“The Problem of Unbelieving Covenant Children”

Last time we considered as a characteristic of this congregation its emphasis on the Christian family as an incubator of faith in covenant children. We pointed out not only how comprehensively the Bible bears witness to God’s promise to be our God and the God of our children but how essential to the growth of the kingdom of God has always been the succession of faith and saving grace in the lines of Christian generations. However wonderfully and in however immense numbers people of the unbelieving world have been won to the faith by evangelism, it remains the fact that most Christians through history have been the products of Christian homes.

But especially at this juncture in the life of the congregation the elders thought it important to address the difficulty that attends this teaching and the dark cloud that often overshadows what is and ought to be one of the happiest features of Christian experience, viz. the sharing of one’s faith in Jesus Christ and the prospect of life forever with one’s children. I am speaking of the fact, for fact it is, that not all children of the covenant grow up to live faithful Christian lives; some grow up to repudiate the faith of their parents, others to live in indifference to it. This is a sad fact of biblical revelation and of church history.

It is, however, a subject only rarely, if ever, discussed in Christian circles. Part of the reason for that, of course, is that it is so painful. To consider our wayward children from the pulpit, any caring pastor knows, is to rub salt into an open wound. But, as we said last time, another reason we haven’t developed a thoughtful response to this phenomenon is because the doctrine of the Christian family and of grace running in the lines of generations is so little preached, so little understood, and so little embraced, even in our own circles, that an unbelieving child of the covenant is not thought to pose a theological problem. I’ve learned in talking to people through the years that they are very likely to think about unbelievers who grew up in covenant homes the same way they think about any other unbeliever. Some believe, others do not; nothing more need be said. The fact that some Christian children don’t become adult believers is, especially in Presbyterian and Reformed families, simply chalked up to divine election. “Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated.” Enough said. However painful the outcome, it does not pose a challenge to our understanding of the Word of God. It is only when the promise of God to be our God and the God of our children is taken seriously that the unbelief of covenant children poses an acute theological and ethical problem. When God has promised to be the God of our children, when that promise was signified and sealed in baptism, how can that child then be lost?

For those who feel the weight of the emphasis the Bible places upon God’s promise to be our God and the God of our children, his promise to extend his righteousness to children’s children, to give his Holy Spirit to children’s children, and to save us and our house, the unbelief of one of our children can never be simply a tragedy. It is an outcome that requires some explanation.  What are we to do with this promise when the children of the church grow up to repudiate their baptism and to live their adult lives as unbelievers? To be frank, this is a question and a problem that has only recently forced itself upon our minds and hearts. So long as the question remains theoretical, rather superficial answers tend to suffice. But when children who have grown up in the church, children we know and love, children whose parents love them more than life itself are found walking in unbelief, making peace with the world, and resisting all efforts to call them back, we must get to the bottom of the matter; we must know what has happened and why, if, indeed, such knowledge can be found.

The problem is compounded by the fact that we not only continue to believe God’s promise to be our God and the God of our children, but have the evidence of God’s faithfulness to that promise before our eyes everywhere we turn. In preparation for this sermon I reviewed the history of baptism in this congregation over the last nearly 40 years. We have a record of everyone who has been baptized in Faith Presbyterian Church from 1978 to the present. There have been some 570 baptisms here in that period of time. Actually, counting today, 571. Not all of them were infant baptisms, of course, but the vast majority of them were. However, of those baptized as infants or little children through the years there were a good number with whom I have lost touch and about whose present spiritual life I have no current information. Families move away and we do not always maintain contact with them. In fact there were a number of names on that list to which I could not any longer put a face. Furthermore, scores of these children who have been baptized as infants here are still young children at home and, in most cases, not in all cases but in most, persistent unbelief does not present itself in a covenant child’s life until young adulthood or even later.

So I made a count of covenant children baptized here through the years who are now eighteen years of age and older and of whose Christian commitment, or lack of same, I could speak with some confidence. Of those of whose spiritual life I had reliable knowledge there were 17 who are not at present living as Christians. Of those of whose spiritual life I had reliable knowledge there were 162 who are living as followers of Jesus Christ. That means that 90% of our covenant children who have reached adulthood are living as Christians and 10% are not. Now most of those 17 are still young adults in their 20s or 30s and, as I will explain in due course, we are far from believing that all of them are lost to the faith. Throughout history the number of covenant children who have wandered from the faith when younger but were subsequently recovered to Christian faith and life is very large and we have high hopes that that number will soon include some, if not all, of those 17. But even 90% is an impressive confirmation of God’s promise. 90% of people in the world today are certainly not evangelical Christians; but neither are 90% of those who were born and raised in Christian homes. If 90% of the believing church’s children in the United States grew up to love and serve the Lord the believing church in our land would still be growing rapidly, which, alas, it is not. So as we turn our attention to the worrying and confusing fact of covenant children who in their adulthood do not walk with God, let us not forget the 90% of our covenant children who do.

The session has had to devote itself to this question because some of our own children are not walking with the Lord. We are men who intend to order our lives according to God’s Word, come wind, come weather. And in the Bible we read of covenant children who grow up in unbelief because of the failure of their parents to nurture their faith. There is no doubt that the salvation of covenant children is suspended in the Bible on their receiving a faithful nurture at home, and not all do. We pointed this out last time. Like other gospel promises, God’s promise to save our children is suspended upon conditions that must be met first by the parents and then by the children themselves. If those conditions are not met the promise is forfeit. And so it is that

  1. The scurrilous behavior of Israel’s priests Hophni and Phineas, rebels against the covenant of God, is explained as the result of their father Eli’s failure to teach them to love and obey the law of God. [1 Sam. 2:3; 3:13]
  2. The rebellion of Adonijah is explicitly laid at the feet of his father David who neglected his responsibility to discipline his son and who, in some respects, set a miserable example for all his sons.
  3. Manasseh, Judah’s worst king, was the son of Hezekiah, Judah’s best king, but was growing up when Hezekiah had grown spiritually complacent, a point the Bible makes with some emphasis.

So in thinking this question through as the elders of this congregation the question we had to ask ourselves was this: if irresponsible parenting produces unbelief in the children of the family, is any and every unbelieving child evidence of parental neglect and disobedience? And, if so, does the presence of any unbelieving child disqualify a man from service as an officer in the church? We read in Titus 1:6 that an elder must have believing children. That statement and its parallel in 1 Timothy 3:4-5 are the only place in the Bible where the issue is directly raised. In that context the term “elder” probably refers to the men we today would call ministers or pastors. But since faithful parenthood, by men and women alike, is a part of true gospel holiness everywhere in the Bible, we agreed that the statement in Titus 1:6 should be taken to apply not only to ministers but elders, and not only to elders but to deacons. But what does the statement mean?

Certainly if Titus 1:6 means anything, it means that unbelieving children can disqualify a man from church office and, therefore, that such unbelief on the part of his children, at least in certain cases, must be, at least in part, the father’s fault. It represents a failure that calls into question his capacity to rule and shepherd the church of God. As Paul put it, if a man can’t manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” [1 Tim. 3:4-5] We feel the force of that argument. It is obvious that even some real believers, even some devout believers, even some godly people, can be poor parents. Isaac, Jacob, Eli, David, and Hezekiah are some biblical examples, but we encounter parental neglect or foolishness in church history and in our own experience. Certainly parents who set bad examples for their children often see their children imitate them in the most unfortunate ways. We have to be ready to face the fact that Paul expects elders to be good parents, faithful parents, exemplary parents, and to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. And proof that they are is that they have believing children.

However, what if the man has believing children but also a child who is not walking with God? What if his other children are devout? What if the other children in the home seem obviously to be the product of faithful parenting? What if the other children of that home would say themselves that their parents taught them the way of the Lord, corrected their misbehavior as the Bible instructs parents to do, prayed with and for their children, and set an example for them of genuine faith and virtue? What if we have every reason to think that they were faithful Christian parents and no reason to think otherwise except for that unbelieving child? What then? I know, perhaps you know of large families in which only one child is not walking with the Lord among the five or six or seven or eight children. The other children are conscientious Christians; only the one is not. What then? Paul does not answer that question in writing to either Timothy or Titus. Nor does he explain precisely what he means by “believing children.” For, example, if a child grows up in the faith but turns away from the Lord when he is thirty, or forty, or fifty, would his father then be held responsible for his or her unbelief and disqualified as a church officer for that reason, no matter how many years he had already served faithfully and fruitfully as a leader in the church? After all, Titus says believing children. The Greek word typically refers to the young, to children at home, not always, but usually. Does the term in Titus 1:6 refer to children at home, still under their parent’s authority, or to a father’s children who are now adults and living independently?

We assume that Titus 1:6 and the requirement that a man have believing children would not exclude the bachelor elder; nor would it exclude a man who did not become a Christian until after his children were raised, though Paul doesn’t actually say that. Those are assumptions we make and feel confident in making but in either case the man would not have believing children. That fact reminds us that applying Paul’s requirement that a man have believing children is more complicated than at first it may seem. There are qualifications to that statement and now we must figure out what they are. We want to follow the Bible wherever it leads and we want to face the implications of its teaching honestly, no matter the consequences for ourselves. So your elders sought to answer this question: how are we to apply Titus 1:6 to the case of a man who has believing children but also an unbelieving child?

When we began to seek an answer to this question, the first thing we discovered was that we seemed to be alone in seeking such an answer. I have heard this man or that express an opinion. I know that some believe than any unbelieving child of any age disqualifies a man from church office. Many more would hesitate to disqualify a serious, devout Christian man for any number of his unbelieving children.  But what we needed was not someone’s opinion but a thoughtful, intelligent, biblically serious engagement with a question that, it seems obvious, should have been raised many times throughout Christian history. But we couldn’t find such engagement. The commentators don’t even raise, much less address the issue. They pass over the statement in Titus with blithe disregard for the questions it raises in the mind. We examined virtually all the standard works on the Pastoral Epistles and couldn’t find a single one that proved helpful. Nor could we find any of our Presbyterian authorities in church government or in ethics who addressed the question. What does Titus 1:6 actually mean?

Richard Baxter wrote a work entitled A Christian Directory. This immense 17th century work is the summit of Puritan practical theology. Its sub-title was A Sum of Practical Theology and Cases of Conscience. Among its four sections it had one on Family Duties and one on Church Duties. By “sum” was meant that Baxter aspired with his work of a million and a quarter words, nearly a thousand pages of small double-column type, to cover everything. By “a case of conscience” was meant an existential question, that is, how we are to think or behave in any particular set of circumstances. What does God’s Word require of us in this case or in that? In other words we ought to find somewhere in Baxter’s immense work some interaction with this question: how is the requirement that an elder have believing children to be understood? What is meant by “children” in Titus 1:6 and does any single unbelieving child disqualify a man from church office who has a number of other believing children? But no such luck. We could find no interaction with that text anywhere in Baxter’s Christian Directory. He dealt with some 174 Ecclesiastical Cases of Conscience, but managed to avoid this one.

So we had to make our own way in reaching an answer to this question: does an unbelieving child, even one, invariably indicate a parental failure and, accordingly, disqualify a man from church office?

  • The first thing we noted was the characteristically absolute and unqualified way in which the deliverance in Titus 1:6 is put. “An elder must have believing children.” It is, in this way, a typical biblical legal deliverance; that is, it reads like most biblical laws. But, that means that like other biblical laws it is not self-interpreting. We do not find in the law itself the principles of its application to specific cases. What does “believing children” mean? Only believing children? A majority of believing children? At least two believing children? And who are these children: 1) children still at home? 2) children who are now young adults and living independently or, at least, no longer under the active supervision of their parents? or 3) a man’s children throughout the entire course of their lives?

The fact is this is the way the legal deliverances of the Bible typically read. Qualifications are left either to be stated elsewhere or to be worked out by elders in keeping with both the larger teaching of the Bible and the principles of biblical wisdom. Their application to specific circumstances or cases was left to the elders no doubt because the Bible would have to be a book so large it would fill the world to apply all of its laws to all possible human circumstances. This is so with virtually every biblical law, which is why we still today argue over the application of biblical commandments. You are familiar with this from your own reading of the Bible and your own experience in the church. What exactly constitutes a lie according to the ninth commandment? Did Rahab break the ninth commandment or not? What about the Hebrew mid-wives in Exodus 1? What about David when he acted insane? Different answers are given to that question even by our own authorities. What exactly does keeping the Sabbath Day holy require? How about a walk on a Sunday afternoon? How about whiffle ball game with your little boys in the back yard on a Lord’s Day afternoon? What about watching a football game on TV? What about eating in a restaurant after church? The reason we argue about such things is precisely because the Bible itself doesn’t answer such questions. It is general; it is not specific in its legal deliverances and adds precious little detail. The application of God’s law to our daily behavior requires casuistry and casuistry is more art than science. Eric Liddell refused to run in his hundred meter qualifying heat on a Sunday at the 1924 Olympics. But to prevent fighting among the boys he agreed to referee their soccer game on a Sunday afternoon in the Japanese internment camp in China where he spent the Second World War and where he eventually died. In my view, he did the right thing in both cases: refused to run in the one case, but ran all over the soccer field in the other. But you cannot determine the correct course of action in either case simply by reciting the fourth commandment.

In speaking of divorce the Lord famously said that no divorce is permitted except for sexual immorality. And there have certainly been those who have taken the view that the absolute form of that prohibition means that the only legitimate cause of divorce is sexual infidelity. This has led to the practice, in some Christian communions, of couples remaining married who no longer live together. They remain husband and wife but for years on end they do not see or speak to one another. The case may be, for example, that it is judged unsafe for the wife to be under the same roof with her husband because of a history of his violence against her, but since only adultery can break a marriage, married they must remain, at least in law if not in behavior. But the Reformed and Presbyterian tradition has, I think rightly, not understood the law in such a woodenly literal way. Reading the Bible has taught us that, however absolute a law may seem, qualifications exist nevertheless. And so it is that our own Presbyterian Church in America has acknowledged that other grave sins against the marital covenant qualify as grounds for divorce. Persistent physical abuse is one; attempted murder is another; the unilateral termination of a pregnancy might be still another. In other words, the Bible’s legal deliverances must be read with an appreciation of the Hebrew/Jewish literary style – that is, the biblical writers’ general unqualified, or absolute manner of legal definition – as well as with regard to the larger biblical context.

When, for example, it was required of Israel that, upon entering the Promised Land, she exterminate every man, woman, and child in Canaan, it is all too easy for the modern western reader to conclude that the people of God were being ordered to conduct a pogrom, to undertake genocide. But, as a matter of fact, that absolute form of words was not understood in that way, not intended to be taken that way and wasn’t taken that way even by Joshua, and such genocide was not, in fact, carried out in Canaan. Or when the people of Israel were commanded not to let any Moabite enter the assembly unto the tenth generation, the righteous folk who welcomed Ruth, a Moabitess, into the family of Israel (and into the ancestry of the Messiah) obviously understood that the law included unmentioned qualifications. It didn’t prohibit believing Moabites from joining the covenant community. You would never know that from the law itself; only from the larger context. Or when the very strict regulations for observing the Passover were laid down in Exodus 12 and then confirmed in Leviticus, it might seem that if in any given year those requirements could not be met by certain Israelites, even godly Israelites would have to miss the Passover. But, as a matter of fact, we learn on several occasions that these solemn regulations were suspended to enable some of the people of God to participate.

In other words, and I could go on and on with these illustrations, an absolute forms of words is not by any means always understand in the Bible in absolutely unqualified terms. In this particular case, since the biblical text does not specify what is meant and what is not meant by its form of words – for example, how many of an elder’s children must be believing; how young or old must these believing children be to qualify as a man’s believing children; and so on – we must consider other factors than simply the words themselves as we read them in Titus 1:6.

  • The second thing that occurred to us is that the Bible never suggests that Christians who grow up in Christian homes form a class of Christians distinct from other believers, as if they are, as covenant children, immune to the vicissitudes of spiritual life everywhere described in Holy Scripture. That is, just because a Christian man or woman grew up in a devout Christian home does not mean that the ups and downs of Christian experience will not apply to him or to her, just as they do to other believers, those believers who have come to faith from the unbelieving world. Christians are Christians in the Bible, however it was that they became Christians, when they were baptized, or what their advantages or disadvantages may have been. Never once are Christians divided into two classes: those who were born and raised in Christian homes and those who became Christians in the middle of life, as if different principles applied to the life of each class of believer.

The fact that a man or woman was born and raised in a devout home, as David was, does not mean that he or she will never experience a period of backsliding, as David did, a time of spiritual dullness or open disobedience from which, God be praised, he was recovered in due time. It happened in biblical times; it has happened ever since. Nor does the Bible suggest that a covenant child who grew up a believer at home would as a result, as an adult, never apostatize, as those erstwhile Christians did who are described in Hebrews 6 or as Judas did or Demas did? Do such developments never occur in the life of a covenant child now an adult? The Bible certainly does not say so. Or consider a still better example. The siblings of the Lord Jesus, by the express teaching of the Gospels, did not believe in him during the days of his ministry. They would have been young adults at the time, obviously younger than he since he was Mary’s firstborn, the youngest perhaps in his or her middle or her later teens. Only after the resurrection are they found numbered among the Christians. Now it seems that Joseph had died at some point prior to the Lord’s beginning his public ministry. But were his unbelieving children proof that he had been a negligent father? If so, what should we think of Joseph as a parent of covenant children after all his children had become believers? Did a negligent father become a faithful father after his death? Things are not as simple as Titus 1:6 and the requirement that an elder have believing children might first have led us to believe. So what have we concluded? How are we to understand the gloomy phenomenon of an unbelieving covenant child or, at least, a covenant child in his or her young adulthood who is or seems to be for a time an unbeliever?

  1. First, we intend to take seriously the requirement that a man must have believing children to be an officer of Faith Presbyterian Church. Paul explicitly says that the faithful spiritual management of a man’s home is a prerequisite for leadership in the church. There are Christian men who are irresponsible fathers; we know that. If we judge a Christian father to have been negligent or indifferent to his calling to raise his children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, if he has exasperated his children into unbelief, as we know happens, we will consider him disqualified for office in the church, whether he is being considered for election to that office or is already serving as a minister, deacon, or elder. If he has children he must have believing children.
  2. Second, we will respect the ambiguity in the law that an elder must have believing children and make our judgment in specific cases as elders must. Each situation must be judged individually. We are not persuaded than any single unbelieving child disqualifies a man who has other believing children and whose reputation as a godly and spiritually engaged father is not only confirmed by his believing children but is confirmed by the observation of the church. We rest this conclusion not only on the considerations so far mentioned this evening, but on the inevitable mystery of life as we encounter it in Holy Scripture.

What promise of God, after all, is not beset with these sort of questions and this sort of difficulty? “Ask and it shall be given to you?” Really? What of those things for which we have asked for years on end – good things, holy things, proper things to ask for – but which have not been given to us? “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart?” Really? What of those desires, holy desires, for which we have longed as people who love the Lord, who delight in him, who rejoice in his grace but which have not been given to us even after many years of longing? “Children obey your parents that you may live a long life in the world?” Really? What of the sweet covenant Christian child who dies as a youngster or teenager? There are entire books of the Bible devoted to this painful reality of faith: that in this way or that, at this time or that, it doesn’t seem to work. Which is simply another way of saying that from time to time it doesn’t appear that God is being true to his word; that he is keeping his promises. Call this, if you will, “the Ecclesiastes Effect,” the impenetrable mystery of God’s ways; the many times and the many ways in which it is not obvious to us or to anyone else that God is keeping the promises that he made to us.

We do not doubt the promise of God, reminds us here that God cannot lie; God never lies. We don’t doubt the promise of God but we know only too well that we cannot explain God’s ways or why things occur in God’s world as they do, or how to reconcile what happens in our lives with what we read in the Word of God. If this mystery, this deep and impenetrable secret will of God attaches to every other promise that God has made, why not to this promise also: “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved and your house.”

  • Third, we know only too well that there is much in any human life that we are incapable of judging. No Christian father with any sense will ever think that has done as good a job of raising his children as he might have and should have. He is only too well aware of his failings as a teacher of the faith, as a disciplinarian – too harsh or too lax or both –, as an example of the life of Christian faith, love, and grace before his children, and as the creator of an atmosphere in his home that has enough of heaven in it to make his children want to go there. How can any Christian father think himself to have done what he ought to have done? But we are not talking, we are never talking about a man who is a perfect or sinless father. Far from it! We are talking only about a faithful father, not only a father who seeks to raise his children as the Lord would have him do so, but whose faithfulness also consists in his ready awareness of his failings, his confession of his sins to and before his children, and his readiness to forgive as he has been forgiven.

How God himself judges a parent’s life we can never know. The Bible teaches us that “To whom much is given, much is required.” We know that; but we are incapable of knowing how God applies that standard in any particular case. How much was given to that particular father; how much is required of him? Where does this man’s life fall on that sliding scale of lesser or greater privilege and so lesser or greater responsibility? And so we make our judgments as we must, relying on the direction of the Word of God and our own observation of a man’s life. None of us, for example, would be at all surprised if profound trauma in the life of a child had an equally profound effect upon that young person’s faith in God. We would not blame the parent for a faith shaken by some terrible event. We would not, for example, blame a parent whose child was alienated from the church and the faith because he or she was abused by a pastor or a priest. I have personal knowledge of such cases in which in a family of believing children was shaken by a great wrong which shook, if it did not destroy the faith of one child. The parents grieve, but they had nothing to do with the events that so damaged a beloved daughter’s or son’s faith. God alone can know or judge the case.

I mention this only to remind us that there are many things we neither understand nor are competent to judge. John Newton was the son of a devout mother who, until her early death did,  what a devout mother could do to nurture the faith of her son. Her work did not bear fruit until years later when her son was already an adult. Charles Spurgeon was raised in a believing and faithful home but did not find faith until he was sixteen. Many more covenant children grew up in the faith and could not remember a time in which they did not believe, which seems to be the ordinary expectation in the Bible. Who can explain the difference between one case and another? Who can explain why one child backslides and another does not? Who can explain why one adult raised in a faithful Christian family, whose siblings are earnest Christians, and who for some time was known as a Christian himself or herself, then apostatizes? Certainly we cannot explain these things.

We expect our officers to have believing children, if they have children at all. Beyond that, the elders of the church must make judgments. They will be sound judgments if they are made with careful attention to the Word of God, motivated by a desire to honor the Lord and obey his Word, and controlled by love for God and man. John Newton said it best: “love is the best casuist.” Casuistry is what we are talking about tonight: applying the laws of the Bible to the thousand and one circumstances we face in the experience of life. And the person who is most likely to get the application right is the one who acts out of love for both God and man. But as we seek to be faithful in the case of those covenant children who do not believe in their adulthood, we want never to forget the multitudes of our children whom the Lord has called to himself, in whom he has accomplished the new creation, and who will accompany us, their parents, to the frontiers of the Promised Land. That double faithfulness is what we intend to remain a characteristic of Faith Presbyterian Church.