In this post, I am not going to give you my view of that verse. Instead, I want to lay out the three most common views, and briefly give you their strengths and weaknesses. This is one of those issues where we too easily write off opposing views to ours, and it’s my goal here to get you to really think through all three views on their own merits. I call the three views the Evangelical View, the Baptistic View, and the Reformed View. I grant that these are broad categories and over generalizations. Feel free to quibble with my labels, and rebuke me for separating evangelical from baptistic (or whatever), and also feel free to suggest better titles. The point here is just to give this discussion some categories.
First, here is the text:
“[An elder must be] someone who is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of wildness or rebellion” (Titus 1:6).
“if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (Titus 1:6).
The KJV, Holman and RSV go with “faithful children.” The ESV, NIV, NASB, and probably even The Message (no way I’m checking) all use “children are believers.” The Greek word is pista, which can mean trustworthy, faithful, or believing. Now for the three views:
Evangelical View: Children who are under control
I call this the evangelical view because if the issue was decided by democracy, this view would carry the day. The essence of this view is that children in the home are to be under control, but the requirement does not apply to children outside of the home. Moreover, in this passage Paul is not concerned with the children’s salvation, as much as he is simply mandating that an elder’s children stay out of trouble (as defined by the rest of the verse—no debauchery or insubordination). Any trouble the child gets in while living at home could harm the church’s reputation, and that explains the existence of this qualification.
In other words, this view says that for a person to be an elder, his kids need to stay out of jail, take the trash out when they are told, and generally behave in such a way that the church is not going to be shamed. Also noteworthy, this is the only of the three views that is concerned only with children living in the home, and those who hold this view would not see Paul’s requirement applying to an elder whose kids have moved out. This view is held by Knight in the NIGNTC, Hendrickson (who translates it “well behaved”), the NET Bible notes, and John Piper. Here are the arguments in favor of this view:
- Paul’s concern is how the elder manages those under his control. Once a child has moved out of the house, his relationship to his parents is no longer indicative of the father’s ability to lead.
- The parallel passage in 1 Tim 3 says that children need to be “under control.” That Greek word (hupotage) is a military term, and fits well with external order/ability to follow commands.
- In Titus 1:6, the verb “having” (“having children who believe”) indicates possession, thus that the children are under the father’s roof.
- The concern here is the children’s obedience to their parents, not the ultimate spiritual condition of the children. This is evidenced by Paul’s use of “not accused of wildness.”
While at home, are the children obedient? Does the father discipline? Are their accusations of rebellion? Those are the questions that indicate fitness to lead.
Here are the arguments against this view:
- It focuses too much on the worldly components of parenting, and fails to account for the spiritual dynamics that Paul would have been concerned about.
- If the concern is simply a child’s ability to follow commands, why doesn’t the father command his child to believe the gospel? Who cares if he can take the trash out when asked, if he refuses to believe what the father says about eternity?
- This view has such narrow application that it borders on meaningless. According to this view, if a child is at home, it doesn’t matter what his spiritual life is like, and if he rebels and falls away, then the father simply kicks him out, and he remains qualified.
- What about a father who takes in a rebellious son who has returned home? Is that the right parenting approach? It is difficult to imagine a scenario where this view is any kind of meaningful qualification–and that probably explains why it is the majority view. If you hold to this view, you almost never have to have remove an elder over this qualification.
Traditional Reformed View: Children who are in the church
This view takes the Evangelical View and builds on it. Those who hold this view say that in addition to being well behaved and faithful at home, Paul is also saying that children at any age must be faithful to the church. Their salvation is not what is in mind, as much as their faithfulness to remain part of the covenant community and the regular gatherings of the visible church.
I think many people often misunderstand what those who hold this view are arguing for, and I hasten to say that this view really only fits well inside of a pedobaptistic environment. This view is NOT saying that an elder’s children need to be regenerate, but it is saying that they need to be part of the church. Obviously if their life brought shame on the family, it would bring shame on the church, and that is what this qualification is all about. But unlike the previous view, the Reformed View would apply this criteria even to children who have moved out of the house. The idea is how a person’s family views the church says a lot about the leadership of the father in the church. It is held by Guthrie in the TNTC, Matthew Henry, Calvin, Sproul, and (as near as I can tell) Douglas Wilson.
In favor of this view:
- The word “faithful” is not necessarily indicative of salvation. Rather, it refers to a habit of life, or a custom that relates to the things of God.
- The main concern of this entire passage is how an elder will lead the church, and the best way to see this is in how he leads his family. Are they part of the church, are they faithful in the church, and does their faithfulness match what you would expect of others in the church? If so, then the father is qualified. If not, then the father is unqualified.
- Salvation is too difficult to measure externally, and regardless, the doctrine of election means that the child’s salvation does not reflect on the leadership of the elder, as much the electing purposes of God. But the child’s faithfulness at church is a direct reflection of the leadership of the father.
- Because of the youth of the church in Crete, this is the only view that makes sense (the gospel had not been there long enough to see children come to faith, but had been there long enough to see fathers bring their children to church).
Against this view:
- Is this view too focused on the externals? Does it fail to address inward heart issues?
- It’s unclear to me how this view relates to children who were part of the church when young, but have since moved away from their parents and moved on from church years later. Would that really reflect negatively on the person’s ability to lead the church?
While historically this may have been the majority view, it is certainly in the minority now.
Baptistic View: Children who love the Lord
This is certainly the most controversial of the views, as it also builds upon the other two. Those who hold this view see Paul saying that as children grow older, they must have given their life to the Lord—as seen by them following the Lord—in order for the father to be considered as a candidate for an elder. This view is simply concerned with an elder’s children having a salvation testimony, baptism, and conversion experience, coupled with a lifestyle that validates the elder’s love of the gospel.
This view is not so much concerned about young ones at home, nor (unlike the Reformed view) is it concerned necessarily about church faithfulness. Instead, those who hold this view would say that to be qualified to be an elder, your children need to be following the Lord if you are to be an elder. Those who hold this view often point to Aaron, Gideon, Samuel, David, Solomon, etc. They had the credibility of their ministry destroyed because their children were not following the Lord. This should be different in the church, and this qualification is designed to protect the reputation of the church from accusations stemming from the unredeemed lives of children of church leaders.
Whereas the other two views see the command for children to be “under control” (1 Tim 3) and the command here for them to be “faithful” as parallel, this view sees them as complimentary. According to this view, “under control” applies to young children at home, and “believing” applies to older children and adult children of potential elders.
If you view the three views through the lens of strictness, this would arguably set the highest bar for an elder. While I know of only a few churches that support it, it does seem backed by most of the major commentaries (eg., Griffen in the NAC, Heibert in the EBC, White in the EGT, the UBS translator’s notes, and Walvord/Zuck in the BKC, and MacArthur). In favor of this view:
- The word for “faithful/believing” is pista, and that almost universally is used to denote saving faith.
- Election and salvation are supernatural, but so is the call to ministry. It makes sense that the call to ministry would be verified by the salvation of those under the influence of this leader. If God is not blessing his ministry in the home, why would we think God would bless his ministry in the church?
- The main point here is not fairness to the potential elder, but fairness to the church.
- The main concern is that a child’s failure to believe the gospel robs the elder of ministry credibility.
- Contra the other two views, the New Covenant is never is concerned with outward faithfulness/conformity, but only with an internal reconciliation to God.
Against this view are the following arguments:
- Is this view realistic? Is Paul really saying that a man with young children may be qualified to be an elder, but if his children leave the faith when they are older, that he is no longer qualified?
- This view wrongly makes Paul’s concern in Titus 1 the leadership capabilities of the elder, while in truth Paul is more concerned about protecting the church from accusations.
- This view fails to appreciate continuity between 1 Tim and Titus.
- If Paul was concerned about their salvation as opposed to their order, why would he clarify the command with “not accused of wildness or rebellion”?
- In this view, is Paul then mostly concerned with adult children? [Response: 1 Tim 3 refers to managing younger children, Titus 1 refers to their faith when older].
I’d love to hear from you: Does your church have a position on this issue? What is it? [Note: I will delete any comments that disparage any elder by name or speak negatively of his family].