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J.N.D. Kelly has observed that the world often judges the church by the character and conduct of the clergy. In 1 Timothy 3:1–7, Paul gives instructions regarding the essential characteristics required for a man to hold the office of elder. Paul highlights the importance of these qualifications by beginning and ending his list with the same Greek verb meaning “it is necessary” (1 Tim. 3:2, 7). All of the attributes listed in verses 2–7 are absolute essentials for elders.
Paul also begins and ends his list by focusing on reputation. Verse 2 instructs Timothy to look for a man who is “above reproach,” and verse 7 returns to this theme by requiring that an elder candidate be “well thought of by outsiders.” The article will focus on this last qualification given in 1 Timothy 3:7.
the presence of a good reputation
Last but not least on the Holy Spirit’s list of qualifications is that an elder must be “well thought of by outsiders.” By “outsiders,” Paul means those who are not members of the covenant community. Many commentators have pointed out that we might initially be surprised to see such a high value placed on the opinions held by those outside the church, those who are by definition unbelieving people who do not follow Christ as Lord. However, the Scriptures often point out the importance of the public face Christians show to an unbelieving world. The church is instructed to walk properly before and in wisdom toward outsiders (Col. 4:5; 1 Thess. 4:12). If this is important for the church in general, it is all the more important for the leaders of the church.
The Bible teaches us that a good reputation is proof of a life conducted wisely. Proverbs 13:15 points out that “good sense wins favor,” and Proverbs 3:3–4 says: “Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you. . . . So you will find favor and good success in the sight of God and man.” Commenting on these proverbs, Bruce Waltke summarizes their teaching: “A good name is the outward expression of the person’s inner wisdom.” Even non-Christian outsiders should be able to perceive the inner wisdom at work in the life of a man of God who is qualified to serve as elder. Then, as John Calvin put it, “even unbelievers themselves shall be constrained to acknowledge him to be a good man.”
the power of a good reputation
The Bible’s Wisdom Literature also helps us see the value of a good reputation. In Proverbs 22:1, we read, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” Ecclesiastes 7:1 declares, “A good name is better than precious ointment.” The comparison of a good reputation to great wealth is not coincidental. A good reputation has a cultural currency of its own that cannot be purchased at any price. Even those who are outside of the faith, whether they are hostile critics or apathetic skeptics, will be forced to acknowledge that an elder is a good man. Whatever outsiders think of his religion, they admire his character.
And, of course, this respect for an elder serves an evangelistic purpose. First, a man’s good reputation reflects well on the church of which he is a part. Even more importantly, a man with a good reputation is a credit to the Lord he serves. If an elder has a good reputation, outsiders may despise his religion, but they must respect the man. They might even be more inclined to give attention to the message of Christ’s gospel coming from him.
the pitfalls of a bad reputation
First Timothy 3:7 goes on to say that an elder “must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” A good reputation protects an elder from public disgrace, which is one of the devil’s traps. The passage depicts the devil as a hunter who goes around setting snares to entrap his unwary prey. The Pastoral Epistles (1–2 Timothy and Titus) speak of many kinds of snares or traps the devil sets. In addition to disgrace, the devil’s snares include pride, money, sexual immorality, and selfish ambition. If elders are not careful, they can easily fall into such traps and find themselves caught by the devil.
The Scriptures warn us that once a man is entrapped by the devil, he is at the devil’s mercy. Second Timothy 2:26 warns that those who fall into the snares of the devil are “captured by him to do his will” and can only escape after they have “come to their senses.” A disgraced elder, caught in the devil’s trap, insensible and subject to the devil’s will, would be disastrous to the covenant community and to the church’s mission in the world. Maintaining a good reputation is a guard against such trouble.
the preservation of a good reputation
First Timothy 3:7 sets forth a daunting challenge to church leaders today because the world is always watching us. Outsiders form their opinions of the church based on what they see in its leaders. They watch us on the sidelines of our children’s sporting events, eating out at restaurants, interacting on social media, and working alongside them, all the while observing how we live out the faith we profess. Do outsiders see the inner wisdom of a Christian’s enlightened heart shining out in our lives? If we desire to be properly qualified elders, this is what outsiders must see. We need Christ’s love and wisdom working itself out in our lives, lest we disgrace ourselves, the church, and our Lord. Let us pray that God would grant our elders the wisdom and character to be well thought of by outsiders for the sake of the gospel.