Does the New Testament teach that an unbelieving child disqualifies an elder?

We asked for a response from Justin Taylor, father of three, elder at New Covenant Bible Church in St. Charles, Illinois, and vice president of book publishing at Crossway.

There can be few things in life more painful than an unbelieving child. And when the child is the son or daughter of an elder, the questions take on a public dimension in the life of the church. Doesn’t the apostle Paul say something about elders needing to have children who are believers? The verses under consideration are 1 Timothy 3:4-5 and Titus 1:6. We’ll look at them in more detail below, but at this point it’s helpful to look at the two different conclusions that faithful interpreters have reached. Douglas Wilson holds to the first option: “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” (Douglas Wilson, “The Pastor’s Kid” in Credenda/Agenda, vol. 2, no. 3). Alexander Strauch holds to the second view: “The contrast is made not between believing and unbelieving children, but between obedient, respectful children and lawless, uncontrolled children.” In other words, Paul is talking about “the children’s behavior, not their eternal state” (Alexander Strauch, Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership, 229). Which one is right? To answer that, we have to take a careful look at the key texts.

Faithful Leadership in the Church and Home

In 1 Timothy 3:4, Paul says that an elder “must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive.” In the next verse he explains why: “for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” The obvious answer to the rhetorical question is that he can’t. In other words, if you can’t manage your household at home, you won’t be able to care for the household of God. If you regular lose control of your kids, why should you be trusted to lead and protect a flock? John Stott gets the biblical logic right: “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” (John Stott, Guard the Truth: The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus, 98). None of this is particularly controversial. It’s when we get to Titus 1:6 that the harder question arises.

Must an Elder’s Children Be Believers?

Paul says that an elder’s “children [must be] believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.” On first glance, the answer looks obvious. Paul says that an elder’s kids must be believers. But note the footnote in the ESV: believers can also be translated faithful. (It’s important to pay attention to footnotes in the translations of biblical texts, as they alert us when there are other equally valid translation options.) The Greek word here is pistas, which can mean either “believing” or “faithful” in the pastoral epistles. (For example, see “believing masters” in 1 Timothy 6:2 and “faithful men” in 2 Timothy 2:2). Word studies alone can’t solve this—it depends on the context. But let’s be clear on the two big options: Paul either meant that (1) an elder’s children have to be believers, or (2) an elder’s children must at least be faithful, submissive, and obedient. How do we decide? The Reformers rightly insisted that we allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. Here we have one author (Paul) writing separately to two young church planters (Timothy and Titus) talking about the same subject (elder qualifications). How do the two passages about family life compare? When we look at the Greek, we see how similar the language is between 1 Timothy 3:4 and Titus 1:6. You can see the similarities even if you don’t know Greek:

The most natural assumption is that Paul is saying the same thing in slightly different ways. (As Andreas Köstenberger points out, it would be unusual if Paul gave Timothy a more lenient standard about elder’s children and Titus a more stringent one.) If they mean the same thing, then to have children who are pista means to have children who are hypotagē. And what does it mean to have children who are hypotagē? Paul explains it in the next clause: “not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” (see note below*).

Four More Reasons

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. There is something sanctifying about being the child of a believing parent (1 Cor. 7:14). It does not guarantee salvation, but this relational reality sets the child apart in some way. A godly home with the gospel at the center does not automatically produce a believing child, but God has designed things such that this is often the case. In God’s providence the modeling of belief and the aroma of the gospel in the home are often the means of producing salvation by grace. None of this means, however, that there is a one-to-one correspondence between saving faith and good spiritual housekeeping. We see from both Scripture and experience that good and godly leadership does not always prevent children—whether spiritual or natura—from falling away. So it’s puzzling when John Stott says, “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” (John Stott, Guard the Truth: The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus, 176). This sounds right at first, but we know it’s not true—-effective evangelists can have children who leave the faith—and at the end of the day we must remember that salvation belongs to the Lord, who has mercy on whomever he has mercy. If we “expect” someone to be won to faith, we are likely forgetting the inscrutability of grace.

2) Even the best pastoral managers have unbelievers within their church or under their sphere of influence (cf. Galatians 1:6!). It’s possible for a pastor to manage the church (household of God) well, even though not everyone in it is a believer. If this is so, then it seems that one can manage his family (the smaller household) well, even though not all within it genuinely 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, walking faithfully with the Lord—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?

4) All of the requirements for eldership listed in this passage (being a one-woman man, 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.

Profound Effect

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. 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. (George W. Knight III, Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, p. 190. See p. 161 for his argument that Paul is referring to tekna (“children”) who are under authority and not yet of age.)

May God give the pastors and elders of our churches grace and wisdom in faithfully leading both their churches and their homes.


*In personal correspondence (10/13/11, quoted with permission) Doug Wilson writes: “I am happy to translate the word as faithful, and to say that it means that the children should be ‘under good management.’ But I don’t know why a child would be considered obedient if they were obedient when it comes to making their bed and staying away from cocaine, but disobedient to the central command to love God through Jesus Christ.” The problem with this is that we need to let Paul himself explain what he means by faithfulness and obedience, and he explains it negatively in terms of public behavior (“not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination”) rather than spiritual faithfulness to the gospel per se.

**I wish to thank Ray Van Neste, Tom Schreiner, and Andreas Köstenberger for offering helpful feedback on an earlier draft of this response.