Elders: May an Elder Serve with No Children? Discerning Whether a Command is Temporary or Permanent, Part 2

We’re considering the broader principles of how to distinguish an eternal command from a culturally limited command. In the last post, we considered the basis for concluding that slavery is wrong even though the Scriptures do not condemn slavery, that is, for finding that the Scriptures’ references to slavery are culturally conditioned and not meant to permit slavery for all time.

We next need to consider another principle: Commands that run contrary to the then local culture are unlikely to be culturally conditioned.

Obviously, if the authors of the Scriptures are making concessions for the sake of culture, they are moving in the direction of culture. Commands that run contrary to culture aren’t culturally conditioned — unless they are made for the sake of someone else’s culture (such as requiring Gentiles to make accommodations for the sake of the consciences of the Jews).

Thus, as noted in the previous post, the condemnation of homosexuality was not an accommodation to local culture, as homosexuality was largely an approved practice in First Century Rome.

Just so, the Mosaic commands to care for the poor, the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner run contrary to the surrounding culture, which was often quite cruel to the least fortunate members of society.

Sometimes, the point is made explicitly in the Scriptures –

(Mat 20:25-28 ESV)  25 But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  26 It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant,  27 and whoever would be first among you must be your slave,  28 even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Thus, the requirement that elders be servant-hearted men is eternal — and we should read “gentle” in 1 Timothy and “not overbearing” in Titus in these terms. Indeed, the requirements to be gentle and not overbearing should be emphasized as the same thought is found on the lips of Jesus.

On the other hand, the fact that a command is consistent with the culture does not per se make it temporary. After all, the culture is not always wicked and sometimes celebrates righteousness.

In the case at hand, the commentaries note that the requirement to manage one’s household well is a fairly common sort of requirement in First Century Rome. Moreover, Barclay, in the Daily Study Bible, says,

A writer called Onosander has a description of the character of the ideal commander. He must be prudent, self-controlled, sober, frugal, enduring in toil, intelligent, without love of money, neither young nor old, if possible the father of a family, able to speak competently, and of good reputation. (86-87).

Thus, being a father was considered important for leaders in that culture. And so I think we can pretty clearly conclude that Paul wasn’t writing against the culture in requiring fatherhood — meaning this test offers no answer. There is no implication either way.

The next test has to do with the purpose of the command:

Is the command an example of a temporary application of an eternal principle or always required by an eternal principle?

At first, this test sounds like the original question restated, but there’s an important, subtle point here. Commands are the application of eternal principles. You can’t understand the command until you figure out what principle behind the command is.

For example, “Do not kill” or “Thou shalt not kill” is clearly a command. It’s repeated a few times in the New Testament. It sure seems eternal. I’m all for it being eternal — but only if properly understood. You see, under Moses, “Do not kill” really means “Do not murder,” because capital punishment and killing in wars approved by God were certainly allowed. Self-defense was allowed. Therefore, the eternal principle is not “All life is sacred and can never be taken.” No, the principle is given to us plainly –

(Rom 13:9-10 ESV)  9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

Hence, the boundaries of “Thou shalt not kill” are defined by the eternal principle: “love your neighbor.” And we draw conclusions from that fact. We will, I’m sure, disagree as to those conclusions, but we only argue from Scriptural premises when we are discussing love rather than the sanctity of life.

Just so, when we consider a command such as “Greet one another with a Holy Kiss,” we have to ask what eternal principle underlies the command. And this approach takes us away from the false notion that the Bible is a rulebook, such as a constitution or blueprint. Yes, there are rules in the Bible, but the rules are the eternal principles – and the commands are applications that sometimes never change and sometimes do. The principles drive the decision.

There is no eternal principle from Eden to Revelation that we must greet with a kiss. However, there is a principle that the Kingdom is like a household or family filled with love. And in First Century Rome (and some parts of the world even today), greeting with a kiss is how family members greet one another.

This same line of reasoning takes us a long way toward finding that slavery is sin, because there is no eternal, God-given principle insisting that we may enslave one another. Indeed, the command to love our neighbors makes slavery as practiced in 19th Century America impossible.

Now, getting this right requires some serious theology — and a serious re-reading of the Gospels and Paul to see how they reasoned. You see, biased by the constitution/blueprint approach to the Bible, we’ve read it to find the rules: the conclusions. We’d have learned much more about the Scriptures and God if we’d read the Bible to find the principles and how the authors reason from principle to application. That’s a lesson we need to learn.

Pull out 1 Corinthians and rather than looking for rules, study how Paul reaches his conclusions. What does he reason from? Where do his commands come from — a secret rulebook or as applications of the gospel? And you’ll find that Paul reasons over and over from the gospel and from Eden.

(1Co 1:11-13 ESV) 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers.  12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”  13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

When the question of division arose, Paul immediately turns to the gospel for guidance. Since there is but one Jesus, one person crucified for the church, one person into whom they were baptized, they must be one.

(1Co 7:4 ESV) For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.

While Paul doesn’t say so explicitly, he’s plainly alluding to –

(Gen 2:23-24 ESV) 23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”  24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

He also frequently reasons from the nature of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You see that Paul reasons from the nature of baptism in 1:11-13 above. From the Lord’s Supper he reasons –

(1Co 10:16-17 ESV)  16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?  17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

Again, the theme is unity, but it’s unity found in the nature of communion. Communion is a given. The nature of communion teaches certain lessons, one of which is unity.

Now, regarding whether an elder must have children, it’s a hard question. There is certainly no eternal principle that God’s leaders must have children. Jesus didn’t. Most of the apostles didn’t. Paul recommended celibacy as beneficial to serving Jesus. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were likely eunuchs (Dan 1:3-18. They were supervised by the chief of the eunuchs, strongly suggesting that they were eunuchs.)

Then again, the fact that raising children teaches valuable lessons and shapes the heart of a man is eternal, too.

Avatar of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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9 Responses to Elders: May an Elder Serve with No Children? Discerning Whether a Command is Temporary or Permanent, Part 2

  1. Price says:

    Jay, I appreciate the effort to find some “sound” reasoning behind the decisions to abort slavery, and no longer require our women to wear head coverings and refrain from certain hair styles…foot washing, etc…. It’s always seemed to be a personal opinion here and a personal opinion there ….with the summation being whatever I really don’t want to do is cultural…

    It’s obvious that there are some who are stuck with the constitution approach…whatever..they have their conscience to deal with… but it IS helpful and I appreciate the information.. Those that seem determined to be critical have had decades to prepare a response to why they do what they do… We’ll see how it compares.

  2. Price,

    Ouch

    “Those that seem determined to be critical…”

    I read much of Jay’s post to state that unity is an eternal principle. I read the above words as division.

    I believe that seasoning speech with salt is an eternal principle. It is often difficult.

  3. Many of our decisions about what is commanded, permitted, or forbidden are arbitrary. Hence they are very subjective and divisive. Along with that, much of our writing on hermeneutics seems to be an attempt to justify the conclusions we wish to reach.

    Oh, for clear principles based on something more than a desire to either excuse ourselves or to accuse our brethren!

    Even with such principles, it is doubtful that there will be unanimity. However, it does not take unanimity to have unity. It takes hearts shaped by the Holy Spirit of God.

    Jay, I’m still reading this series with interest – and hope for at least the outlines of a better hermeneutic than the one that has divided our congregations for generations now.

    Jerry

  4. Charles McLean says:

    Ah, Jay has us now asking “Why?” instead of just “What?” “When?” and “How often?”

    I love progress…

  5. Ted says:

    How to you respond to this barrenness? How does a faithful, righteous servant of God reconcile the fact that he or she has obeyed the commandments of the Lord and yet they are barren? Consider Zechariah, who had to endure the saying of the Rabbis that there are seven people who are excommunicated from God and the list began: “A Jew who has no wife, or a Jew who has a wife and no child” (W. Barclay).

    Please correct me where I’m wrong.
    Wasn’t Timothy a half Jew and Paul had him circumcised for ministry to Jews? Wasn’t Timothy in Ephesus when Paul wrote 1 Timothy to him, and wasn’t the Church in Ephesus largely Jewish?

    Is it possible that appointing a “barren” man as an elder would not have been respected by the Jews.

    Don’t know…..just asking.

  6. abasnar says:

    In the last post, we considered the basis for concluding that slavery is wrong even though the Scriptures do not condemn slavery, that is, for finding that the Scriptures’ references to slavery are culturally conditioned and not meant to permit slavery for all time.

    I am actually not sure that the agreement on this was unanimous, Jay. So I think it is not the time yet to move one with another subject.

    You haven’t commented on the objections of those who objected, Jay.

    Alexander

  7. Charles McLean says:

    This entire idea that following God is a matter of retrospection seems a bit odd to me. We have put the tractor in reverse and are trying to back up the plow in order to try to find a point in time when the people of God knew what He was saying. At that magical point, we shall get off the tractor and either ask directions or simply make camp right where the wheel ruts stop.

    Where did we get the idea that the state of the church in the first century represents some sort of state of ideal doctrinal grace? Why do we insist on trying to figure out which ancient sentence constitutes an eternal and universal command and which does not? Why have we progressed so far that we can no longer ask God for ourselves and expect to hear Him? If we back up far enough and camp out doctrinally in just the right historical spot, will we THEN be able to hear God just as they did? Because if we don’t even expect that much of a result, I can’t figure for the life of me why to even make this Magical Nostalgia Tour.

    To me, following Jesus and walking ever backwards do not seem congruent. He’s not back there, folks. He’s right here.

  8. Avatar of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Ted wrote,

    Is it possible that appointing a “barren” man as an elder would not have been respected by the Jews.

    Very interesting …

  9. abasnar says:

    In the case at hand, the commentaries note that the requirement to manage one’s household well is a fairly common sort of requirement in First Century Rome. … And so I think we can pretty clearly conclude that Paul wasn’t writing against the culture in requiring fatherhood

    Which is interseting, indeed. A side remark: Normally, when we see that women should not be leaders commentators today point to the “patriarchal society” and determine that such commands were merely cultural. Now, I am glad that this road is not taken here. It is God’s word even if it aligns with culture in this case (or with nature in a different case).

    But do we really have to look for eternal “principles” in order to decide what we are to do – or better: how we are to do it? I don’t see that love is the eternal principle, but “thou shalt not kill” is just one of the applications. Or better: The application still stands, even if it has to be viewed in a bigger context.

    To illustrate: When the Lord said, that the Law and the prophets hinge on two commands, He did not mean that these two overrule (or rule out) the rest. Instead He said, that no one my dare to loosen on of the least commandments. Here I don’t see Him reflecting on “eternal priciples” but on each Iota.

    Therefore I am not convinced of this approach. We can sum up everything under the headline “love”; we can even say: As long as we love, we may err and fail here and there, because love covers a multitude of sin. BUT: Who loves Christ will strive to keep His commandments, so failing in undestanding, knowing or doing His will is not counted against us, if we truly love Him. If, however, we cultivate an attitude that makes us a master over His word, we’ll get in trouble.

    We make big things in our discussion about the Holy Kiss. Why? Because it is a good example of how not take the Bible too seriously? I feel that this is misused in order to loosen other commands or rules. Which is actually done in our discussions.

    If someone is really interested in the Holy-Kiss matter, he (or she) must first of all decide to DO whatever the result of the study may be. If we set out to prove that we don’t have to do it, we will find what we will seek. I don’t believe this is a sound approach to scripture.

    Second: We will notice that the “commands” come without further explaination. OK. This leads to another interesting question: Are we willing to do what we are told without being given the reason for it? Or are we demanding a deeper meaning, a few convincing arguments in order to comply with God’s will? I don’t believe that we really always have to know WHY God expects us to do something. Just do it, because it’s in God’s word, is a perfectly fine attitude for a disciple.

    Third: We lack examples, don’t we? Obedience was taught by following the example of Christ, the Apostles and the church you were baptized into. We see that Paul was an imitator of Christ and that the church should imitate him (1Co 11:1). Did he kiss the brethren with a Holy Kiss? Of course he did. Did Jesus and His disciples greet each other with a kiss? Christ was even betrayed with a kiss! So, yes, that’s what they did. So, if the kiss is a reminder of the brotherly affection between Christ and His disciples, is this enough for us to just imitate Him?

    Fourth: For those who want to dig a little deeper, they may study the ECF on this subject … and find e.g.

    Justin Martyr: Having ended the prayers, we salute each other with a kiss.

    You see, it even was considered a part of worship! The 6th act of worship, if we please to call it so .. ;-)

    We are in a different and very difficult situation:

    We were evangelized by churches that lack undefiled Apostolic life and teaching. So many things got lost along the way that wait to be restored again! So we discuss commands apart from examples to follow! Think about it! We don’t see anyone greet the brothers with a kis in our churches, therefore we consider it “normal” that we don’t kiss. If Paul would suddenly turn up in one of our services, I bet he would not understand what we are doing! Now, speaking about the written commands without being taught by the living examples is very, very difficult. And even more so when we delude ourselves as being a perfectly restored NT church. Then we’d say: All we do is perfectly scriptural and nothing is lacking. This then FORCES us to Ignore, Omitt or Explain away (IOEA – the other hermeneutical principle) these texts.

    Yes, this was a bit lengthy, but just meant to illustrate: We don’t need this “eternal princle” approach. It doesn’t even work with the Holy Kiss. How then would it work in “weightier” matters?

    Alexander

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