Some Thoughts on the Family Qualifications of Elders
Fred G. Zaspel
Among the qualifications for elders formally listed in the Pastoral epistles is the requirement that the elder be "the husband of one wife" and that he "manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect." It has seldom yet sometimes been thought that these qualifications demand that the elder, in fact, be a married man and that he have children. This relatively narrow interpretation is a sincere attempt to be faithful and take the scriptures seriously, and in that respect I applaud it. But I am convinced that it is inaccurate. Here are some reasons why.
First, as a general guide for interpreting the scriptures, we must understand that when the Scripture makes a general statement we must not take it as anything but a general statement. To "absolutize" a general statement would be a mishandling of scripture. Put another way, to be faithful to the inspired text we must not interpret as strictly as possible but as accurately as possible.
Here are some examples that come to mind. In Luke 14:26 Jesus demands that we must hate our families in order to be his disciples. We understand immediately that this is not to be taken absolutely — clearly, his demand is that our love and commitment to him must be unrivaled such that it may seem as though we hate all others. We know this "general" understanding of his statement is correct because of other passages of Scripture which command us to love others. But there it is — a general statement which must not be understood in absolute terms. Or for another example, in John 12:19 we are told that as a result of Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus from the dead "the whole world" followed after Jesus. Clearly, this must be understood in general terms — "the whole world," as understood absolutely, did not, in fact, follow after Jesus. We know this by the simple fact that the people who said it (in John 12) were themselves not following Christ but opposing him. They were complaining, with overstatement, that so many people were beginning to follow Christ. Or, as another example, in Phil. 3:6 Paul says that in his former days as a Pharisee he was "blameless" in respect to the righteous requirements of the law. Clearly, this is to be understood in general terms not absolute. Or again, in Luke 18:18ff Jesus lays down the demand that one must sell all he has and give it to the poor in order to be saved. Clearly, it is his demand for submission to his lordship that is absolute, not this specific application of it. The statement must be understood in general terms. Or, finally, the Bible requires that an elder must not be a new convert — for obvious reasons! But this too is a relative statement. The apostle Paul founded the church in Thessalonica and was gone within the short space of a few weeks, but he left behind him "elders" (plural) in the church. Did he violate his own inspired command? Clearly, it would be possible to over-read the Biblical elder requirements at this point. On and on these examples could go. This principle is self-evident.
Our question here, then, turns on whether this elder qualification in question is to be understood generally — assuming that the elder is married / has children — or absolutely — requiring that the elder be married / have children. The evidence in favor of the former is abundant. First, consider what we can learn from the apostles themselves. The office of apostle gave way to that of elder. We know this from the "general look" of things in the New Testament and also from Peter's statement to this effect in 1 Pet. 5:1. The apostles had a much greater authority and wider range of responsibility than the elder, of course, but still the apostles functioned as elders and, in fact, so designated themselves. The apostles, in a given local church situation, functioned as elders, as Peter's statement affirms. We can learn, then, from their model — an example which, surely, would not contradict the divine precept. What can we observe from the apostles? For one, Paul was not even married, nor did he have children. Peter was married, but there is no evidence or even a tradition of any kind that he had children. And similarly with the other of the twelve. Moving on from the apostles, we can say the same for Timothy and Titus. And Timothy is a particularly appropriate example, given his youth. Further, Paul even makes the point in 1 Cor. 7 that celibacy allows a man further opportunity for service for Christ, not less.
This narrower interpretation of the elder requirements suffers also from some intolerable implications. For example, this stricter interpretation demands that the elder have children — i.e., he is not qualified until he has children. Given this method of interpretation, if the elder has only one child he is still not qualified, for the requirement is stated in the plural. I don't know anyone who would be willing to champion this cause, but on the terms of the stricter interpretation we would be left with it.
The implications continue. On that method of interpretation, it is required that an elder not only have children, but they all must be believers (Titus 1:6). Taken on strict terms, this demands the following —
1) The elder must have children.
2) These children must be old enough to believe.
3) These children must in fact believe — all of them.
Clearly, on this reading the field of candidates for the eldership is narrowing considerably. But it gets worse. Suppose child #1 is a believer, but child #2 comes along is too young to believe. Is the man disqualified now and so must step down? And what if child #2 becomes a believer and by now child #3 is with us but is too young? And then #4, and so on. All this is demanded on the strict method of interpretation — he must have children, and they must all be believing. These are the demands we would be left with, but I seriously that doubt anyone would be willing to go this far. It is clear to all that the requirement is to be taken more generally, and once this is admitted the entire strict view falls.
Moreover, on such an absolute interpretation, an elder becomes disqualified when his children are no longer at home. This is unavoidable on that stricter reading, but again, I doubt many would want to go this distance. At some point all must argue for a more general understanding. And this is the point exactly.
It is for obvious reasons such as these that virtually no one in the history of the church has interpreted the elder requirement so narrowly. The Biblical evidence just will not allow it. Put another way, the Bible itself forces us to a wider application.
It would be interesting indeed to see in the history of the church, if your interpretation were enforced, how many outstanding ministers of the gospel would be disqualified — Benjamin Warfield, George Whitefield, Robert Murray McCheyne, Charles Simeon, John R. W. Stott, John Calvin, John Newton, Richard Baxter, John Wesley, William Tyndale William Cowper, are a few that come to mind just off the cuff. And besides all these, there is the example of virtually all the ministers of history who began their work well before having children, most before even being married.
We must be careful to be faithful to the Scriptures and live by its demands in the selection of elders. But we must also understand that in order to be faithful we must neither fall short nor go beyond the written Word.