If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. (Titus 1:6, King James Version)
An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. (New International Version)
Here's the question: Does this verse mean that a prospective elder must have one or more children who are baptized believers in Christ? As Schaller pointed out, most congregations of the Churches of Christ say, "Yes." But there are several good reasons for understanding this passage in a different way. That's what this series of posts is about.
Before taking the discussion further, I want to say something about why this is significant. From 1993 through 2005, I worked with two congregations of the Churches of Christ in Connecticut. During that time, I became fairly well acquainted with the congregations of New England. In the 1990s, of about 81 congregations in the six New England states, only about 10-15% of those churches had ordained elders. Since then, some of these churches have taken that step for the very first time. Many of the congregations have been in existence for 30, 40, even 50 years or more. But even now there is only a small percentage of elder-led churches in that region. And why?
In general, the answer has much to do with an approach to elder selection that sees 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9 as legal texts. This approach begins by assuming that if any prospective elder does not match up well with every descriptive phrase found in both of these passages, he is thereby disqualified. The church cannot appoint him, because he is not a God-approved elder.
This practice begins with a number of faulty assumptions. For example, we can begin by asking, "Why use these two passages in a way that would have been impossible for both of the original recipients?" Timothy didn't have a copy of the letter to Titus. And Titus wasn't reading the First Letter to Timothy. Making a super list by combining both texts is a practice of many contemporary Churches of Christ. In effect, it becomes a tool by which congregations start picking off elder candidates. Ironically, this practice of the Churches of Christ was never done in any New Testament church. Another series of posts on this subject would focus not so much on the "trees" (like our phrase in Titus 1:6). Instead, it would back away from particulars and think about how best to understand and apply the "forest," the biblical teaching about shepherds.
That said, I want to return to our question. In my experience, the phrase we're studying is one of the most-common sticking points when it comes to whether a man is deemed qualified. The last post looked at some of the different ways that the Greek word pistos is used in the New Testament. Again, this is the word in Titus 1:6 that, in the New International Version, is translated "a man whose children believe." In the King James Bible the phrase reads, "having faithful children." Do those words expect that the elder's children must be Christians? In the last post we noticed that the Greek word pistos refers to Christian faith or identity in only about 25% of its 67 occurrences in the New Testament. This naturally raises the question of how pistos should be understood in Titus 1:6.
Context is Key
Before getting to that question we should clarify something that everyone knows intuitively about the meaning of any word; namely "the determinative function of context." I put that phrase in quotations because it comes from a book by Moises Silva called Biblical Words and Their Meaning. Anyone interested in how the field of linguistics can help us to be better interpreters of Scripture should read it. (The link over the title provides almost all of the book's content). A shorter overview of many of the same ideas can be found in Bruce K. Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Chapter 3, "Basic Concepts," pp. 44-62.
Here's a bit of what you will encounter in those readings: Consider the sentence, "I sang before Queen Elizabeth." Upon reading that, most people assume they understand what is being said. The person is claiming to have performed for the Queen. However, what if you later discovered that Queen Elizabeth also sang on that occasion? In that case, the word "before" would not be interpreted as "in front of." Instead, it would more likely be a reference to time, as in "I sang before Queen Elizabeth sang." So, what does "before" mean? Only context provides the decisive clue. Or consider these sentences:
I ate ice cream with my friend.
I ate ice cream with my pie.
I ate ice cream with my spoon.
What does the word "with" mean? It all depends on the words around it, right? This is something that we all know. But we rarely think about it because we make any necessary adjustments naturally, without needing to think about it. The main point is this: What determines the meaning of a word in a sentence are the words that surround it. And, if you know something of the background, the history behind a statement (as in the example of singing "before" the Queen), that also can be decisive.
Now, let's apply these basic ideas to our interpretation of Titus 1:6. What do the words surrounding pistos tell us about what it means in this particular verse? To quote the passage again, a prospective elder's children should be pistos, "not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient" (NIV).
Almost as if Paul knows that people might wonder what he means by the Greek word in question, he adds that defining phrase. Again, in the King James, the phrase is translated "not accused of riot or unruly."
Question: Is that the sort of phrase Paul would use to describe people of Christian faith? Maybe. Or is that the sort of phrase he would use to simply say, "The elder's children, regardless of their age and personal faith, speak well of their father's ability to manage and direct a household"?
I vote for the latter. In other words, I don't believe that Titus 1:6 expects or requires an elder's children to necessarily be Christians. In the next post, I'll bring in another passage that can help make the case. Then, I'll conclude.
Naturally, I'm curious to hear your responses to these posts so far. What do you think?