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Before moving on from his discussion in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 of the qualifications for the elders of Christ’s church, the Apostle Paul concludes in verse 7 by requiring elders to enjoy a good reputation with unbelievers.
Such a requirement seems to go without saying. The Great Commission is central to a pastor’s life and calling. Yes, he must equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:12) by working hard in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17), endeavoring to present every member complete in Christ (Col. 1:28). But the commission to make disciples begins with doing the work of an evangelist (2 Tim. 4:5), proclaiming the gospel to those who are outside in the hope that, by God’s grace, they may be converted and be joined to the body of Christ. A pastor constantly prays that “outsiders” would become “insiders”—that unbelievers would be transformed into disciples of Christ, who are then gathered into the church to be baptized and taught to observe all that Christ has commanded (Matt. 28:19–20). Surely it follows, then, that an elder ought to pursue a good reputation with unbelievers. All believers are called to give no offense (1 Cor. 10:32), to walk in wisdom (Col. 4:5), to “be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15).
Yet upon a moment’s reflection, such a requirement can seem quite counterintuitive. Unbelievers are spiritually dead (Eph. 2:1–3), hostile to God (Rom. 8:7), and unable to accept or understand the things of the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:14). Can we really expect them to approve of elders of Christ’s church, those who stake their lives on the very Bible whose authority unbelievers reject? Jesus Himself reminded His disciples that the unbelieving world that hated Him would hate His followers (John 15:18–21). Our Great Prophet pronounced woe on us when all men speak well of us, for that is how the false prophets were received (Luke 6:26). Indeed, one of the greatest hindrances to faithful ministry in our day has been an uncrucified lust for the world’s praise. An entire generation of pastors has sold out to the pragmatist’s philosophy of ministry: If we can get unbelievers to like us, then they’ll accept Jesus. Perhaps no other principle has done more to weaken the church in the past thirty years. But Paul says, “What we proclaim is not ourselves” (2 Cor. 4:5). How, then, can he demand that pastors “must be well thought of by outsiders”?
The answer requires that we understand first what Paul is not calling for. He is not setting aspiring elders on a course to court the esteem and admiration of the enemies of righteousness. This qualification does not require the man of God to escape all criticism of those who are blind to the glory of the gospel. John Calvin observed:
How stupid we would be to want to be liked by those who despise God and who trample our Lord Jesus Christ underfoot! We should instead expect the wicked to mock and reject us, seeing that we cannot persuade them to honor God as they should and to submit reverently to his word.
Pastors and elders must never forget that “the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (1 Cor. 3:19), and that we His servants are, as Paul says, “the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Cor. 4:13).
Instead, the Apostle is calling for elders to live lives above reproach—not only above the reproach of those inside the church, as he called for in 1 Timothy 3:2, but also above the reproach of those outside the church. Sometimes a prospective elder’s unbelieving relatives, coworkers, or neighbors may know more about his character than his fellow church members. If unbelievers know him to be marked by immorality or drunkenness, or by a lack of discipline or integrity, while at the same time he is serving as an elder in Christ’s church, they will ridicule him as a hypocrite, and the name of Christ will be blasphemed because of it (Rom. 2:24). Paul requires that this not be so. Though the enemies of the truth will seek to discredit the character of God’s servants, elders must “keep [their] conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (1 Peter 2:12), “so that, when [they] are slandered, those who revile [their] good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:16). If charges are brought, they must never stick, and they must be shown to be illegitimate by a clear appeal to the man’s life. Under the examination of insiders and outsiders, the man of God must live a life above reproach. May God give grace to His servants, that we might walk worthy of such a high calling.