Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

Does a 'Prodigal' Disqualify You from Spiritual Leadership?

  • Jim Binney Today's Christian Preacher Magazine
  • Published Sep 02, 2005
Does a 'Prodigal' Disqualify You from Spiritual Leadership?

An evangelist is accused of unfitness for ministry because his teenage daughter has committed immorality. A missionary is recalled because his daughter is rebellious and he is therefore deemed “disqualified” for ministry. A pastor is asked for his resignation because his teenage son stole from the local department store. Three potential leaders on the verge of losing their life’s ministry because, they are told, their failure as a parent has rendered them unfit for spiritual leadership.


The fallout from such conclusions is devastating the church. Pastors and wives become discouraged as marriages are brought under pressure in efforts to produce the “perfect” child. Parents of good children judge other parents while those with wayward children assume horrendous burdens of guilt. Children of leaders chafe under the demands of their fishbowl existence and resent the ministry for its unyielding demands upon them. Christians at large unleash barbs of criticism against hurting leaders.

Pressure is brought to bear for resignations, and indeed, many conscientious spiritual leaders do resign their positions and leave the full-time gospel ministry. And what of the danger to our children when we make them the means of our failure in ministry? If the devil “walketh about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour,” won’t he, like any lion, target the feeble, the weak, and the young first? Have we set our children up for attack by basing the strength of our calling on the weakest of our family members?


Few questions have plagued the church like the one swirling around the issue of leadership qualifications (I Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9), and few of these have been more misued than the ones related to the leader and his children.


The reasons for this vary. The belief that parenting guarantees or determines a child’s behavior is behind much of it. There is also the “fear of man” which “bringeth a snare.” Furthermore many have never been “fully persuaded” in the “own mind,” but have naively embraced the opinions of others.

As one pastor said to me when I asked him why he believed a leader was disqualified by a rebellious child, “That’s what they taught me in Bible college.” Not to be overlooked is the attack of the enemy, “the accuser of the brethren” who is working overtime at accusing the leader to himself and to others as well.


A careful reexamination of the Scriptures is in order. While there is certainly a need to establish high standards of conduct for the past or, the passages at hand may have been overused for this purpose. Although they may not be intended exclusively for use before the pastor’s call, the context indicates that this is the writer’s primary intention.

It is clear that his emphasis in these scriptures is to establish sound qualifications before enlistment or endorsement. I Timothy 3 begins with “If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work” followed immediately with the qualifications of the office. The context indicates that the qualifications are for the volunteer to consider before seeking the office. Titus 1 bears out the same meaning.

Before the qualifications are listed Paul clearly instructs Titus to “ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee;” then follows immediately with the qualifications of the elders he should seek to appoint. On the one hand, the seeker of the office is faced with necessary qualifications, on the other hand the appointer of men to the office is provided with qualifications to look for, but in each case the emphasis is on qualifying the leader before ordination rather than after.

Not inviolable requirements


It certainly makes sense that before a man is ordained he should meet some minimal standards, as his adherence to them is some indication of his maturity and his ability to maintain them. But to extrapolate them into the future as inviolable requirements doesn’t make sense. To be “blameless, of good behavior, patient, not self-willed, not soon angry, temperate, and have faithful children (meaning “believing children” or “children who believe”) before ordination does not guarantee that these qualities will be perfectly and perpetually adhered to after ordination.

What if the elder is blamed for something? What if his behavior is not always “good”? What if he loses his patience or worse his temper? What if he is not always temperate or self controlled? What if he has children born to him after entering ministry? Obviously, for a period of time, they will not be “faithful.” Which failure in any of these areas disqualified a man? Who determines whether it is a serious enough offense? Who is to say that sin or failure in these areas cannot be confessed, forsaken and forgiven?


Before hiring a man to work on your staff you will review his resume, check his references and scrutinize his work record. Why? You want to take every precaution to insure that the man is qualified for the position. But once he is hired, if he fails in his responsibility do you fire him outright? No, you correct him, and if he responds, you work with him. But the initial scrutiny of his character is essential before hiring him. In like manner, the pastor’s pre-ministry character is in question in these passages. But to assume that pre-ordination qualifications equal post-ordination requirements is stretching the point.


In many ordinations, this process is reversed. I have sat on many ordination councils and heard few, if any, questions about the marriage of the candidate, his morals, or his children. But questions abound about his knowledge, philosophy, methodology, and doctrinal persuasion. Why is so little attention paid to a man’s character before his ordination, and so much emphasis placed on it afterwards? Maybe we need to “accuse the brethren” less after the fact and examine them more before.

A Sinless Life?


When someone is presented for church membership, we examine them carefully and once assured of the genuineness of their conversion, we accept them into the church family. But does that examination guarantee a sinless life after they join the church? And what if they do sin? We confront them in love and discipline them if necessary even to the point of excommunication in an extreme case. Why? To restore them.


As the goal with the church employee and the church member is to restore them, so should the goal be to the pastor’s child who might have failed. Rod Bell writes of the missionary mentioned above whose daughter rebelled. “He had to leave the mission board because (they) asked him to come home since his family was not in subjection to him. They said he had disqualified himself from the ministry. I told him to be patient and love her with tough love and work through the situation. He certainly was on tope of the situation, a good disciplinarian, and not only that, but a tender and compassionate man. He stayed on the field, left the mission board, and went out under our church. I counseled him weekly by phone and letters. God gave his daughter the victory.

She is now 18 years old, and God has called her to the mission field. While a man must realize he has a holy obligation to have his family under subjection, there is not a family on the face of God’s earth that does not go through some trials with teenagers. Therefore, we must treat our children as God treats His children. I am glad that God does not punish us, but chastens us when we do wrong.”


Thorough exegesis is also required when we look at the reason for the qualifications. Paul explains his reasoning to Timothy, “One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)” I Tim. 3:4-5. It is to be understood that initially it is the quality of the leadership in question here, not the perfection of the follower. It is the responsibility of the father and pastor which is under consideration, not the response of the church member and child.

The judgment as to whether a pastor is ruling well or not is not in the misbehavior of the church member but in the response of the leader to that misbehavior. If the pastor confronts the sin lovingly and deals with it thoroughly and biblically, he has ruled well. In like manner, if the father confronts the sin of his children lovingly and deals with it thoroughly and biblically, he has ruled well also. Few, if any pastors, are asked to resign over a wayward member if they have handled the situation properly.


Ruling well cerntainly includes discipline, but the need of discipline indicates that there is a misbehavior in the first place. To require disciline from leaders on the one hand, and to assume the absence of misbehavior on the other hand is inconsistent. It is not the absence of misbehavior that qualifies a man for leadership, but his handling of it.


John Vaughn elaborates: “What does it mean to ‘rule well?’ Is this a man who has no disobedient member in his congregation? If one of them requires discipline, is he disqualified? To ‘rule well’ means to ‘stand in front and lead’, to set an example (as an elder) of the truth he is preaching (as a bishop). To assume that a man seeking the office is permanently unqualified, or that a man in the office is automatically disqualified by the disobedience of his child is not illustrated in the many examples of Old Testament leaders whose sons were disobedient. Even the example of Eli teaches that the failure for which he was removed from the priesthood (by death) was that ‘his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not.’”

Church's Response

There is a clear link between management in the family and management in the church. The home is the proving ground for leadership skills needed in the church. The requirements of the church mirror the requirements of the home. The church’s response to the pastor’s home leadership should parallel its response to his church leadership. The same standard for determining if the leader is ruling well in one should apply to the other as well.


At some point, of course, a general pervasiveness of disobedience may indicate a lack of gifts, an inability to lead, or an absence of spirituality. This will be revealed first in the home. The leader is required to have “his children in subjection with all gravity” (I Tim. 3:4). His children must be “faithful, not accused of riot or unruly” (Titus 1:6). Obviously if five out of five children are publicly insubordinate, disobedient, ungodly, and accused of unrestrained sinfulness, the leader’s credentials may require a renewed scrutiny. But what if most of his children are living for the Lord? Bob Jones III comments:


“If a preacher has a household of children who are rotten, rebellious, or lewd and dissolute, he is unqualified to preach. I’m not sure, however, if one child goes astray and the others turn out well that a preacher is disqualified.  …I think that we’re unscripturally hard on Christian fathers in ministry when one child goes bad. We don’t take into account the perfidy of the devil. It is possible for a child to go bad in spite of the best parenting and the best examples from father and mother. Each child is a free moral agent. Adam and Eve were God’s children, and they exercised their free moral choice against God and for sin in a perfect moral environment.”


Who is qualified to say when a pastor is actually “unfit” because of his children’s misbehavior? Obviously that decision must rest upon the conscience of the pastor and the decision of the church body. It should be bathed in earnest prayer, diligent study of the Word, and godly counsel. As in much of the Christian life, the issues are not black and white. A “letter of the law” approach will not work here. There are too many considerations, too many variables. Each situation must be weighed in the balances rather than attempting to establish a uniform code of church justice.  As Bell says,


“I think each circumstance should be judged on the effectiveness and diligence with which the pastor deals with his family . . . in each circumstance, everything must be judged upon its own merit.”




Who is better qualified to do this than the local autonomous body of believers? The ultimate responsibility of sorting through all the issues in making a decision regarding the pastor’s fitness rests upon the local church.


The burden of proof is upon the person who is challenging a pastor’s fitness to lead based on his children’s misbehavior. Dare anyone take a casual approach to this? Cavalier conclusions and hasty judgments must be brought to the Word of God for final disposition.

Any decision, generalized or specific, to disqualify a leader based on his child’s waywardness demands that the accuser be 1) fully persuaded  2) in his own mind. Are you?

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