I wrote the following article in the late 1990s. I have been asked about this topic a number of times since then, so I provide the document here.
For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you,  namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.  For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain. (Titus 1:5-7)
Τούτου χάριν ἀπέλιπόν σε ἐν Κρήτῃ, ἵνα τὰ λείποντα ἐπιδιορθώσῃ καὶ καταστήσῃς κατὰ πόλιν πρεσβυτέρους, ὡς ἐγώ σοι διεταξάμην, εἴ τίς ἐστιν ἀνέγκλητος, μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ, τέκνα ἔχων πιστά, μὴ ἐν κατηγορίᾳ ἀσωτίας ἢ ἀνυπότακτα. δεῖ γὰρ τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνέγκλητον εἶναι ὡς θεοῦ οἰκονόμον, μὴ αὐθάδη, μὴ ὀργίλον, μὴ πάροινον, μὴ πλήκτην, μὴ αἰσχροκερδῆ, (Titus 1:5–7)
In this particular section of Paul’s epistle to Titus, the Apostle addresses the vital issue of the qualification of elders in the Church. Paul has assigned to Titus the most difficult task of bringing order to the church in Crete. Part of this task involves appointing elders in every city. The church needs godly men to give leadership and to bring order. The church is not a place of chaos, but of godly organization. But what kind of men are qualified to be elders? This is the issue Paul addresses.
The key element of qualification is the matter of being ἀνέγκλητος, “above reproach.” The root meaning of the word refers to “accusation.” The elder must be someone who is not liable to accusation, blame, or reproach. The same term is used of the end result of Christ’s work of salvation, for we are said to be presented “blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8). Likewise, in Colossians 1:22, the work of Christ is said to be “in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach.”
How can Titus recognize such men? Paul provides him with a list of qualifications to use in making his selections. It is our purpose to focus solely upon the final two clauses of verse 6, specifically, “having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.”
Textual and Translational Issues
The 27th edition of the Nestle/Aland text lists no textual variations in these phrases. The Textus Receptus likewise reads identically to the NA text. Hence, no variations will hinder the exegesis of the text.
The translation of the passage, and the key word πιστά (“faithful,” in the accusative neuter plural form, matching τέκνα, “children”), falls into three camps. The King James Version and the New King James Version render the term “faithful”:
(KJV) If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.
(NKJV) if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.
The New American Standard Bible and the New International Version render the adjective as “believe”:
(NASB) namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion.
(NIV) An elder must be blameless, the husband of but one wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.
And the New Revised Standard Version renders the adjective as a substantive:
(NRS) Titus 1:6 someone who is blameless, married only once, whose children are believers, not accused of debauchery and not rebellious.
We will examine the meaning of πιστά below. For the moment, we note that the final clause is modifying the second clause; that is, “not accused of dissipation or rebellion” is referring to the children of the potential elder. However, we note that the NIV’s dynamic translation inserts the phrase “and are” between the clauses. There is no copulative in the Greek text. This leaves open the exegetical possibility that the third clause is modifying, appositively, the term πιστά. We will explore this possibility below.
The Meaning of πιστά
The Friberg Lexicon defines this term:
πιστός, ή, όν (1) actively, (a) of pers. trusting, believing, full of faith, confiding (JN 20.27); (b) abs. as adj. believing (in Christ) (AC 16.1); as subst. a believer (2C 6.15); οἱ πιστοὶ the believers, i.e. Christians (1T 4.3);
πιστὴ a woman who is a believer, a Christian woman (1T 5.16); (2) passively, (a) of pers. trustworthy, faithful, dependable (CO 4.7); (b) of God trustworthy, faithful (HE 10.23); (c) of things, esp. of what one says sure, reliable, trustworthy (1T 1.15).
Titus 1:6 is not cited by Friberg. The Louw-Nida Lexicon lists three semantic domains into which the term falls, “trusting,” “trustworthy,” and “sure.” Louw-Nida does not cite Titus 1:6 either, though the other use of pistav (Acts 13:34) is placed under the domain of “sure.” The Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker Lexicon places Titus 1:6 under the category, “The abs. πιστόν” also means believing (in Christ), a (Christian) believer and is used both as adj. and as subst.”
The Usage of πιστός, ή, όν in the New Testament
The adjective πιστός, ή, όν is used 67 times in the New Testament:
Matt. 24:45, Matt. 25:21, Matt. 25:23, Lk. 12:42, Lk. 16:10, Lk. 16:11, Lk. 16:12, Lk. 19:17, Jn. 20:27, Acts 10:45, Acts 13:34, Acts 16:1, Acts 16:15, 1 Co. 1:9, 1 Co. 4:2, 1 Co. 4:17, 1 Co. 7:25, 1 Co. 10:13, 2 Co. 1:18, 2 Co. 6:15, Gal. 3:9, Eph. 1:1, Eph. 6:21, Col. 1:2, Col. 1:7, Col. 4:7, Col. 4:9, 1 Thess. 5:24, 2 Thess. 3:3, 1 Tim. 1:12, 1 Tim. 1:15, 1 Tim. 3:1, 1 Tim. 3:11, 1 Tim. 4:3, 1 Tim. 4:9, 1 Tim. 4:10, 1 Tim. 4:12, 1 Tim. 5:16, 1 Tim. 6:2, 2 Tim. 2:2, 2 Tim. 2:11, 2 Tim. 2:13, Tit. 1:6, Tit. 1:9, Tit. 3:8, Heb. 2:17, Heb. 3:2, Heb. 3:5, Heb. 10:23, Heb. 11:11, 1 Pet. 1:21, 1 Pet. 4:19, 1 Pet. 5:12, 1 Jn. 1:9, 3 Jn. 1:5, Rev. 1:5, Rev. 2:10, Rev. 2:13, Rev. 3:14, Rev. 17:14, Rev. 19:11, Rev. 21:5, Rev. 22:6
The only other place where the specific form (neuter nominative plural) πισταν is used is Acts 13:34.
Even a brief examination of these passages bears out the division presented by Louw and Nida. Many present the term as simply meaning “believer,” especially when contrasting believers and unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:15, 1 Timothy 4:10). Elsewhere it describes a “faithful saying” (1 Timothy 4:9). Frequently it is used to describe God, who is “faithful” (1 Corinthians 1:8). Obviously, in this context, the translation “believing” would be completely improper. But most important for our purposes is its use when describing individuals. It is often used in the sense of “trustworthy” or “obedient.” This usage spans the New Testament corpus, from the parables of Jesus to the epistles of Paul. We note some specific examples.
Matthew 24:45 “Who then is the faithful and sensible slave whom his master put in charge of his household to give them their food at the proper time?
Matthew 25:21 “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’
1 Corinthians 4:2 In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.
1 Corinthians 4:17 For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, and he will remind you of my ways which are in Christ, just as I teach everywhere in every church.
1 Corinthians 7:25 Now concerning virgins I have no command of the Lord, but I give an opinion as one who by the mercy of the Lord is trustworthy.
Colossians 1:7 just as you learned it from Epaphras, our beloved fellow bond-servant, who is a faithful servant of Christ on our behalf,
Colossians 4:7 As to all my affairs, Tychicus, our beloved brother and faithful servant and fellow bond-servant in the Lord, will bring you information.
Colossians 4:9 and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of your number. They will inform you about the whole situation here.
1 Timothy 1:12 I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service,
1 Timothy 3:11 Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.
2 Timothy 2:2 The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.
1 Peter 5:12 Through Silvanus, our faithful brother (for so I regard him), I have written to you briefly, exhorting and testifying that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it!
In each of these instances πιστός, ή, όν refers not primarily (or even secondarily) to the concept of being a Christian per se, but to being trustworthy or reliable. Three examples stand out. First, 1 Corinthians 4:2, where the steward must be considered “trustworthy.” This is a plain usage of the term “trustworthy” in regard to a person in the ministry. Second is 1 Timothy 1:12, where again God has judged that Paul is “faithful” or “trustworthy,” and has hence placed Paul in service and entrusted a ministry into his hands. And finally, 2 Timothy 2:2, where Timothy is instructed to entrust to “faithful men” the teachings he has heard from Paul. Obviously, in this context, Paul is not simply saying “teach these things only to Christians.” Instead, he is recognizing that within the body of the Church there will be those men who are πιστόν, trustworthy, who can carry on the ministry of teaching the truth to the following generations.
A Proposed Interpretation
When we come to Titus 1:6, then, we need to recognize the range of meanings found in the NT itself regarding πιστός, ή, όν. It will not do to simply insist that the term “always” means any one thing. Instead, it must be defined in accordance with its usage in context.
There are two important items that help us to define the meaning of πιστάν in this passage. First is the modifying clause, μὴ ἐν κατηγορίᾳ ἀσωτίας ἢ ἀνυπότακτα, (“not accused of dissipation or rebellion”), and the second is the parallel passage in 1 Timothy 3:4-5. Both factors combine to present us with what I believe to be a consistent, contextual understanding of Paul’s statement.
In reference to Titus 1:6d: First, Paul provides an explanation of what it means to have τέκνα ἔχων πιστά, “faithful children.” Why would he include the next clause, “not accused of dissipation or rebellion” if the “faithful children” automatically means “regenerate Christian offspring”? Do regenerate people regularly engage in dissipation and rebellion? Or should we not consider the possibility that Paul is defining what it means to be a trustworthy child, an obedient child?
In reference to 1 Timothy 3:4-5: When we combine this consideration with the parallel passage written to Timothy, we discover some interesting parallels. Note Paul’s words:
He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?),
Here the emphasis is not upon the salvific condition of the children, but that they are “under control” (τέκνα ἔχοντα ἐν ὑποταγῇ). Notice the parallel:
|To Titus:||τέκνα ἔχων πιστά|
|To Timothy:||τέκνα ἔχοντα ἐν ὑποταγῇ|
As we can see, “in control” is the direct grammatical parallel to “faithful” in these two passages, which lends considerable support to the assertion that it is proper to understand pistav to be referring not to believing Christians but to children who are obedient, trustworthy, or as Paul himself put it to Timothy, “under control.”
I suggest, then, that Paul’s words to Titus be understood in the following manner: that Titus is to look for men who manage their households well, and who have children who are obedient and under his control. A man whose children are wild in their behavior is not managing his own household well, hence, he is not fit for the office of elder, where he would have to exercise oversight of the household of God. The passage is not stating that an elder must have openly confessing children. As we will note below, since salvation lies in the realm of God’s sovereign election, it is beyond the control of a father whether his children will, or will not, receive that gracious gift from God.
A Few Considerations
That this understanding of the passage is consistent with the rest of Scripture should be our next consideration. Obviously, the main focus of our inquiry is this: does God lay it down as a rule that an elder must have believing children? If one of ten children do not make an open profession of faith in Christ, does this mean that he cannot be an elder?
First and foremost I submit that such a view ignores the reality of sovereign election. There simply is no promise in Scripture that godly parents will automatically have godly offspring. One only needs to look at Isaac, Jacob, or David to see this plainly. The gospel divides families, the Lord Jesus taught (Matthew 10:34-35). [One might note as well that the Lord Jesus, during the time of His ministry, had unbelieving family members (John 7:5).] It is the parent’s responsibility to model godly living before his or her children. However, it is a fundamental error to assert that such modeling will always result in regeneration. In point of fact, living a godly life in any situation will always bring about two results: either God will use that example as the means of bringing His elect to salvation (as He often does), or, the unregenerate will respond in hatred and anger toward the person who bears the name of Christ. The world hates Christ and His people. Sadly, when a Christian has a child who is not regenerated by God’s grace, that child will, upon being free of the authority of the parent and the parent’s home, often rebel against the example provided, for it brings conviction of sin into the heart.
One might suggest that an elder who has an unbelieving child is therefore open to scandal. However, this ignores the other reality: the scandal of hypocritical confession of faith. Is it really more of a scandal for a man to live a godly life and exhort his children to faith, and have one or more not make a false confession but live their lives in rejection of Christ’s lordship over their lives, or for such children to make such professions and live lives of hypocrisy within the very walls of the church itself? Is it really a scandal upon a man’s character to plainly teach the gospel to his children, exhorting them to count the cost, so that they do not make a surface-level, “easy” commitment that will only make them number among the religiously lost? Is it not more of a scandal to exhort one’s children to quick confessions and the resultant phenomena of so-called “carnal Christians” and the like?
I believe the inherent contradiction of taking the position that an elder must have regenerate children is seen in the fact that many who take this position likewise believe that single men and married but childless men can serve in the office of elder. Would it be logical or consistent to then add as a condition of their service that their neighbors or co-workers should be “believers” since, it could be asserted, they must be living a strong witness before those folks, too, and hence those people should be regenerated by that consistent witness? Or does this not again point us to the reality that a consistent witness to the gospel lived in holiness of life simply will not always result in conversion of all of those observing it?
There are numerous other problems with seeing Titus 1:6 referring to regenerate children as a necessary requirement for the eldership. What of an elder whose wife becomes pregnant? Does he have to step down from the eldership until his children are old enough to “make a decision” for Christ? And what of adult children? Should an elder leave a church without leadership if a child who has not lived in the home for thirty years, and who lives on another continent, denies a profession of faith made forty years earlier? It would seem that taking this passage this way leads to no end of difficulties.
A Response to Dr. MacArthur’s Comments
Dr. MacArthur has taken the position that Titus 1:6 lays down the condition that a prospective elder/pastor must have confessing, believing Christian children. Even one child who is an unbeliever will preclude a man from serving as an elder. I take this position from a tape on the qualifications of an elder/pastor. I contacted friends of mine to confirm that this tape continues to represent Dr. MacArthur’s position.
I have the utmost respect for John MacArthur, and hope that our cordial relationship will continue. I would enjoy receiving his comments on the position I presented above, and my disagreements with his own comments on this passage noted below.
I have transcribed a number of statements from Dr. MacArthur’s tape, and will comment on them briefly. I note that from what I heard, the understanding I presented above was not discussed by Dr. MacArthur, at least in the particular sermon that was recorded.
If you want to know whether he can lead someone to faith in Christ by the power of His own virtue…then look at the most intimate relationships in his life and see if he can do it there.
Is he able to lead someone to Christ by the power of his testimony and consistency?
Since spiritual leadership is a kind of parenting, where you don’t just talk it, you live it, …and where you must be able to lead people by your life as well as your precepts to a certain level of understanding of the truth which leads to salvation and holiness and service, you need to look at some proving ground where you can see that happening.
But the simple statement here is that the man who is to be considered for leadership in the church is a man who has proven his spiritual leadership in the most intimate place, that’s his own family.
The instruction is simple, Titus. The pastor or elder, overseer in the church must be a man who has demonstrated his spiritual leadership ability and his integrity by leading his family to the truth he holds most precious, which is the very same thing he must do in the church.
There is much to agree with in these statements. Surely the home is indeed a most telling proving ground for the qualifications of anyone who would seek to shepherd God’s flock. However, I must take issue with the statement that we lead people to Christ by the power of our testimony and consistency and virtue. I say this simply because we need to differentiate between means that God often does use to bring about His own purposes, and the idea that these things have inherent power to change the hearts of men. That is, a man may demonstrate great consistency in living before his family, but it does not necessarily follow that such living will always bring about the salvation of those in that family.
1) It may be that you as a father have every, every good and righteous effort possible, to lead your children to faith in Christ, and you have not seen the fruit you that you would desire. You are not responsible for your child’s rejection before God. But neither would you be qualified to be an elder or pastor in the Church.
It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion, based upon this statement, that God promises to infallibly save all the children of any man he calls to the eldership. I would suggest that Titus 1:6 is a slim basis upon which to offer such a promise, and that such a conclusion would fly in the face of the teaching of the New Testament regarding salvation itself.
Secondly, there is nothing in the Scripture that bars a single man from being an elder. Paul, at the writing of this was probably single, as best we can tell. There’s nothing in Scripture that bars a single man from leadership, from being an elder in the Church. Furthermore, there is nothing in Scripture that bars a childless man from being an elder in the church. But where you don’t have marriage, or you don’t have children, you have to find other experiences than those in the home to ascertain the man’s spiritual leadership. . . I don’t think this is a prohibition against single people or against childless people from being elders or pastors, not at all.
While I agree with Dr. MacArthur here, I point out that a case could be made on the basis of this passage that only married men with children should serve as elders.
And also, when you see this in verse 6, flowing right behind the statement, “If a man be above reproach” and right before the statement verse 7, “The overseer must be above reproach,” you’re really talking here primarily about an above reproach man, it’s almost like a negative rather than positive. We all want to emphasize the positive impact of his Christianity, but there’s also the point that he must have children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion, because they would become a reproach upon him. And obviously if he’s not married and doesn’t have any, they couldn’t.
And what standard would then be used to test them? If we consistently hold to the idea that the test is the salvation of all of the children of the prospective elder, what kind of similar test could be applied to a single man? And is there any situation in which Dr. MacArthur would see it necessary that everyone in a particular context in a single man’s life would have to be saved through that single man’s witness? If he wouldn’t hold a single man to the necessity of having everyone in a particular family or social context saved as a result of his witness, why do the same thing with a married man? I might add another thought here. If we believe that Paul is saying a man’s children have to be saved, is there anywhere where Paul says the elder’s wife must also be a believer? Logically, if the argument put forward here holds, the wife should likewise be a Christian. Yet, we do not find Paul laying this down as a requirement for the eldership.
But the general thrust is this: the family is the proving ground where a man demonstrates his spiritual leadership. And if he has children who believe, who are not involved in dissipation and rebellion, they will never bring scandal upon his good name and the integrity of his spiritual leadership. When a man stands in a pulpit and says this is how to live, this is how to conduct yourself, this is God’s high standard, this is what God expects of you, this is how you’re to raise your children, this is how you pass godliness from one generation to the next, and you look at his life and you say wait a minute, you’ve got wild and uncontrolled children who live in rebellion and reject the gospel….why are you the guy who’s telling us how to do this? You can see it brings reproach upon his life, it questions the integrity of his message, it sucks the credibility out of it, and thus the impact. It is a unique thing that preachers and elders do. It is a unique thing that requires a very unique grace from God to qualify them to do it. But please remember, just because someone is not married or doesn’t have a child it doesn’t mean they are disqualified, it just means that the demonstration of their spiritual leadership has to be somewhere else, and we need not worry that one of their children will bring reproach upon them.
It is indeed a unique thing that elders and pastors do. But does Titus 1:6 really give a promise from God that He will give a “unique grace” in the form of the salvation of all of one’s children to every truly called elder?
…who will never be discredited by some unbelieving, wayward child, one who claims to believe, but is unruly and sinful. That kind of child would be a reproach, shattering the model of godly virtue that he is to hold up before the people on the inside of the Church and the outside of the Church.
At this point I confess some confusion, as Dr. MacArthur here presents the situation of a hypocritical child, one making a false profession. How is a person to know? Is it not possible for even the father in a family to be deceived by a false profession? Notice that Dr. MacArthur speaks of a “wayward child,” one who is “unruly and sinful.” Surely such a child by their behavior would bring reproach upon the man. But if one takes πιστά as “obedient” then the meaning of the passage is easily seen.
Now some people want to make this an issue of sovereign election. Whenever you get into this discussion, there’s a lot of discussion about this statement, a lot of it. And some people want to say, “Well, it certainly can’t mean you have to have converted children because that’s all up to God’s election. That’s all up to God’s sovereignty. And if He doesn’t choose to elect your children then you are in real trouble.” Let me answer that by saying this. That is an unbiblical and fatalistic approach, and is not worthy of a proper consideration of the impact of a godly life or the responsibility for evangelism. Salvation comes to people through the faithful witness and godly example of other people. Is that not true? Salvation comes to people through the faithful witness and godly example of other believers. All through Scripture we are continually taught that a godly life leads people to salvation. Election is the issue with God, and the issue by which we give Him glory, but it is not the consideration that is to be in our minds in the process of spiritual living and witness. All through Scripture we are taught that a godly life leads people to salvation.
I am certainly one of those who not only want to make this an issue of sovereign election, but must make it such an issue, since, to my understanding, whether a person is or is not saved is, ultimately, the choice of God. No one is arguing the duty of proclaiming the gospel to one’s children. No one is saying that godly life and testimony is not used by God to bring children to repentance and faith. These are not the issues. The issue is simply, “Does God promise to save every child of every man He calls to the eldership?” Or, “Will a godly life and character infallibly result in the salvation of all children in a Christian home?” I can only answer “no” to both questions.
Now, Dr. MacArthur went on to cite a number of passages, all of which spoke to the fact that we as Christians are to live godly lives, and that God uses that kind of life to bring people to salvation. Again, no one could possibly dispute this statement. However, what was missing in the discussion is the fact that those very same godly lives can also bring about the hatred and rejection of the gospel by those who are reprobate in their thinking. Hence, to be relevant to the passage at hand, these passages would have to indicate that one’s godly living will always bring about the salvation of those before whom we live, when such is manifestly not the intention of any of the passages so cited.
You can’t just go off on the concept of election and say “Well, if they are elect, they will be saved, if they aren’t elect, they won’t get saved.” The fact of the matter is God saves people through the means of godliness in the lives of others. And if I in my home am committed to living a godly life and a virtuous life and to proclaiming saving, gospel truth that is lived out in integrity, there is every reason to believe God in His grace will use that to redeem my children. It may not always happen. But, for a man who stands in the pulpit to be the model and who will not be scandalized by some activity on the part of his children, it is necessary, and God in His grace makes it possible.
There is certainly every reason to pray that God will redeem my children. There is every reason to hope and trust in His goodness and grace. But I cannot presume that God will save every one of my children. I will certainly desire that my life be a means to that end. But I can never confuse the means with the decree which is found in God’s mercy and grace alone.