Nothing has vexed me, in serving churches and pastors, quite like the way discussions about the pastor and his children have developed over the course of my lifetime. Let me explain.

1 Timothy 3:4-5 says the bishop/overseer “must manage his household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way—for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?”

The Bishops Wife Assuming the overseer is the same office as that of the pastor/elder (I do assume this and some Christians will not agree) then such leaders must “manage” their own household, or their family, well. Later, in 1 Timothy 3;15 Paul refers to the church congregation as a household/family. This is clearly the language of analogy. As a parent leads in the family so that same parent, if given leadership in the church, leads in the spiritual family. The ability to “manage” in one sphere is connected with the ability to do the same in the other sphere; e.g. 3:12; 5:17; Romans 12:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:12. This conclusion seems straightforward.

The context of this text is the Greco-Roman household where familial bonds united people in mutual responsibilities, roles and stewardship. This household included blood relatives but often other dependents, even slaves. Against this background the New Testament texts on this subject make much better sense.

The problem comes when conservative Christians apply this text in a rigid, hierarchical manner. The father is seen as the king of the household and he rules. If rebellion exists in his home then his rule has failed. If he fails to rule well then he should not rule, or govern, in the spiritual realm, the church. The logic is simple but wrongly applied and misplaced.

The key word in this portion of Paul’s letter is in 3:2. Paul says a bishop/overseer must be “above reproach” or “blameless.” What Paul is doing here is simple in my view. He is saying that every Christian should strive to have such a household but an overseer must meet these basic conditions of family discipleship if they are to lead well.

Does this mean the overseer never has family struggles? Or children who step out-of-line? Does it mean there is some super standard for leaders that makes them really spiritual in some unusual way? Obviously, it does not. It does, however, mean those who lead the church must be mature (whole), good leaders. If their family is in chaos then they should not be in the ministry of overseeing the church family. The principle is obvious. The application, however, is not made by a set of rules to be followed. This is not law. It is a simple standard given so that the church will always be careful to have good leadership. If the leader, or leaders, of the church is/are continually dealing with destructive family patterns that makes church leadership ineffective. In some cases, after careful consideration and counsel, such leaders should not serve, at least not until the issue at hand is resolved. The application of this principle requires wisdom, as I mentioned yesterday from the Proverbs. This is what I find so often missing in the way this text is used. Every situation requires care, counsel and much concern for the person and the church, not just for meeting a rule.

The idea here seems to me to be fairly obvious. The overseer should lead a life that is admirable and Christ-like. People should be able to look at this person and say, “There is what Christian maturity looks like spiritually, financially, socially and morally.” The leader’s children will never be angels and no one should expect that they should be. Trying to produce angelic children can be the death knell for grace in the homes of pastors. Great wisdom is needed and the church needs to help, not make the shepherd’s work that much harder. Teens will struggle, even in the best homes. The question is not: “Are my children perfect but rather can I say that I am leading well in the situation in which I find myself at this time?”

To summarize, this text is not a strict code of conduct so much as a broad statement about maturity. Leaders should be mature. In fact, good ones must be all the more mature and this will show in their leadership in their home life.

Titus 1:6 says that elders must have children who are “believers.” By the way, the use of “elder” (1:5) and “overseer” or “bishop” (1:7) indicates, I believe, that these were one and the same office. The terms are here used interchangeably (cf. Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1-2).

So how can it be a requirement that a pastor/elder have children who are all “believers” in the biblical sense of this word? Note that in this same verse Paul links the word “believer” to children who are “wild and rebellious.” Perhaps he is using “believer” in a more generic sense and one that is not rigidly theological, as in “regenerate.” (I think this is likely the case.) Many see this as a reference to the Cretans and their cultural patterns, which were ungodly through and through. Paul’s concern was that Christians not live like Cretans, but be distinct in their lifestyle.

Over the years I have read numerous attempts to sort this text out. Some write about the age of children in this text (no mention is made) while others appeal to 1 Timothy 3 and say that little children are in view there and older ones in view here. Still others protest that you cannot make regeneration a requirement for office, which seems patently obvious to me. But none of this solves the problem. What is Paul saying?

I think we do far better to read these kinds of verses in their broader context and to keep in mind the proverbial nature of these sayings. Paul is not saying that a pastor must resign if his 18 year old son is not living as a believer in Christ. Nor is he saying that if an overseer has a 40 year old son or daughter, who long ago left the church, they are disqualified from present pastoral leadership. To make this text fit into something like that, thus a kind of ecclesial rule, seems to miss the intent by a thousand miles. Context, context, context. This is everything in the pastoral letters, especially here.

Make no mistake about it. Being a leader in the church requires a mature, godly, Christ-centered lifestyle that is essentially consistent. This plainly touches on the family of the leader. In some cases leaders should step back and deal with their family issues while in others they need time off, with support, to serve their family first while they get things in order. Each situation is different and no one rule fits every person and context perfectly. Wisdom is needed. But this is precisely what God promised to those people, and those congregations, who truly ask for it; cf. James 1:5-8.

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  1. Kevin Derr February 24, 2011 at 8:22 am

    Thanks John,
    It is very helpful to see some one model the application of wisdom to a text.

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