“…an overseer must be above reproach.” (1 Timothy 3:2 ESV)
The biblical qualifications for a pastor are rather high and are deadly serious. Many Christians and many churches have been greatly harmed by pastors who do not meet the qualifications that God lays out for them in the Bible. Part of the reason for this is because many Christians do not actually know what to look for in a pastor and because they are often looking for the wrong things, as recent situations like this one continue to demonstrate.
The Bible is not confusing when it comes to the kind of men that should occupy the role of pastors (also described as elders, leaders, and overseers in the New Testament) in the local church. Rather, it is unmistakably clear. A pastor is meant to be a very specific kind of man. A man who has faithfully demonstrated sincere faith in and love for Jesus Christ. A man with consistent, stable, and godly character. A man who demonstrates a sincere love for his wife and kids (if he has them) and who has shown effective leadership of his family. A man who a strong grasp of the Gospel of Christ and its implications on daily life. And a man who possesses the clear ability to promote the Gospel with skill in the face of opposition.
Paul lays out these qualifications very simply in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. But it is the very first qualification in those passages that I would like to offer some specific thoughts on here in this post.
The first qualification given by God in those passages is that a pastor must be a man who is “above reproach.” Two more-or-less synonymous words are used by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 & 7 to communicate this qualification.
6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. (Titus 1:6-7)
1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, (1 Timothy 3:1-2)
A little study of these words reveals a legal and forensic ring to this qualification. In a simple sense, we could understand it as meaning that the man has no one legitimately charging him of a crime, because there is no evidence that proves him guilty of a crime.
Now, we could stop there and say that to be above reproach simply means to not be convicted or convict-able of a crime, but that’s not exactly a high bar and there are a lot of unqualified men out there that haven’t been convicted of a crime. (Yet sadly, there are some pastors out there who are patently convict-able and who are still widely supported as pastors, given their charismatic personalities, faulty understandings and applications of “grace,” and manipulative power-plays. This simply ought not be.)
Even so, some church folk take this too far, I believe, and treat this qualification as a requirement for a man to be entirely blameless; in effect, to be virtually sinless. However, if this were the case, there would be no need for any additional qualifications or further explanation in Paul’s letters. It is significant that Paul does stop at the requirement that a pastor be “above reproach.” He actually clarifies the qualification with the rest of the qualifications listed in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
I would argue that to be “above reproach” in the context of those passages means that there is no evidence in a man’s life that would legitimately prove that he has failed to meet the qualifications listed in those passages. One pastor clarifies, [to be above reproach means] “his life is marked in a significant way by each of the positive characteristics and is not marked by the negative characteristics that Paul is about to name.”
Understanding the “above reproach” qualification in this way makes it very useful for the church as they examine the men that would be (or who are) their pastors. Nevertheless, I think some further practical unpacking of this qualification is still necessary. So, let’s talk what it does and does not mean for a man to be above reproach, practically speaking.
What does it mean for a pastor to be above reproach?
What I Does Not Mean:
First, it does not mean that the man is perfect. You may find it surprising, as I did, to see how many commentators and writers and pastors make it a point to clarify that “above reproach” does not mean that a man is “perfect.” It’s surprising because no credible source that I can find has actually ever proposed that “perfect” is a better understanding of the words Paul uses. So, why the mention? I think this points to the fact that practically speaking, perfection is what many people expect of their pastors, even though they may cognitively understand that perfection is not possible for any man this side of heaven.
But this reminder isn’t merely necessary for those examining pastors. It is sadly necessary for us pastors ourselves. Brothers, we are not Jesus. We are not perfect. We may be above reproach, but we are far from perfect. Perhaps we would do well to hear the sobering words of Spurgeon on this point:
“Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.”
Secondly, it does not mean that the man is fundamentally better than other Christians. In fact, as you read through the rest of 1 Timothy for instance, you see that pastors are not the only ones who are to be above reproach. Deacons are also to be above reproach (1 Tim 3:10), as is everyone else in the church (1 Tim 5:7). All Christians should be seeking to be above reproach, not just pastors.
Third, it does not mean that the man will be the most mature man in the church in every area of life and ministry. Paul is not suggesting that a man who is qualified to be a pastor in the church will have nothing to learn from the other members of the church. His pursuit of maturity should be exemplary, but that is not to say he will be the most mature in every area. Others may very well outrun him in various areas of life. He is shepherd of the sheep, but he is still a sheep himself. And the rest of the flock has much to teach him as well.
And fourth, it does not mean that the man will be void of critics. Not everyone will, or even must, like him. Often times, it is the way a man responds to criticism that helps a church evaluate whether he is truly above reproach, rather than the presence or absence of critics themselves.
So then, what does it mean for a pastor to be above reproach, practically speaking?
What It Does Mean:
First, it means the man has demonstrated clear evidence of Christ-honoring character and conduct that is consistent with the truth of the Gospel. Notice that. He does not merely claim to have godly character. He does not merely have fans who claim he has godly character. He has demonstrated clear evidence of such.
No man is above reproach simply because he holds or is pursuing or has held an office in the church. His “effectiveness” in ministry does not make him above reproach. Neither does his age. Neither does his leadership ability. Neither does his success in the business world. None of these things make him above reproach. The only thing that does is faithful, proven, observable, godly character. Is he a godly man? Is he an example of Christ-likeness? If he is not, nothing else matters. He is not fit to be a pastor.
Second, it means that the man is not hiding anything in his life that would bring shame upon the reputation of Christ or would de-legitimize his preaching & teaching. The pastor who is above reproach is actively transparent with other godly people. He deals with the sin in his life in an exemplary way. The pastor who is above reproach does not have any skeletons in his closet. He may have skeletons, but they are not hidden in the closet. They are hanging in his living room, where he has voluntarily put them.
And lastly, it means that the man will be free of a kind of accusation that would clearly demonstrate he does not meet the qualifications listed by God in Scripture. This is key. The issue is whether he meets the qualifications that God has given in the Bible, which protects men from unjust accusations and from being expected to conform to the arbitrary personal standards of individuals, while still promoting the standard of genuine godliness among pastors.
What is the value of having pastors who are above reproach?
Yet for many Christians today, applying these standards strictly in the evaluation and affirmation of their pastors amounts to legalism and lovelessness. After all, aren’t we all just sinners?
Well, in case you’re wondering why it is so critical for churches to keep to this standard when evaluating and affirming their pastors, let me close with a handful of the main reasons, as I understand them.
Because the work of pastoral ministry requires integrity.
It is not possible to be a good pastor without being a good man. Handling the Word of God and using it to help people, caring for people in distress, making good use of church funds, setting the direction for a church, counseling, dealing with divisive people, responding to adversity or criticism, living visibly in front of the church, loving the saints, praying faithfully for the church; these are things that require godly character. You cannot do the work of pastoral ministry without genuine godliness.
Because only leaders who are above reproach can protect the church from internal decay.
The greatest threats to the health of any church are internal, not external. Hypocrisy. Legalism. False doctrine. Divisive people. Gossip. Cowardice. Hidden sin. Sexual sin. Backbiting. Conflicts. Disagreements. The list goes on. These are the greatest threats to the health of any church. Internal decay is the ultimate reason churches die and lose influence in the world, not external pressures. This is why Paul is so focused in his letters on the importance of personal holiness and integrity in the lives of each person in the church, starting with the leaders. That’s also why in the list of qualifications for elders, Paul is so focused on character qualities and not leadership experiences or skill-sets (other than in the issue of teaching the Word).
Because only leaders who are above reproach can carry out a credible ministry of the Word.
The credibility of what church leaders say and do is strengthened when people see them living out the things they call others to live out. Nothing harms the credibility of Gospel preaching & teaching more than blatant hypocrisy in the lives of those doing the preaching and teaching in the church. When people cannot see a consistency between the life of the leader and the message and teaching of that leader, the credibility of what the leader is saying is called into question. The problem with leader in the church who are not above reproach is that the criticism against them ends up bringing the Gospel into question, and that’s when people really start to get hurt.
Because only leaders who are above reproach can give Christians an honorable example to emulate.
Setting an example is key to what it means to be a God-honoring church leader. Ministry is not just about talking about God, it is about living for God and calling others to come with you. “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:12). Leaders are to lead “not domineering over those in [their] charge, but [by] being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3). No one wants to follow men who are all talk and no action.
Because having leaders who are above reproach better ensures that God’s priorities for the church will remain the church’s priorities for itself.
The churches of Jesus Christ are not to be run according to the personal and pet priorities of their pastors. Good church leaders are not those who come in with their own ideas and priorities and push those things out through the church’s ministry strategy. Good leaders are those who lay aside their own personal preferences (often times, at least) to ensure that God’s purposes and God’s priorities prevail in the church. Pastors are told to “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Pet 5:2). Every Gospel-preaching local church is God’s church of which Jesus Christ is the Chief Shepherd. So then, the pastor is merely a temporary under-shepherd, who is called to lead the church in such a way that Jesus might be preeminent (Colossians 1:18), and only men who are above reproach will do this.