Thursday, March 25, 2010

Church Elders and Their Children, 4th and Final

In the first post in this series, I raised a question: Does Titus 1:6 teach that a prospective elder's children must be Christians? In the New International Version that verse contains the phrase "a man whose children believe." According to the wording of the King James Version, an elder is expected to have "faithful children." Churches of Christ have typically thought that this expression means that one or more of a prospective elder's children must be baptized believers. Otherwise, according this view, the man is not qualified to be an elder. But is this the right understanding and application of the passage?

The second post takes up a more-specific question: What does the Greek word pistos actually mean in Titus 1:6? As we saw, this term has a wide variety of possible meanings. In the New Testament, only a fraction of the occurrences clearly refer to someone's Christian faith, or Christian identity. Most often, pistos doesn't speak of a believer. Instead, the word simply means "faithful" in the sense of "dependable" or "reliable." However, the majority of popular English translations favor the idea that in Titus 1:6 pistos denotes a believer. The 20th Century New Testament went so far as to translate the phrase, "whose children are Christians." But in this passage is that really what the Greek term means?

The third post included two main ideas:

A. Churches make a mistake if they approach 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 primarily as legal texts. It's better to see these passages as descriptions of the ideal elder. In many cases, a church has done without elders because the people saw these passages as hard-and-fast checklists. As a result, they came to the conclusion that "nobody was qualified." As I see it, always responding to every stickler's objection has hurt many congregations of the Churches of Christ. Anemic traditionalism, rejecting anything that doesn't match the norm of recent memory or the status quo, is not the same thing as faithfulness. It's not even good conservatism.

B. In order to answer our question about the phrase in Titus 1:6, we should pay careful attention to its literary context, the words that surround the word in question.

At this point, I want to finish out this series, attempt to fill in any gaps, and then leave it for you to evaluate.

Pistos in Titus 1:6

To decide what Paul means by pistos in Titus 1:6, our only recourse is to pay close attention to the qualifying statement that immediately follows it. In Greek it says, me en datygoris asotias ey anupotakta.

The King James Bible translates this, "not accused of riot or unruly." The New International Version says, "and are not open to the charge of being wild or disobedient." A few notes on the specifics of the Greek phrase behind these expressions:

1. The first qualifier, according to the KJV, is that the elder's children are not accused of "riot." The NIV has "being wild." These renderings come from asotia, an especially strong word that isn't easy to translate into contemporary English. "Debauchery" sounds odd and archaic. So what is the right word? Apparently, I'm not the only person who's bumped up against this question. In the few other places in the NT where asotia occurs, translators evidently have a hard time coming up with just the right English expression.

Take, for example, 1 Peter 4:4, one of the few other verses in the NT where asotia is used. Here, the word shows up in a context where the Apostle is describing the reaction of pagans to their neighbors who have recently become Christians. The NIV has, "They think it strange that you do not plunge with them into the same flood of dissipation." The New American Standard Bible and the New King James Version also use this odd word. Does anyone say "dissipation" anymore? Did they ever? Does anyone know what it means? To borrow a line from my teacher Jack Lewis, this is where most Bible readers will just have to have a reverent feeling and go on. Here, Today's New International Version (TNIV) stretches it out in English, but nonetheless offers a huge improvement: "reckless, wild living." That's a fine rendering of what Paul is saying, I think.

2. The second qualifier is that the elder's children are not open to the charge of being "unruly" (KJV) or "disobedient" (NIV). Much like the first qualifier, this isn't the language of pulling your little sister's ear, or taking a bite of food before the prayer. Instead, this word describes hardcore rebellion. It speaks of someone who has no intention of obeying the rules. A few verses later, in Titus 1:10-11, Paul uses it to describe the "rebellious people" who by their teachings are "ruining whole households" (NIV).

So, these are the words used in Titus 1:6 to negatively define what it means for an elder's children to be pistos. But, if in this verse the word supposedly means "believing" (as in "Christian"), those descriptors certainly don't set the bar very high, do they? It would sound odd, it seems to me, if you described someone else as "a Chrisitan; you know, someone who isn't completely wild and rebellious."

In fact, the more we examine the context, the less likely we are to understand pistos in Titus 1:6 to mean "believer" or "Christian." Rather, taking everything into account, this verse seems to be saying: "An elder is a Christian man with a proven ability to manage a household. Above all, this means that his home isn't a place where people run amock. His residence doesn't resemble a notorious frat house." My conclusion, therefore, is that in Titus 1:6 Paul does not expect that all of a prospective elder's children must share his Christian faith. What's more, the view that I'm proposing matches up well with what we find in the other New Testament description of the ideal elder.

The Parallel Passage in 1 Timothy 3:4-5

Anyone who compares Titus 1:6-9 with 1 Timothy 3:1-7 will notice something about that second passage: it nowhere says or even suggests that an elder's children must be Christians. Instead, it says, "He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?)" (1 Timothy 3:4-5, NIV).

The question comes naturally: Why would Paul insist in Titus 1:6 that an elder must have children who are Christians, when in 1 Timothy 3:4-5, sent to a different destination, he makes no such demand? But the question begins to disappear when we do two things (1) pay close attention to how the other words in Titus 1:6 help us to understand what Paul means in this verse when he speaks of the elder's children as pistos. (2) use 1 Timothy 3:4-5 as an interpretive parallel.

Sometime back, I reviewed George W. Knight's fine commentary on the Greek text of the Pastoral Epistles. More than anyone else, he helped to solidify some of the conclusions I was coming to on this question several years ago. His observations on Titus 1:6 sum up my own thinking:

The qualifying statement here, "not accused of dissipation or rebellion" emphasizes behavior and seems to explain what it means for tekna (children) to be pistos (faithful). Likewise, 1 Timothy 3:4 speaks of the overseer "keeping his children under control with all dignity." In both cases the overseer is evaluated on the basis of his control of his children and their conduct. . . . What must not characterize the children of an elder is immoral and undisciplined rebelliousness, if the children are still at home and under his authority. Paul is not asking any more of the elder and his children than is expected of every Christian father and his children. However, only if a man exercises such proper control over his children may he be an elder. (G. W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992] pp. 289-290. The link over the title provides almost all of the text of Knight's commentary, including the section quoted here, compliments of Google Books).

A Challenge

I understand that this view runs against the general pattern of English Bible translation. And if you begin to looking around in the English commentaries on the Pastoral Epistles, you will often find the same thing. Great scholars from the previous generation (for example, J.N.D. Kelly, d. 1997) as well as more-recent commentators (for example, Luke T. Johnson) assume that our passage in Titus demands that an elder's children must be Christians. This view, and its corresponding practice, has also held an honored position among the Churches of Christ, though it has often been applied inconsistently and, as I see it, legalistically.

It's high time, though, for us in the Churches of Christ to embrace our own rhetoric on this question; to "go back to the Bible" and "handle aright the word of truth." If a compelling case can be made for the traditional interpretation, then a congregation should stay with it. But if, on the other hand, it seems clear that the congregation has been more strict than Scripture is, then a choice has to be made. Either the group can be as open as the Lord is. Or they can take the Pharisaic path of seeking "safety" by maintaining a man-made hedge that encircles and "protects" the Word of God.

Naturally, I'm interested to hear your comments and observations. Although I use comment moderation in order to prevent spam and ugly comments from angry exes, I never censor disagreement. So tell me: what do you think?


qb said...

Frank, qb has cast his lot on Titus 1:6 with the legalists for 45 years and is only just now entertaining the alternative view you've laid out. How do you respond to the reproducing-after-one's-kind challenge? After all, implicit in the pastoral ministry (I'm speaking of elders here, not "pastors" as popularly used) is the expectation that a person, by both example and teaching, leads others to emulate him in discipleship. If a man is unable to accomplish that with his own children, who see his life and receive his teaching daily and close-up, why would we expect him to engender discipleship in those with whom he has even less contact?

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi, qb. Thanks for your input. About your question, I think that it's possible for someone to live an exemplary Christian life and, additionally, be well suited to serve as an elder without his children necessarily having become Christians. At least two scenarios come to mind:

1. Some or all of the the father's children have not yet reached the age of decision.

2. A prospective elder's children have reached the age of decision and, let's say, one of them, for reasons no one really understands, just hasn't taken the plunge so to speak.

Again, the pertinent texts don't appear to demand a certain spiritual condition of the children. Rather, they focus on the prospective leader's ability to manage the household of God because he has proven to be a good manager of his own household.

That said, I would agree that when this is the case (i.e., the father manages his household in a Christlike way) then with most children of most prospective elders, what you're referring to as the principle of reproducing after one's kind will have its effect.

But that's different from saying that, based upon Titus 1, a church must never ordain someone until all, or at least one, of his children is baptized. Again, if the requirement of tekna ekon pista ("having faithful children") means "they're Christians," then why would a church settle for just one?

Clearly, congregations have to size up the qualities and character of each prospective elder on an individual basis. Taking his cue from the differences between 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, A. Campbell went so far as to say that, in different cultural contexts, you might be looking for slightly different specific qualities in your elders.

I think that sort of flexibility matches up well with the differences in the two biblical passages in question, not to mention that they have the feel of being idealized portraits rather than checklists.

Rich said...


Great series of articles on this issue. I just came across it tonight as I was looking over the net for some good research on this topic. We are in the middle of a very intense study with the men of our congregation on the qualifications. We are a fairly "typical" small southern TN congregation (about 90 members) with too wide a variety on the understanding of these passages. After a near-disaster during our last "appointment process" the leadership decided it was high time to get serious about what being an Elder or Deacon in the church really means Biblically and not just because we've "always done it that way" or allowed opinion or tradition to dictate our understanding. Your write up on this was well done and has given me some real meat to chew on as well as confirmed for me some important facts about the language used by God in both Timothy and Titus. I have always contended that God is quite deliberate in His use of language and expression and that our English translations may, at times, dilute the true meaning of I very much appreciate those who talk not only of context but the language itself and what was actually being said not just what we think was being said. Well, forgive my rambling. I just wanted to say thanks and you definitely have a new, regular reader.

Many blessings,

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hello, Rich.

Thank you for your kind words. I appreciate the encouragement. I'm glad you read the series and I hope it will be helpful to you.