Saturday, March 13, 2010

Church Elders and Their Children, Part 3

[A part of your problem is] your interpretation of who is eligible to be an elder . . . you are excluding an awful lot of folks from being your elders by a very legalistic interpretation of what Paul wrote. Can you have a non-believer in your home? Must you have multiple children? If your youngest child is not old enough to be baptized, are you not eligible to be an elder? . . . You are cutting off openings for your younger brighter folks coming along who are in touch with the culture and who are very gifted, able people. --Lyle Schaller, "dean of church consultants," speaking of the Churches of Christ, Interview in Wineskins magazine, Volume 1, Number 11 (April 1993), pp. 9-11.


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?

Legal Texts?

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?


James said...

My thoughts so far... educational and insightful. Much of what I presumed of the text, but you've provided that translational context that I think solidifies it for me.

I think you've hit it squarely with the previous post about the perfection required of the standard that has been held up by many is nearly impossible to attain.

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...

excellent series Frank. Keep up the good work.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks, guys, for your encouragement.

Steven Hovater said...

Frank, I'm glad you're working through these things so well. As you note in the post, these really are interpretations of consequence, that affect the behavior and structure of leaderships in the churches in some very concrete ways.

A strict legal interpretation of the passage also necessitates excluding men on the basis of actions that may very well have preceded their conversion! This is very easy to imagine in our context and in Paul's, and it seems very unlikely and unfortunate. What about the man who becomes a christian while his children are teens, for instance, and simply don't accept his faith? What about the man who simply never had kids to start with? It seems like this verse is really intending to exclude, rather, men who simply are not skilled in leading well, and who evidence that in their lives.

James Jones said...

Thank you for bringing this post to my attention. Your work and study is very helpful and insightful.

When Timothy and Titus received these instruction, how many men would they find qualified who had been converted long enough to have raised children, obey the gospel, and 'prove' themselves before they could be qualified (if taking the one conservative view of them having older, converted children)? I know from the presumed dating of the writings that it is a possibility. However, your take on this part of the qualifications seems to make more sense when reading the text.

I love how you brought out that pistos refers to faithful Christian identity approximately 25% of the time, therefore forcing us to consider other options.

Again, thank you for dropping by and alerting me to your studies. I have a lot of reading to do!

Frank Bellizzi said...


You raise several interesting points and possibilities for further study and reflection. What does a faithful application of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 look like? Thanks for stopping by and offering your insight.


I think you're on the right track. On the island of Crete, how many families would there be where the father and his grown children were believers? By all accounts Crete was a pretty wild place. Yet, Paul expects Titus to see to it that there are elders in every town.