Those Who Will Give an Account

by Jeffrey W. Hamilton

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17).

Most recognize the quote from Hebrews 13:17 as referring to the elders in a local congregation. Elders have the responsibility to watch over members of the church, attempting to keep them faithful to God, and for that they will give an account of their work to God. But what happens if one of those members leave the faith? Are the elders held responsible for the member’s sins? Well, no, each person is responsible for their own choices (Ezekiel 18:20). What, then, are elders accountable for? They are accountable for their guidance, their teaching, and their awareness of what is going on among those given into their care. If they had not done the job they were assigned to do, then they will be accountable not only for their own personal sins, but also for the direction they led people either purposely or carelessly.

All teachers -- and elders are teachers -- face the same accountability. Imagine a new teacher is hired and the dean notices at the end of the first year that over half her students failed. It could be that she just happened to get a bad batch of students, but regardless, warning flags are raised. The teacher will be watched carefully because it just might be that the large number of failures is due to her bad teaching skills. While each student is responsible for his own grade, a rash of failing students reflects back on the teacher’s reputation and might cause her to lose her job. “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Teaching is fun, but it carries responsibilities.

God is holy and just. There is no flaw in Him. Yet, Israel managed to smear God’s reputation before the other nations of the world. “But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations wherever they went. Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'Thus says the Lord GOD: "I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name's sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD," says the Lord GOD, "when I am hallowed in you before their eyes” (Ezekiel 36:21-23). Israel’s sins and the fact that God had to send them into captivity lowered the value of God in the sight of the nations, but God was going to restore His name by making Israel change. God was not responsible for Israel’s sins; yet, Israel’s bad behavior had a temporary impact on God’s reputation.

Eli, the High Priest, had two disreputable sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They stole from the offerings to God (I Samuel 2:12-16). “Therefore the sin of the young men was very great before the LORD, for men abhorred the offering of the LORD” (I Samuel 2:17). Eli knew what his sons were doing, and that they were committing fornication with the women who served before the tabernacle. He even scolded them for it (I Samuel 2:22-25), but they did not listen to their father, and their father did nothing more. As a result God condemned Eli. “In that day I will perform against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end. For I have told him that I will judge his house forever for the iniquity which he knows, because his sons made themselves vile, and he did not restrain them. And therefore I have sworn to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be atoned for by sacrifice or offering forever” (I Samuel 3:12-14).

Eli was not guilty of the sins of his sons, they “brought a curse on themselves.” His guilt laid in the fact that he did not restrain them. The verb “restrain” literally means to grow weak. Eli did not weaken their actions, he didn’t stand in their way, he didn’t put a stop to what they were doing. He was accountable because he was God’s High Priest, but he was also accountable because he was their father. Even though they were grown men with their own families (I Samuel 4:19) and they were responsible for their sins, their father was responsible for not standing in their way. This is why Eli and his household, his descendants, were cut off.

Some point out that Eli, as High Priest, should have removed the corrupted priests, even if they were his own sons. This failure as a High Priest, we are told, is the reason God punished him, which I readily agree, but a father is also a teacher. Abraham illustrates this, ”For I have known him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice, that the LORD may bring to Abraham what He has spoken to him” (Genesis 18:14). Fathers are accountable for what they teach. Each child is responsible for his own choices, but the child’s father is accountable for the guidance and instruction he gives his children. And it isn’t limited to his immediate children while they live in his home. God wanted Abraham to “command his children and his household after him.” Eli failed in his duties as a father and that is why his household was cut off.

When we reach the New Testament, we find continued commands to fathers to teach. “And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). While each child is responsible for his own choices, we would expect that good teaching will tend to lead children to make good decisions. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). It is not an absolute guarantee, but it is a strong tendency. And because fathers are commanded to teach, they will be held accountable for how well they carried out that command, regardless of their children’s own decisions.

This is why an elder’s children are a part of his qualifications.

One who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?)” (I Timothy 3:4-5).

Having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination” (Titus 1:6).

An elder’s children are a reflection of the man’s ability to effectively teach, encourage, and rebuke. The man is not responsible for the choices his children make, but he is accountable for his teachings that guided them when they made those choices.

When you find a man, whose entire family is faithful to God, it is possible that they all happened to make good choices despite their father’s poor teaching – but it is not likely. In a similar way, when you find a man whose child has not remained faithful, it could be that the child made bad choices despite his father’s teachings. It becomes a point of concern that must be carefully examined. Did the child fall into sin immediately or shortly after leaving home? Was the child grown and something happened to shake the grown child’s faith? If so, has everything possible been done to bring the child back? Has the man stood in the way of his child’s sins?

Then, there must be a consideration of the man’s reputation. If it is known that he has unfaithful children, what will that do to his ability to lead others away from sin? If you think this is unfair, consider that the behavior of a man’s children is one of many factors considered when a man is looked at for a political office or to head a large corporation. No one wants a potential “liability” in the future. While you may find no fault in what the man has done, the probability that he will still be a good choice for the eldership is more than likely very low.

Some bring up the story of the prodigal son to say that the father cannot be held accountable for the son’s behavior. Again, the father cannot be responsible for his son’s sins. Though it is not the point of the parable, and it is dangerous to stretch a parable too far from its intended illustration, we should notice that the father allowed the son to go, but he remained disconnected from the son until his son chose to return. This lack of contact is an indication of disapproval. The son was not supported while he was in sin.

A better conclusion from the parable of the prodigal son is that if a man has a wayward son who does come to his senses and returns, then that is a point in favor of the man being considered for the eldership. The qualifications for an elder considers what currently “must be” and not what once was a problem but is a problem no longer. A man who becomes a Christian later in life and not only turns his life around but also leads his whole household to Christ is just as qualified for the eldership as a man who has raised his children their entire lives in the teachings of the Lord.