Unbelief in an Elder's Children — Practice
Following up on Justin Taylor's exegetical discussion of the passages pertinent to the question of unbelief in an elder’s children, 9Marks executive director and Capitol Hill Baptist Church elder Matt Schmucker answers some practical questions about putting this exegesis to work in real life.
9M: Do you agree with Justin Taylor's assessment that the passage in Titus 1 refers to the general submission and behavior of an elder's children, and not the state of their souls before God?
MS: That is our understanding and practice at Capitol Hill Baptist Church.
9M: How many children do you have? Are they all "believing"? Have they been baptized?
MS: I have five children, who range in age from eighteen months to eighteen years. The oldest four children would say that they believe the gospel. The eighteen-year-old has confessed Christ publicly by being baptized and taken into church membership. While we trust that the seed of faith has been planted with the other three, my wife and I believe it’s still immature. We’re hoping that, as they face the testing of the world, the flesh, and the devil over time, their faith will prove genuine. As parents, we have the responsibility to affirm them as they grow in their faith, and yet help them examine the fruit of their lives.
9M: So the fact that you can’t confidently say that all of your children are believing—including one who is sixteen—doesn’t disqualify you from eldership.
MS: That’s our understanding and practice.
9M: Are your children well-behaved?
MS: According to these versus in Timothy and Titus, yes. By God’s grace!
9M: Can you envision a scenario in which your child’s unbelief would disqualify you?
MS: Not really. For instance, suppose my sixteen year old son came to me after reading several books and said, "Dad, I’ve thought about the different arguments, and I don’t believe that Christianity is true." As long as he remained submissive and respectful under my authority, so as not to bring shame on the gospel and call into question my shepherding of the household, I believe I could continue to serve in good conscience. To argue otherwise, that his doing this would disqualify me, would require me to conclude that I should be able to effectually guarantee my son’s spiritual life.
Now, if his lack of faith began to translate into a lack of respect for my authority, and he became so disruptive in our home, neighborhood, or church that a stench was associated with my name and my leadership—rather than the aroma of Christ—then I should step down from serving.
On the other hand, I can imagine a scenario where my sixteen year old son, still living under my roof, confessed Christ, yet lived in open, unrepentant sin. This might disqualify me outright because it proved my ineptitude as a leader. Or, even if it didn’t disqualify me outright, it might suggest that it would be wise for me to step down for a time to give extra attention to my little flock. How much time? It would utterly depend on my fellow elders to determine how long that time should be, whether months or years.
9M: How does a child’s age enter into the question of whether his or her behavior disqualifies a man from eldership?
MS: Once a child is independent of his parents, I believe that he’s outside of his parent’s authority as it relates to Paul’s remarks in Titus. When a kid is on his own, he’s on his own. The father can’t be responsible anymore. In our culture, that can occur as early as age 18, when the child is no longer a minor and may move out of the house. Admittedly, the ceding of independence may be gradual. A child may be off in college in another state, while the parent continues to pay many of his or her bills. Here, independence moves into a gray area. Yet the general principle is, the more dependent the child is on the parent, the more the qualification sticks to the elder.
Suppose you have this situation of a child who has moved out, yet remains financially dependent and chooses to live in flagrant opposition to the gospel. The elder may want to consider the solution not of stepping down, but of cutting off the child from financial dependence. I know of one situation where an 18-year-old was out of the house, still financially dependent, but suddenly and flagrantly living in opposition to the gospel. This elder, in agreement with the other elders, determined to withdraw all means of financial support. Doing this allowed the real lines of authority and dependence to be very clear for all parties involved.
So there are several factors involved here: How old is the child? Does he live in the parent’s home? Is he generally obedient and respectful of authority? All of these questions matter for the issue of an elder’s qualification.
9M: What steps should an elder take if he’s uncertain as to whether or not his child’s behavior is disqualifying?
MS: First, pray to God for a humble heart.
Second, study and meditate over the relevant passages.
Third, seek instruction from your fellow elders.
Fourth, confess and be transparent with them. Don’t hold things back, remembering that God sees all anyhow.
Fifth, receive critical evaluation and consider it together with your wife.
Sixth, trust the elders in the church as to whether or not you are qualified.
9M: Would you qualify your answer to the last question depending on whether we’re talking about a staff-elder (a pastor) and a non-staff elder?
MS: Paul’s great concern is with the reputation of the gospel. Therefore, the more publicly associated you are with the proclamation of the gospel, the more care that should be given to this particular qualification. Thus, elders and deacons are called out on this matter, whereas the average church member is not.