be reticent to impose it upon others. I should like it to be in error. Yet it is not without historical precedent in the church. And this whole question is most certainly an interesting exercise in paying close attention to the text of Scripture! The subtlety of grammar matters, and Bible translations that do not seek to preserve the finer points as much as is possible are apt to mislead.
So, have I gone wrong anywhere in my treatment of the texts? It is certainly possible, likely even! Leave a comment and tell me what you think.