Morality Ch. 5: Rebellious Children

Paul disqualified church leaders whose children were disorderly. Unlike Roman parents, we are no longer responsible for legally punishing crimes by those in our household. So what is our role when children rebel?

I remember the day when I resolved never again to say: “I blame the parents.” My four-year-old daughter was having a tantrum, lying on her back, screaming at the top of her voice, in the aisle of a crowded shop. I was unable to quiet her, and she was struggling so much that all I could do was drag her along the shiny floor by her ankle, to the evident disapproval of several clucking women. It was when she conceived the clever idea of grabbing hold of the base of a shelving unit that I made my resolution.

Paul writes to Timothy, a pastor in Ephesus, that someone who can’t keep charge of his own family should not lead the church: “he should manage his own household well ... keeping his children submissive” (1 Tim 3:4 ESV). He tells Titus, who pastored on Crete, that the children of church elders should not be “open to the charge of being wild and disobedient” (Titus 1:6). According to some translations the children even had to be “believers,” but the old King James Version catches the nuance of the Roman culture better: they had to be “faithful,” because pistos implies someone who could be trusted to pay for goods and honor legal agreements.

Does this mean that Christian leaders should resign if their children go off the rails? My daughters are both very sensible, but there is still time, as my wiser friends tell me! What if they do go through a late rebellious phase – would I have to give up positions of church leadership?

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We know from historical sources that Crete had a particular problem with their youth. They were wildly promiscuous, and it seems that the youth of the church were also afflicted with this (see Titus 2:4-6).1 And we know from modern-day life that the pastor’s kids are often the worst! However, in Ephesus, there may have been a bigger problem with older men, because the main library (the ruins of which are now a popular tourist attraction) was opposite the largest brothel, and a secret tunnel connected them.

When Israel followed the Old Testament law, rebellion by children was theoretically impossible. The law about obeying parents was in the top ten: “Honor your father and mother so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12). This sounds like a promise, but actually it was a threat. The penalty for a “stubborn and rebellious” son who ignored parental discipline was death by stoning (Deut 21:18-21). The rebellion could have included all kinds of bad behavior, so the Bible (as it normally does) lists the lowest offenses in order that anything more serious will be automatically included. For rebellion against parents, the offenses it lists are gluttony and drunkenness (Deut 21:18-21).

We can understand that drunkenness is serious, because it is often accompanied by violence and uninhibited behavior that can lead to almost anything. But why was gluttony included? In an agrarian society that relied on an annual harvest and careful rationing of that food until the next harvest, a glutton could bring starvation to a family. This wasn’t the case for every family, of course, but if necessary a child could be removed for the sake of the whole family. A terrible decision! We don’t know whether this punishment was carried out very often; probably there was no need to.

A similar attitude was found in other ancient civilizations, including Roman culture, which had spread throughout the world by the time of the New Testament. The head of a household in Roman law (the paterfamilias) was responsible for every member of his family and for any slaves he owned. If any of them committed a crime, he was legally expected to be their judge, jury, and executioner. In theory he could literally execute them if their crime deserved it, though he could send his child into exile as a legal alternative. The responsibility of the head of a household for punishing miscreants and criminals in his charge was treated very seriously. Anyone who let a child or a slave get away with their crime was threatening the fabric of society and possibly the safety of others. If they didn’t apply the law, then no one else had the authority to do it, so the criminal would go unpunished and might commit a worse crime next time.

Embarrassing teenagers

The emperor Augustus led a moral crusade throughout the Roman Empire shortly before Jesus was born. For example, he decreed that adultery had to be punished by death or exile, and the responsibility for carrying out the sentence lay with the head of the household.2 Augustus portrayed his own “first family” as a model for the empire to emulate. Then disaster struck: his own daughter Julia was seen dressed as a prostitute and giving freebies in the street just for the thrill of doing something forbidden. And then his granddaughter Julia the Younger became pregnant in an adulterous affair. Even if they both repented, Augustus couldn’t let them off because everyone would assume that either he was a hypocrite or that the law didn’t really matter. So, when the baby was born, he had it exposed (i.e., killed), and he exiled them both to live on separate small islands, devoid of any luxury, and never saw them again.

Heads of households were responsible for punishing other crimes, too. Damage to property, theft, personal injury, and even murder had to be judged and punished by the paterfamilias. Nowadays it would be illegal for a father to punish his children in this way. Some immigrant subcultures in the West still follow similar customs that they brought with them from their countries of origin. These customs create complex legal problems, which tabloid newspapers tend to portray in terms of child abuse. But in the first century it was illegal for anyone except the head of the household to inflict punishment.

Therefore, a father in New Testament times who couldn’t or wouldn’t manage his household when his children or slaves broke the law was a threat to society. His refusal to punish was a social evil as serious as a father who lies in court or covers up sex abuse perpetrated by his son. A man who did this would clearly be disqualified as a church leader, both then and now. As Paul says: “He must be well thought of by outsiders” (1 Tim 3:7 ESV) – and someone who protected his child, to the detriment of society, would be rightly criticized.

A modern rebellious teenager is very different! Parents might do everything in their power to teach their children about the faith, to help guide them through life, and, where appropriate, to punish them. And yet they may still rebel. This isn’t due to parental failure, and it isn’t what Paul is talking about. Paul isn’t saying that a rebellious child proves their parents can’t lead. After all, God himself is a Father who has a whole planet full of rebellious children, and that situation doesn’t reflect badly on him.

Paul is warning against choosing a church leader who had failed to carry out the legal responsibilities that he has in that culture. Someone who failed to carry out these legal duties was not just a poor parent but also a threat to society – and he himself was breaking the law. Of course, it is also true that parents who do nothing to help, guide, or reprove their rebellious child are likely to be poor leaders and are certainly a poor example to others. But the true situation is usually difficult to evaluate from outside the family, and we should be very reluctant to judge others.

Make their own mistakes

These Bible commands about dealing with children are not changeless, and they are culture reflecting, so we can’t assume they should apply in all cultures. Parents should not stone their rebellious drunken children (as the Old Testament commands), and pastors should not lose their leadership positions for failing to “manage” their children (as the New Testament commands). Both of these commands reflect the culture that these believers were living in. In New Testament times, Christians were expected to follow the Roman law that made them legally responsible for their own households. And in Old Testament times there were no prisons where a dangerous drunk could cool down, and there were no police or full-time soldiers to enforce an injunction keeping a violent person from a vulnerable family member.

Also, this law changed over the time the Bible was written. By New Testament times the Old Testament command was no longer observed, though everyone still knew of it. Jesus’ enemies glibly charge him with breaking this command when they say he is a “glutton and a drunkard” (Matt 11:19 = Luke 7:34), but they make no attempt to carry out any punishment. Times had changed, and the law was no longer enforced. This shows it was not a changeless law that applies to us today. And the equivalent, though different, law in the New Testament that fathers must legally manage their household also applies differently in a different culture.

Ultimately, in any culture, children have to make up their own minds, and sometimes we have to let them make their own mistakes. Our task, as parents, changes as they grow. The toddler we guide turns into a child we instruct, a teenager we reason with, and finally into a young adult with whom we discuss problems. We love them and pray for them, but they can still go astray. Sometimes, sadly, we can trace the rebellion of children back to the attitudes and actions of their parents. But ultimately every young adult is an individual who is free to choose the way to live. As God says in Ezekiel 18, children don’t inherit guilt from their parents’ sins, and similarly parents do not bear the ultimate guilt for their children’s rebellion.

1^ See Bruce W. Winter, Roman Wives, Roman Widows: The Appearance of New Women and the Pauline Communities (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 163-65.
2^ Lex Iulia de Adulteriis Coercendis of 17 BC (

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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