Unbelief in an Elder's Children
1 Timothy 3:4-5
He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?
. . . above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.
May a man have children who are unbelievers and yet be appointed or continue as an elder? First Timothy 3:4-5 and Titus 1:6 provoke the question.
There are two primary interpretations. Douglas Wilson summarizes the first view quite succinctly: "if a man’s children fall away from the faith (either doctrinally or morally), he is at that point disqualified from formal ministry in the church."1 Alexander Strauch suggests the second interpretive option: "The contrast is made not between believing and unbelieving children, but between obedient, respectful children and lawless, uncontrolled children." What is at stake, Strauch suggests, is "the children’s behavior, not their eternal state."2
Faithful Leadership in the Church and Home
Paul’s basic logic, especially in 1 Timothy 3, is fairly clear. The rhetorical question in the second half of verse 5 ("for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?") logically grounds his insistence on an ordered home in verse 4 ("He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive"). Because "The house of a believer ought to be like a little church,"3 the result is that "he who cannot obtain from his children any reverence or subjection . . . will hardly be able to restrain the people by the bridle of discipline."4
This means that how an elder, or potential elder, manages and orders his household are of utmost importance in determining his qualification for office. John Stott carefully summarizes the matter: "The married pastor is called to leadership in two families, his and God’s, and the former is to be the training ground of the latter."5 (Cf. Matthew 25:14-30—he who is faithful over a little will be faithful over much.6)
The above analysis is rather uncontroversial among exegetes. Disagreements arise, however, when we probe more deeply into the nature of this well-ordered home.
Must an Elder's Children Be Believers?
The most controversial question surrounding these verses is whether Paul is saying that an elder’s children have to be believers, or only that they must be faithful, submissive, and obedient.
The term pistas can mean either "believing" or "faithful" in the Pastoral Epistles (for the former with a noun, cf. 1 Timothy 6:2; for the latter with a noun, cf. 2 Timothy 2:2). Therefore, word studies alone cannot resolve the question.
However, I want to suggest that resolution to this question can be found in comparing the parallel between Titus 1:6 and 1 Timothy 3:4. We can be reasonably certain that tekna echonta en hypotagē ("having children in control / submission / obedience"; 1 Timothy 3:4) is virtually synonymous with tekna echōn pista ("having faithful / believing children"; Titus 1:6).7 In other words, to have pista children means to have children hypotagē. This would mean that the final part of Titus 1:6 ("not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination") is a description of what pista means.
With that in mind, here are four further reasons that incline me to believe that Paul is referring to the submission and obedience of an elder’s children, and not to their salvation.
1) The grounding question of 1 Timothy 3:5 explicitly connects the elder’s qualifications with his managerial skills in verse 4.
Generally obedient behavior does not require miraculous intervention; even a good lab technician can make a rat follow a certain path if enough planning and forethought is invested. Salvific faith, however, cannot be produced as a result of good housekeeping. While a godly home is often conducive to belief, it does not produce it.
If we insist that a child’s salvation is fundamentally connected to the managerial skills of the father, we have inadvertently assigned an unbiblical role to human action.
This is clearly the case with an application drawn by Stott: "An extension of the same principle may be that presbyter-bishops can hardly be expected to win strangers to Christ if they have failed to win those who are most exposed to their influence, their own children."8 What would this mean? If you are a good manager at your home, then unbelievers can be "expected" to come to the Lord through your ministry?
2) Even the best pastoral managers have unbelievers within their church or under their sphere of influence (cf. Galatians 1:6!).
The logical consequent of this would mean that one can manage the larger household (his church) well, even though not everyone in it is a believer. If this is so, then it seems that one can manage the smaller household (his family) well, even though not all within it believe.
3) Insisting that having believing children is a prerequisite to eldership leads to some uncomfortable questions.
What do we make of an elder who has a number of believing children—but one who is not? If most of his children are believers, is he not a good manager of his household? Or, does the one unbelieving child call into question his overall managerial ability? If it does, then why did any of his children turn out to be believers?
Wilson writes: ". . . a man might decide (and, I think, should decide) to step down if one of his six children denies the faith. But if another pastor in his presbytery in the same situation does not decide to do so, and his other five children are saintly, only a crank would express his disagreement through a big church fight."9 Yet this seems inconsistent; for if Paul truly teaches that unbelieving children automatically disqualify a man for eldership, then the purity of the elder board is worth fighting over.
4) All of the requirements for eldership that are listed in this passage (being married once, being temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, a good teacher, not a drunkard, not a lover of money, and not a recent convert) are actions of personal responsibility. We would expect the requirement regarding his children to be in the same category.
Requiring that his children have genuine saving faith is to require personal responsibility for the salvation of another, something I don't see taught in Scripture.
I believe, therefore, that 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are referring to the general submission and behavior of the elder’s children. God has so designed the universe that the parental role of disciplinarian, model, authority, and servant-leader generally has a profound effect upon the behavior of the children. Paul does not spell out what this looks like in every case, nor does he spell out all of the specifics of what will disqualify an elder. The general case, however, is clear:
What must not characterize the children of an elder is immorality and undisciplined rebelliousness, if the children are still at home and under his authority.10 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.11
May God give the pastors and elders of our churches grace and wisdom in faithfully leading both their churches and their homes.12
1 Douglas Wilson, "The Pastor’s Kid" in Credenda/Agenda, vol. 2, no. 3.
2 Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, revised & expanded (Littleton, Col.: Lewis & Roth Publishers, 1995), 229.
3 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, translated from Latin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 83 no. 1.
4 Ibid., 293.
5 John Stott, Guard the Truth: The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus, The Bible Speaks Today (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 98.
6 William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, WCB (Dallas: Word, 2000), 180.
7 As Andreas Köstenberger writes, "In the larger context of the teaching of the Pastoral Epistles, it would be unusual if the author had two separate standards, a more lenient one in 1 Timothy 3:4 (obedient) and a more stringent one in Titus 1:6 (believing). This creates a presumption of reading pistos in Titus 1:6 as conveying the sense 'faithful' or 'obedient' in keeping with the requirement stated in 1 Timothy 3:4." See "Children of Elders: What Are the Requirements?", along with his treatments in 1–2 Timothy, Titus, in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 12 (rev. ed.; Zondervan, 2007), pp. 606-7, and ch. 12 in God, Marriage, and Family (Crossway, 2004).
8 Stott, Guard the Truth, 176.
9 Douglas Wilson, "The Pastor’s Kid, Again" in Credenda/Agenda, vol. 2, no. 5.
10 See George W. Knight III, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 161, for his argument that Paul is referring to tekna ("children") who are under authority and not yet of age.
11 Ibid., 290.
12 I wish to thank Ray Van Neste, Tom Schreiner, and Andreas Köstenberger for offering helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this paper.