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“Believing Children” vs. Youthful Elders

20 December 2007

The Mormon church is well known for the youthfulness of its “elders,” who ride in twos from place to place during their mission phase.  If I recall correctly – I haven’t encountered them personally since I was a wildland firefighter in the Mormon enclaves of the Mogollon Rim country, back in the mid-’80s – their name tags say “Elder Smith” and “Elder Jones,” and that’s precisely the way people refer to them.  It has always seemed odd to me that the Mormon church should adopt such an oxymoronic way of doing business.  But they’re Mormons, and if their sacred scriptures and traditions say it’s OK, they’re entitled to do what they like; it doesn’t affect me in the slightest.  Live, and let live.

But when it comes to the Stone-Campbell wing of Christendom, all that changes.  In the first place, elder selection does affect me, my family, my friends, and my home congregation (if I had one *sigh*).  In fact, it has affected me profoundly over the past several years, as visitors to this blog will undoubtedly have noted.

In the second place, though, there is the more fundamental matter of holding Scriptural injunctions in high regard.  And in Titus 1:6, as we have received the Pauline tradition, we overhear a pertinent requirement or qualification for a presbyter:  he must have “believing children” (NAB), “faithful children” (NKJV), “whose children are believers” (NRSV).  The Greek here is tekna exwn pista, and although tekna (children) and pista (from a root meaning faith, belief) are pretty straightforward, the translational key to understanding the sense of Paul’s injunction seems to focus on exwn (to possess, to have, to lay hold [of], to cling [to].  I know not how to parse the Greek verb here, so I’ll not launch off into that.  Suffice to say that its subject is either (a) the man being considered as an elder or (b) the children themselves.  In either case, the verb is a strong possessive.

If (a) is correct, we are left to conclude (are we not?) that these are children that the man actually possesses, children in his own household.  In other words, we’re not talking about grown, independent children, but children who by their deportment and conduct reflect upon the character of the man under consideration as an elder.  If he cannot manage, correct and discipline his own children while they are under his authority, why would we suppose he could do so with the children of God in a pastoral stewardship?

If (b) is correct, things get a little dicier, and I doubt this is the correct sense anyway.  The question here becomes whether or not the children of this man tenaciously hold to their own faith.  They may be gone from the house, or they may not, but either way, their belief is amply confirmed as genuine – and not derivative! – by diligence and focus and seriousness, bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

Interestingly, both ways of looking at it point to the same thing:  we are not considering a man whose children do not exhibit a faith of their own.  Alford explains it this way:  the children must be “established in the faith.”  It seems to have this sense of a self-sustaining, independent faith, a faith that can be reasoned and articulated by the child, not a faith that is tied inextricably to the faith of the father and mother.

Faith of that kind is a tall order for a third grader.  Who among us has elementary-aged children who are “established” in their faith to that degree?

And yet the elders in our tradition continue to get younger and younger, with the occasional result that I have recently observed:  a young, wealthy, successful man, flush with episcopal authority and opinions, castigates and impugns the character and motives of an older, more seasoned man on a rather thin base of evidence and reasoning.  Great damage results, in the form of division and conflict.  And yet this young elder’s oldest child is in the 2nd grade.  What was he doing in the office of a presbyter?  

It’s at least conceivable that he’s there because he was bold enough to apply for the job in the first place, and he is also remarkably compliant with the hyper-growth, seeker-oriented agenda of the so-called “senior pastor.”  He’s the pastor’s ally.

Help me understand this.  Am I barking up the wrong tree?


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