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Disqualified pastors and riotous children

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6 minutes to read Contrary to modern opinion, a pastor with unbelieving or debauched children is prima facie disqualified from ministry.

If anyone is blameless, a man of one woman, having faithful children, not under accusation of riotousness nor unruly—for it is necessary for the overseer to be blameless, as God’s steward… (Titus 1:6–7)

There is a great deal of motivation today to deny that Paul is here speaking of adult children–especially ones who may no longer be at home. But this won’t fly, either covenantally or biblically-theologically.

Covenantally, we know that God’s promise is to us and to our seed. That is the normative pattern throughout scripture:

I, Yahweh thy God, am a zealous God, charging iniquity of fathers on sons, on the third generation, and on the fourth, of those hating me, and doing covenant-love to thousands, of those loving me and keeping my commands. (Ex 20:5–6)

Because of this, unbelieving adult children normatively should disqualify a man from eldership. God himself has disqualified that man by not fulfilling his promise to that man. The covenantal pattern reflects back on the man himself. A tree is known by its fruit, and the fruit is no less clear just because it took 25 or 30 years to grow.

The question is not fundamentally whether a man is a believer, of course. Having unbelieving children does not necessarily imply that he hates God in a thoroughgoing way. That isn’t the point. The point is that eldership within God’s church must conform to a high standard, and follow the general pattern of God’s covenantal dealings with his people. Even for men who are believers, unbelieving children are a shame upon them, and a disqualification to them. The example of Eli is pertinent (1 Sa 2:12ff). Paul’s exact rationale for the qualification of believing children is that a man who can’t lead his own sons in the faith is not qualified to lead anyone else:

But if anyone knoweth not how to rule his own house, how shall he care for the congregation of God? (1 Ti 1:5)

It’s not a question of formal authority, but of moral authority. And it’s also not a question of immediate control, but of the seed which was planted which has produced this fruit. Families are bodies just like we are bodies. You cannot artificially isolate the children from the father, even after they leave home. That doesn’t mean he is punished for their sin, but he is in some important respects responsible for their sin, just as he is responsible for his wife, even though he is not punished for her sins. Scripture clearly shows that sons inherit the sins of their fathers, often in exaggerated ways (think of David and Amnon). That is because sons are made in the likeness of their fathers. That likeness matters for assessing a pastor.

From a biblical-theological angle, the words that Paul uses in Titus 1:6 are very specific and quite rare in the NT, making it easy for us to track them and infer the general pattern that he has in mind. The overseer’s children, he says, cannot be under accusation of riotousness, nor unruly.

The word for riot appears only in three other places. The first is Ephesians 5:18, which says, “be not drunken with wine, wherein is riot.” The second is 1 Peter 4:4, which speaks of unbelievers being surprised that Christians will not run with them into the same excess of riot as described in verse 3—namely, “lasciviousness, lusts, winebibbings, revellings, carousings, and abominable idolatries.” The third is an adjectival form in Luke 15:13, describing the prodigal son wasting his father’s inheritance in riotous living.

All of these instances obviously refer to the same family of adult sins—and the example of the prodigal son is especially telling, since it gives us a template for the kind of child that Paul has in mind here.

Similarly, the word for unruly appears only a handful of times. The first is 1 Timothy 1:9, about how “law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and unruly.” What are such lawless people like? In addition to being ungodly and sinners, unholy and profane, they are “murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers.” So again there is a clear connection in Paul’s mind between this word and wicked adult children.

The second instance is just a few verses later in Titus: “For there are many unruly men, vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision” (Tit 1:10). These, again, are obviously adults, and in this case, their unruliness is directly connected to unbelief, faithlessness, which is another qualifying mark for the children of overseers in Titus 1:6.

The third is Hebrews 2:8, where the connection is a little different: this time referring to how God has left nothing that is unruly—i.e., not in subjection—to Christ. In the same way, nothing he has given to an overseer should be unruly to him, if he is to model Christ.

Given these factors, it is very clear that the question is not fundamentally whether a child is still under his father’s roof. The father’s direct authority isn’t the issue, and is obviously not the issue, or Paul wouldn’t specifically single out children who are capable of leaving home, connect it with the example of the prodigal son who did leave home, and then say that these children must be believers and not sinners. The idea of direct authority is often imposed on the text because of modern, individualistic assumptions about what is and isn’t our responsibility. But these assumptions are reductionistic and mechanical, contrary to scripture’s covenantal and organic view.

At this point, inevitably questions arise like, “What about if he needs his job as pastor to provide for his family,” or, “What should he do with his gifts if he isn’t shepherding—should he just squander them?” Obviously these are hard things to accept. And there are genuinely gray areas where it’s not clear that a man is disqualified; Doug Wilson does a good job illustrating some of these edge cases in his book, The Neglected Qualification. But we have to recognize that fundamentally, these kind of questions arise from a desire to disobey a clear moral principle because it’s hard. They follow the same logic as atheists who want to allow abortion. “What about if the mother is raped? Should she be made to keep the baby?!” The fact that the answer is hard to hear doesn’t mean it is wrong.

In this vein, I also don’t think Christians have sufficiently grappled with how God works, and how repentance is given by him. Suppose he is testing a pastor’s faithfulness by having his son apostatize? Suppose, if his father were to step down and seek the good of his son, the one stray sheep, rather than staying with the 99 in the rest of his flock, God would grant repentance to that son—and restore his father to ministry? (Does not the prodigal repent?)

But suppose the father fails the test by pragmatically justifying remaining in the pastorate—and the son goes to hell?

It seems to me that most Christians in the modern day are deeply, fundamentally weak at obeying God when it is hard. I don’t mean this in the glib sense that obviously we are all weak at this. I mean that modern Christians are especially weak at it. Our weakness is unprecedented in the history of the church, and reflects the weakness, and frankly often the deadness, of our faith. It is a regular occurrence that professing believers–pastors—can’t even conceive of obeying God if it will be hard. Should we take professions of faith seriously from men who look at what scripture says, and just refuse to do it because it would interfere with how they’re currently living? Would not true faith rather obey God, and do the hard thing, trusting him to do what is just and bless that obedience? What kind of faith weasels out of commands from God, covering it with pragmatic justifications and the desires of other equally faithless men? What kind of faith risks God’s displeasure?

I suppose the same kind of faith that shuts down worship when the state decides it is not essential.

Btw, I obviously have a very personal stake in this. God may disqualify me from ministry with wicked children. I certainly pray he doesn’t, for the sake of my children themselves. But if he does, I will know that he doesn’t want my talents for ministry any more, or at least until I can restore my child—and that I should serve him somewhere else, and especially in seeking the salvation of that child.

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