Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 26, 1964
NUMBER 29, PAGE 7,9b,11

The Elder's Children

Jerry C. Ray

(Editor's note: Whether a man otherwise qualified but having only one child can scripturally serve as an elder has been debated among Christians for many years. The consensus has been, we believe, that the qualification of "children" can be fulfilled if there is only one child in the family — see article by Wm. E. Wallace on front page this issue. But some very able men have held a different view. Brother Ray in this article and in two to follow very fully presents the case for a plurality of children. The question deserves careful study).

In the study of the qualifications for the eldership one of the most frequently asked questions regards the "children" (I Tim. 3:4; Tit. 1:6). Does the expression necessitate a plurality or does it mean that a man is qualified with either (A) One child, or (B) A plurality of offspring? Stated another way, does "children" have a singular application, meaning that the elder must have at least one child, and may have a plurality, or does it mean that he must have a plurality of offspring, one child will not suffice.

Basic Considerations

(1) The word itself (Tekna) in I Timothy 3:9 and Tit. 1:6 is in the plural form. Its declension is:

CASE Singular Plural Nominative Teknon Tekna

Genitive, Ablative Teknou Teknon Locative, Instrumental, Dative Tekno Teknois

Accusative Teknon Tekna Vocative Teknon Tekna

(William Hersey Davis, Beginner's Grammar of the Greek New Testament, 5th Edition, p. 39).

Young's Analytical Concordance to the Bible, as is customary, gives the nominative, singular, form under the heading "children." Some, consulting Young's, and not being conversant with this technical point, have concluded that (1) The singular form is found in the two passages dealing with the elder's qualifications, or (2) That the Greek form means both "child" and "children."

The Greek word is plural in form in I Tim. 3:9 and Tit. 1:6. Its inherent significance is "children' (plurality of offspring). If the word is singular in application in any given passage such meaning is not derived from the Greek word, but is determined from Biblical interpretation.

(2) Plurals and singulars are not interchangeable. If they were there could be no reason for having differences in forms in declension. Singular and plural forms of words are not interchangeable in Hebrew, Greek or English.

This is not to say that the plural does not include the singular. The plural always includes the singular! "Churches of Christ" (Rom. 13:13) includes a plurality of the singular! "church of Christ" (local congregation). But the greeting was not from only one congregation, but a plurality. "Children of Israel" includes every child of Israel, but the phrase does not mean only one child. The elder's- children includes a plurality of the singular — child. But it does not mean the elder has only one child.

If plurals are interchangeable with singulars does this include all words of the Bible? If not all, by what rule does one determine which are interchangeable? For example, a Roman Catholic could take the various passages that speak of a plurality of elders (bishops) in each local congregation and declare that one elder overseeing a congregation is perfectly scriptural! If it works with "children" why wouldn't it work with "bishops?"

It is granted that sometimes the plural of teknon has a singular application (this does not mean, however, that the plural and singular are interchangeable), but this is not true always, nor in the majority of cases. Then how does one determine when "children" has a singular application? This brings me to a basic rule of Biblical interpretation upon which my position is based.

A Rule Of Bible Study

The rule is so simple that often we don't realize that we are using it in our study of the Bible. It is set forth precisely by J. W. McGarvey in Sacred Didactics, page 8:

III. Verbal Criticism. (This Method Is The Study Of The Meaning Of Words — Is Not Generally Applied Formally — But Always Implied In Reality. It Is Formally Applied When Doubt Exists).

A. As certain the primary meaning of the word. This done:

1. By lexicons.

2. Common usage.

B. Adopt primary meaning unless forbidden. It may be 1. By the context.

2. By some other scripture statement.

C. Ascertain its secondary or divided meaning and how divided from the primary. This ascertained in the same way as the primary.

D. Try each meaning until one is found that will suit.

E. If two meanings suit equally well — decide by Old Testament or New Testament usage.

In other words, in the study of the Bible, words should be understood as having their most commonly accepted meaning unless (1) context and/or another passage teaches to the contrary.

How many times has it been said that "water" means just that in John 3:5, and what would Jesus have used to mean "water" if "water" doesn't mean "water?" The figurative usage of the word is evidenced by context and/or another scripture: Living water (John 9:10); water of life (Rev. 22:17). We understand that "water unqualified by context and/or another scripture simply means H2O.

Jacob Ditzler and J. S. Sweeney were having a debate on the scriptural action of baptism. Ditzler showed that a secondary meaning of the word "baptize" was "to wash or sprinkle" (according to dictionary definition). In reply Sweeney showed that a secondary meaning of "believe" was "to have an opinion" and a secondary meaning of "saved" was to be "pickled." He gave the resulting translation of Mark 16:16: "He that hath an opinion and is sprinkled shall be pickled." Sweeney then raised the question, "Is it our aim to see what we can make of the scripture, or "Is it our aim to see what we can make of the scripture or is it our aim to find out what God has said? We must be careful lest we fall under such an indictment.

With regard to the elder's children, what is the primary (normal) meaning of Tekna? The normal meaning is "children" (plurality of offspring).

(A) Is there anything in the context that forbids the use of the normal meaning and demands the insertion of an unusual and secondary meaning?

(B) Is there anything in any other passage of scripture that forbids the use of the normal meaning and necessitates (not just "allows," but demands) the insertion of an abnormal and secondary meaning?

The answer to both questions is NO. Then why say that the qualification means "child?" Could it be a desire to qualify a man for the eldership who does not have children? Please don't misunderstand me. I am not accusing anyone of dishonesty. I am only pointing out the human weakness to which we are all inclined: to unconsciously seek to prove from the Bible what we already believe to be so.

A Possible Reply

"But there are other scriptures where tekna is singular in application, so McGarvey's rule, B-2, comes into action." Not so. The unusual meaning in other passages is determined by each passage's own context and/or another passage dealing with the same subject. The fact that a word has a peculiar meaning in one passage does not make it acceptable in another passage. The passages where tekna means child do not forbid the normal meaning in Tit. 1:6 and I Tim. 3:4. Are we allowed to place an abnormal meaning for a word into a passage simply because the word had an abnormal meaning in another passage and nothing in the passage at hand forbids such? Or does sound hermeneutics require that we maintain the primary meaning unless context and/or another passage forbids the primary meaning and demands a secondary meaning for the sake of logic and consistency with the rest of the Bible?

It is freely admitted that there are passages where "children" very evidently includes the singular application. For example, Paul writes, "but if any widow has children or grandchildren, let them learn first to show piety towards their own family, and to requite their parents" If the widow had only one child, he would have the above-mentioned duty. Why say this tekna applies to an only child of a widow, but reject a singular application in Tit. 1:6? The answer is the simple rule of interpretation: context and/or another passage.

Certainly the only child has a responsibility to his widowed mother. There are many passages that teach such an individual responsibility. In the immediate context Paul wrote, "But if any provideth not for his own, and specially his own household, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever." Hence, I know that tekna here is singular in application. But where is such a passage concerning the elder's qualification?

Is there anything in the context and/or another passage to indicate that children means child in Tit. 1:6? Then should not the word be accepted for what it commonly means? Granting that children means child in application in other passages does not prove that it means such in Tit. 1:6. It begs the question to assume that tekna has an abnormal meaning in Tit. 1:6 because it has an abnormal meaning in another passage when the context and/or another scripture does not demand the abnormal meaning in Tit. 1:6.

The basic difference in approach is comparable to that between Zwingli and Luther. Zwingli said, "We will practice only what the Bible authorizes." Luther said, "We will practice anything the Bible does not forbid." Regarding the elder's qualification, one says, "We will take the normal meaning except where context and/or another passage forbids." The other says, "We can insert the abnormal meaning anytime context and/or another passage does not forbid."

The argument for the one-child-elder is, at best, built upon a weak foundation. The best argument for this position is only a possibility, not a certainty, and begs the question. The argument (as I understand it) is basically this: (1) Tekna has an abnormal meaning in some passages. (2) It could, or does have an abnormal meaning in Tit. 1:6, because nothing forbids it.

This is my affirmation: I maintain that the normal meaning of the word must be used unless forbidden, this being based upon a rule of Biblical interpretation. I maintain that tekna is plural in form and meaning in normal usage. I maintain there is nothing in I Tim. 3:4 and Tit. 1:6 nor in any other passage, that indicates that tekna has anything but its normal meaning regarding the elder's qualification.

To prove my position to be false, it must be shown that (1) the rule of interpretation is faulty, or (2) my application of the rule is faulty.

(1) Is the rule of interpretation invalid? If this should be done, there is yet another problem. A rule still must be found to determine which passages are singular in application and which are not.

But think seriously now: How does one determine that a particular passage containing "children" uses the word abnormally? The only way one can know that "children" doesn't mean a plurality of offspring, in any given passage, is because context and/or another passage forbids the normal meaning and demands an abnormal meaning for the sake of sense and consistency.

An argument has been advanced to prove the rule invalid: The commonly accepted meaning of "teknon" is one's own fleshly offspring by natural birth, so the argument goes. So this would prove that a man could not be qualified whose children were adopted.

Actually, even if this argument were valid, it would not disprove the rule of interpretation. But the argument is false. "Teknon" is from the classical Greek word "tekein," which means that which is borne or born, a bairn, child" (Liddell & Scott), without reference as to who the natural father is. In I Tim. 3:4 "his" is in italics (King James Version), indicating that it is not in the original Greek. It was added by the translators to clarify the meaning of the passage. In this case it is questionable if it does. Neither I Tim. 3:4 nor the Greek word itself necessitates the elder's children being his own fleshly offspring.

(2) Is my application of the rule faulty?

(a) "The rule has to do with definitions of words, not distinctions between the plural and singular of the same word." This may be basically so, but nonetheless the plurality or singularity of a word is an absolute, inherent part of its definition. There is a difference between the singular and plural of quantity, not quality, but quantity is as much a basic part of definition as quality.

(b) "The normal meaning of children' is a plurality of offspring, but the peculiar meaning ('child') is its normal meaning ...,

(1.) "In the Bible." This is not so as a look at any good concordance will show. In the overwhelming number of passages "children" means a plurality of offspring.

(2.) "In the New Testament." This is likewise false. The proof is in the concordance.

(3.) "In the Apostle Paul's writings." If my count is correct Paul used the word "teknon" (excluding compound forms) 33 times in the plural form (Acts 13:33, 21:5, 21; Rom. 8:15, 17, 21, 9:7, 8; I Cor. 4:14, 7:14; 2 Cor. 6:13, 12:14; Gal. 4:25, 27, 28, 31; Eph. 2:3, 5:1, 8, 6:1, 4; Phil. 2:15; Col. 3:20, 21; I Thess. 2:7, 11; I Tim. 3:4, 12, 5:4; Tit. 1:6). By my count the "plural of class" appears in only 9 of these 33 passages.

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