… the church’s supervisor … should be faithful to their spouse … They should manage their own household well—they should see that their children are obedient with complete respect, because if they don’t know how to manage their own household, how can they take care of God’s church? (1 Timothy 3.2a,4-5 CEB)
Elders should be … faithful to their spouse, and have faithful children who can’t be accused of self-indulgence or rebelliousness. (Titus 1.6 CEB)
Consideration of these two passages gives rise to two, solid questions to ask of a potential candidate for a church’s eldership:
- Do they manage their household well, fostering respect and obedience in the lives of their children? – 1 Tim. 3.4-5
- Are their children faithful, not self-indulgent or rebellious? – Titus 1.6
Now these two texts (1 Tim. 3.4-5; Titus 1.6) are essentially synonymous in regard to what they have to say about an elder’s children, the only real difference between them being that the phrase “faithful children” (Titus 1.6) could be construed to mean that the children under a candidate’s care must also be Christians themselves. Most English renderings take this view and have gone so far as to write such explicitly into the text. For example:
- “… having children that believe.” (ASV 1901)
- “… his children are believers …” (RSV)
- “… having children who believe …” (NASB)
- “… whose children are believers …” (NRSV)
- “… a man whose children believe …” (NIV)
- “… must have believing children …” (NCV)
- “… his children must be believers …” (NJB; NLT)
- “Their children must be followers of the Lord …” (CEV)
- “Are his children believers?” (The Message)
These English renderings are, at best, unfortunate, for they go far beyond what is being conveyed by the Scripture text. While one might certainly hope that all of an elder’s children would be Christians, that is not Paul’s point here. Paul’s point is not that a prospective elder’s children faithfully serve the Lord, but that they are trustworthy toward their parents. In favor of this interpretation, let me briefly note just a few matters.
1. The Greek word in question here in Titus 1.6 is pistos. It is the common Greek word for faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, reliability, and trustworthiness. There is nothing inherent in the meaning of this word that would imply, much less demand, that a person who is pistos is to be considered a Christian. That pistos is all about the reliability and trustworthiness of a person or thing, and not specifically about the loyalty of an individual to Jesus Christ, should be apparent from its usage elsewhere in Scripture, such as the following found elsewhere in Paul’s writings, especially in 1 Timothy and Titus:
“… I’ll give you my opinion as someone you can trust [pistos]…” (1 Cor. 7.25 CEB)
“This saying is reliable [pistos] and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I’m the biggest sinner of all.” (1 Timothy 1.15 CEB)
“This saying is reliable [pistos]: if anyone has a goal to be a supervisor in the church, they want a good thing.” (1 Tim. 3.1 CEB)
“… since we have been made righteous by his grace, we can inherit the hope for eternal life. This saying is reliable [pistos].” (Titus 3.7-8a CEB)
2. While it may comes as a surprise to some, it is a fact that nowhere in the NT, and so, certainly not in Paul’s lists, is mention made that if an elder is married they must be married to a Christian, much less a Christian deemed “faithful” by the rest of the congregation. To construe the word pistos (faithful; loyal; trustworthy) in Titus 1.6 as pertaining to the faithfulness of the children of a prospective elder to the Lord would certainly then be, at the very least, “odd,” given the lack of mention of faithfulness to the Lord on the part of the elder’s spouse.
3. Understanding the faithfulness of the children as addressing their faithfulness [pistos] to their parents (rather than to God) correlates well what is found immediately preceding in the text, namely the expected faithfulness of the elder to their mate. The Common English Bible does a good job of capturing this corollary: “… faithful to their spouse, and have faithful children …” In that respect, it imitates the King James Version: “… the husband of one wife, having faithful children …”
4. What immediately follows the mention of pistos (faithfulness) is clearly not a reference to the childrens’ faithfulness in relationship to God, but to their relationship with their parent(s). “… faithful children who can’t be accused of self-indulgence or rebelliousness.” Some English renderings (rightly) make this point more obvious. For example:
- “Do they respect him and stay out of trouble?” (The Message)
- “… who cannot be accused of profligacy and who are not undisciplined.” (Barclay)
- “They must not be known as children who are wild and do not cooperate.” (NCV)
5. It should also be mentioned that this is surely something easier and more readily measurable by the observing church than the task of attempting to gauge the status and quality of a person’s relationship with God.
6. We would conclude then that (a) given the basic meaning of the word, (b) what is and is not said in the text’s context, (c) what immediately precedes the passage, (d) what immediately follows the statement in question, (e) as well as the practical living out of the quest being called for, calls for us to understand Paul’s to have the prospective elder’s children quality of relationship with their parent(s), not God, in view.
Now I ask you, how much ink has been spilled across the ages as to the interpretation and application of this passage, the vast majority of it for naught? The questions seemingly have no end. Must an elder have children? If so, how many? Must there be a plurality of children or is one enough? What if some of the children are not yet of age to be Christians? What if some of the children are Christians and some are not? What if some are “on the way there,” but not quite fully there yet? What if absence, distance, or other matters make it nearly impossible to observe the devotion to Christ expressed by a candidate’s children? What if some of the children are still at home and some are adults now out on their own; are they all still addressed by this statement in Titus? What if the children are now grown and have their own children? Etc., etc., etc.
But, from what we’ve observed here, over zealous or presumptive translation is at the root of most of these questions. How many of these questions would find large and immediate, if not even complete, resolution if from the start the note was simply made that a child’s faithfulness to their parents, not their loyalty to the Lord, is the subject on the table?
Many. And so, let it be noted:
(1) We must not read our desires or presumptions into the Biblical text, but ever allow the Scriptures to speak plainly to us themselves. His word needs to come to us unfiltered. This is a word for us all to hear, including translators of Scripture. And this is yet another reason why there is a never-ending need for fresh Bible translation.
(2) As a church looks over prospective candidates to serve as elders, a serious question to bear in mind, both in regard to a spouse and/or children is this: is their family life healthy, the members of that home being loyal to, and clearly supportive of, each other?
* Now while I realize this understanding of this portion of Titus 1.6 may be new to some and may well be a minority view, I know I am not alone in this perspective. Others with far more training and experience with the Biblical text than myself hold the same. For a good example of such, and with much more detail, note Frank Bellizzi’s fine four-part series on this matter. Here are links to part one, two, three, and four.