The Biblical Requirements for Elders
The Significance of the Requirement of Believing Children in 1 Tim 3.1-7 and Tts 1.5-9
In a previous article, I documented from the Scripture the requirement of the overseer candidate of having a wife, children and a well-run home. As I pointed out in another place, the Holy Spirit emphasized this requirement beyond all others.
If you carefully study these passages:
1 Tim 3.4: his own household managing well
having children in subjection with all dignity
Tts 1.6: having believing children not accused of dissipation or rebellion
you’ll notice that it appears they may be at odds with each other. Certainly, if the overseer candidate has faithful, believing children (as demonstrated at least by their circumspect behavior) then they will be well-managed (that is, “in subjection with all dignity”). However, the converse may not be true: the overseer candidate may have children “in subjection with all dignity”, but who remain unbelievers nonetheless. All children begin life as lost unbelievers; how they behave is largely a result of how well they are raised. (Pro 22.6) And in the case of the overseer candidate, he is tasked with demonstrating that he is raising and managing his children well, regardless of whether or not they have become Christians early in their lives.
So, how do we handle this apparent contradiction?
Well, the first principle is to obey each requirement (that is, the statement in 1 Tim 3 and the statement in Tts 1) as they stand. I am confident that the Lord did not make a mistake or contradict Himself.
The second principle is to recognize the fact that the entire Bible was not written as a single book by a single (human) author. Its construction took place over centuries as more revelation was made known to mankind progressively:
- Adam did not have access to the Mosaic Law; he was given only a few, explicit commandments to obey.
- Moses saw only a shadow of the coming Messiah but was required to perform the sacrifices, in spite of the fact that they could never take away sin. (Heb 10.4)
- The OT prophets preached faithfully to a disobedient Israel over a span of centuries, but many of them never saw the fulfillment of their words (those, for example concerning Messiah and the future of national Israel). Most saw only a partial fulfillment.
- The early church first had the verbal teachings of the original Apostles, but over time their teaching became codified into the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles.
- The Apostle John saw the end of the age in an extraordinary vision, but died two millennia before the fulfillment of that vision.
- And, we, in this century, still await the Lord’s return.
The principle is obvious: the Lord reveals to His people what they need, as much as they need, when they need it.
In Acts 14, we find this interesting event:
After they had preached the gospel to [Derbe] and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
This took place during the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey through what is modern day Turkey. Paul’s and Barnabus’ preaching and message were successful in many ways and produced a number of new Gentile believers. The interesting item to note is that in those very new and inexperienced assemblies it was nonetheless necessary to ensure that qualified overseers were placed. That role, at that time, was accomplished by the appointment of the overseer by Paul and/or his representatives.
There is no mention there of any requirements; I believe in view of this fact that we may assume that the Lord did not regard it as necessary to fully establish His requirements at that time. This event took place many years before Paul would pen the epistles of 1 Timothy or Titus. As the Lord was pleased to do, more revelation regarding elders was given to Paul throughout his ministry, which eventually was codified into portions of those two epistles. I easily accept the Lord’s actions here:
- elders were necessary, and
- Paul and Barnabas were guided by the Lord Himself (as the record of their journey abundantly shows).
We therefore may safely assume that they made good choices and chose faithful men who would meet the requirements had those requirements been codified at that time. This is not mere speculation—the Lord never contradicts Himself. He would protect His new assemblies by ensuring that His servants chose faithful men to lead them.
However, from our perspective nearly two millennia later, we are now bound to the entire complete record. Both 1 Tim 3 and Tts 1 exist and have been established as part of the divine Canon. We are expected to read, study, understand, obey and implement those requirements in the evaluation of the overseer candidate.
In any given family with multiple children, at any given point in time we have the following possibilities:
- none of their children are saved,
- all of their children are saved,
- (and most likely) there will be a mix of saved and lost children.
The Lord knows this, and the requirements as stated in 1 Tim 3 and Tts 1 reflect this reality. The fact is, the overseer candidate is responsible to show that he manages his children well; he is not required to have children who are true Christians before he can be considered for the office.
(This is not the same as the requirement stated in Tts 1.6, as I now show.)
Look closely at the text of Titus:
having believing children not accused of dissipation or rebellion
The Greek makes this a bit more clear:
τέκνα ἔχων πιστά, μὴ ἐν κατηγορίᾳ ἀσωτίας ἢ ἀνυπότακτα
children having faithful, [with] no accusation of excess or disobediences [matching word order]
Let’s parse this phrase into its two sections:
τέκνα ἔχων πιστά
The main verb of the phrase is ἔχων. It is a present active participle, nominative singular masculine. Because it is singular masculine, it modifies the subject of the sentence, τίς (a certain man). That is, that “certain man” has an attendant property, namely that he has believing (πιστά) children. Now, if the phrase ended there, then we would be forced to make the point that the overseer candidate must have Christian children. However, that is not what the Holy Spirit says here.
μὴ ἐν κατηγορίᾳ ἀσωτίας ἢ ἀνυπότακτα
[with] no accusation of excess or disobediences
We know, both from 1 Tim 3 and this verse, that the overseer candidate must have well-behaved children; this is our incontrovertible starting point. But, the presence of this descriptive phrase forces us to recognize that the Holy Spirit is not telling us that the “certain man” must have Christian children. Rather, the translation should more accurately be understood as:
… the certain man must have children, and if those children profess to be Christians, those children must not even be accused of excess or disobediences.
The point is not that the “certain man” has Christian children; rather, it is that for those overseer candidates whose children are professing Christians, that those children have a consistent, solid, unassailable testimonies. If his so-called Christian children’s testimonies are less than spotless (μὴ ἐν κατηγορίᾳ, [with] no accusation), then he can’t be considered for the office of overseer.
[This point reinforces the point of an earlier article showing that the children must be of sufficient age and maturity to demonstrate that they are truly being well-managed. To make the point about a "meaningful-child-minimum-age" requirement again, I use a completely ridiculous case: a two-year old can't possibly have a meaningful testimony and is therefore too young to seriously consider.]
With the combination of 1 Tim 3 and Tts 1, we can now state unequivocally that the requirements, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, cover both possibilities:
- regarding lost children, they nonetheless must be well-managed and well-behaved
- regarding Christian children, they must have spotless testimonies
There is no stepping around it: the overseer candidate must have children, and the quality of his rule in his home is demonstrated by the behavior of those children and therefore that must be considered when evaluating the overseer candidate. If his children fall short, as either being lost or saved, the overseer candidate must be disqualified.