When he was writing to Timothy, the Apostle Paul made a point of emphasizing the requirements for becoming an overseer – that is, a pastor or elder.
It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
1 Timothy 3:1-7
Paul lists a number of characteristics that every pastor should have. Rather than discussing every one of them, I would like to focus on the phrase that seems to encapsulate them all: “above reproach”. Not only is this the first requirement Paul mentions, but the importance of every other thing on that list seems to revolve around its relation to the first thing. Clearly, the importance of personal testimony, moral character, and the like is foremost in Paul’s mind when it comes to pastors.
Part of this is in order to benefit those within the church, as seen in the comment, “If a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?” However, part of it also has an outward focus; hence, Paul’s final comment that “he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil”.
This is not the only time in the book that Paul uses such a phrase in regard to overseers. Toward the end of his letter, he tells Timothy, “I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things…that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ…” (6:13a,14) There again is that word “reproach”, which we might define as “moral condemnation”, either of a person’s behavior or their teaching. Paul once again used such language in writing to Titus. “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. For the overseer must be above reproach as God’s steward…” (Titus 1:5-7a)
This hits at a fundamental truth. Elders and/or pastors have an outsized influence over the Church body, either for good or for ill. By the true proclamation of the Word and sincere pastoral ministry, they can kindle a fire in our hearts for the things of God and apply a healing balm to our souls. However, should they stray into sin, fail to preach the truth, or neglect the needs of the congregation, they endanger not only their own spiritual welfare but that of all who are under their care. This is a fearsome responsibility and one that should not be taken on lightly.
I am reminded of the stern warning to religious leaders in the book of Ezekiel. The word “pastor” is derived from a Greek term that means “shepherd”, and scripture often uses this metaphor to describe those who care for God’s flock. Unfortunately, the leaders in Ezekiel’s day had failed in their duty, and God had some harsh words for them.
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: “As I live,” declares the Lord God, “surely because My flock has become a prey, My flock has even become food for all the beasts of the field for lack of a shepherd, and My shepherds did not search for My flock, but rather the shepherds fed themselves and did not feed My flock; therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: ‘Thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will demand My sheep from them and make them cease from feeding sheep. So the shepherds will not feed themselves anymore, but I will deliver My flock from their mouth, so that they will not be food for them.”’”
Pastors and elders will certainly be held to a high standard of behavior. Yet, we must also acknowledge that not every reproach that they receive is fair, and the ultimate judge is God. Even as we should ordain men who are above reproach, and overseers must strive to remain that way, every person is sinful, including those who are doing the reproaching. Consider what the author of Hebrews has to say: “Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people through His own blood, suffered outside the gate. So, let us go out to Him outside the camp, bearing His reproach. For here we do not have a lasting city, but we are seeking the city which is to come.” (13:12-14)
The fact is that Christ Himself became a reproach for us, taking on immense persecution as the Good Shepherd of our souls. Therefore, there is a righteous reproach and an unrighteous reproach. Pastors must flee from one and embrace the other.
Finally, all Christians ought to strive to remain above reproach, as Paul says elsewhere. To the church in Philippi, he wrote, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world…” (2:14-15) To the Colossians, he added, “And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach…” (1:21-22) This last verse is a good reminder that it is God who empowers us to live a righteous life, and we cannot do so by our own power.
Finally, let us remember those words of the Apostle Peter: “For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.” (1 Peter 3:17) That is a good message for both pastors and laypeople.
All scripture references are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.