If you tried to capture, in a single term, one summary qualification for the office of pastor-elder in the church, what would it be?
Some of us may have the reflex to say immediately, with great confidence, “He must be a Christian.” Indeed, he must — but that should be required, of all church members, so far as we can discern. The apostle Paul, at least, was willing to assume so when it came to listing qualifications for overseers and deacons.
What about “a gifted teacher”? Surely that’s vital for leaders of the people of the Book. It is essential in the church’s pastor-elders (though not in its deacons), but it’s not what Paul lists first and as overarching. Others might point to some facility in leading others apart from teaching. Some may say, “He must aspire to the work,” which is needful, but in Paul’s way of reckoning, that’s a prerequisite, not the summary qualification. Others may venture, “a model Christian,” which would be the flip side of the coin, but not the precise way Paul says it here.
What a Pastor Must Be
When we open to the two lists of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9, we might be surprised to find first and foremost a summary trait that may sound unimpressively low-bar to some ears and unattainably high to others: “above reproach.”
1 Timothy 3:2: “An overseer must be above reproach . . .”
Titus 1:5–7: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might . . . appoint elders in every town as I directed you — 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. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach . . .”
“If you would be ‘blameless,’ don’t pretend to be sinless, but do with your sin what God, in Christ, would have you.”
In both lists, “above reproach” comes first. Then another dozen-plus follow. In coming first, “above reproach” is, as Thabiti Anyabwile writes, “an umbrella term for all the other requirements that follow” (Finding Faithful Elders, 57). Philip Towner agrees: “This is the essential requirement for the candidate” (Letters to Timothy and Titus, 250). So also Bill Mounce: “What it entails is spelled out in the following eleven attributes and three specific concerns” (Pastoral Epistles, 169). So, while “above reproach” may seem surprising and nondescript at first — and, in some ways, it is — upon further reflection we can see its wisdom, as it’s fleshed out in the specific traits that follow.
Bigger Than You Think
As low-bar as “above reproach” may sound in some ears, with just a little reflection we can discover some of the wisdom in it. This banner qualification is not merely “innocent” or “righteous” or “acquitted,” but “above reproach.” We are looking for men above being reasonably charged with wrong in the first place. The term means, writes commentator George Knight, “not open to attack or criticism” (The Pastoral Epistles, 155); “he is not objectively chargeable” (156). He’s not one who makes a practice of dancing around the fine line of righteous reproach.
Whether a man is technically innocent (or not) is not the entirety of the issue for church leadership. He might be unnecessarily controversial in a way that betrays immaturity or lack of wisdom. We want a pastor to be not only forensically righteous but also “the kind of man whom no one suspects of wrongdoing or immorality” (Anyabwile, 57).
But how much suspicion? How must controversy is counterproductive? Rather than pronouncing a universal ruling on it, better to leave such a question to the local team of elders to discern. They are best positioned to ask of each potential officer,
Is he regularly the subject of charges, whether justly so or not, due to his own lack of discretion? It’s one thing to speak the truth and stand your ground. It’s another to use the truth to satisfy your own lust to be controversial.
Will having him as a pastor-elder prove a regular distraction to the church? If he is frequently called into question, not strictly because of the truth but due to his way of presenting it, or living it, perhaps he needs more time to live faithfully and build a new reputation before encumbering the church with his lapses. A man may be technically righteous and yet of such a reputation that it would be counterproductive to have him in church office.
Note also, it’s one thing to consider a man who is already controversial for eldership. It’s another when a man becomes controversial in the course of his calling while faithfully teaching controversial truths. In the former, wise pluralities may be slow to bring him into office, while in the latter being quick to stand by him.
“We are looking for men who will not be reasonably charged with wrong in the first place.”
As pluralities, we will do well to lean more toward the maximalist bar for “above reproach,” rather than the minimalist. False charges, let’s be clear, are not grounds for disqualification; however, the nature and reasonability of any accusations should be carefully considered — and public accusations or suspicions against a man may well mean it is unwise to appoint him to office.
Examples to the Flock
We might say that “a model Christian” is essentially the other side of the coin as “above reproach.” This seemingly low bar for eldership does have some important truth to convey about our pastors, elders, or overseers (three terms for the same lead office in the church). First, as Don Carson has observed, the lists of qualifications, summarized with “above reproach,” are “remarkable for being unremarkable.” There is no requirement here for particular achievements in formal education, world-class intellect or oratory, or manifest giftedness above the common man. Rather, these qualifications are the sort of traits we want to be manifest in every Christian. What we’re looking for in our pastor-elders, in essence, is normal, healthy, model Christianity.
Fundamental, then, to leadership in the local church is an exemplary function. Pastors must not only be skilled teachers of God’s word and governors of his people, but also examples of the kind of increasingly Christlike life toward which the whole congregation is progressing. The pastors unavoidably are “being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:3; also 1 Timothy 4:12). The pastors must be those we hold up to the church and say, in essence, “Be like him,” without having to make any qualifications.
“Above reproach,” as we see in Titus 1:7, also communicates a kind of modesty and humility in the very nature of the calling: “an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” Leaders in the church are not rulers in their own right. They are stewards, not kings, not stars, not performers. Pastors are “God’s stewards” of his word and his people, and church office is not a personal possession but an assignment to a steward. And part of stewarding, among other things, is not drawing inordinate attention to the steward himself while eclipsing the one to whom we’re called to point.
Called to Be Blameless
One after another, as “above reproach” is fleshed out in a dozen-plus specific aspects, we see a pattern that Christian leaders are not called to a fundamentally different Christian life than the church. Rather, the leaders are to be exemplary, “above reproach,” in the very lifestyle to which Christ, through them, calls the whole flock. Paul speaks to all Christians when he says that Christ “has now reconciled [you] in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Colossians 1:22). “Blameless” (as is required of deacons, 1 Timothy 3:10) is another way of saying “above reproach.”
“Blameless” may sound like a much higher bar than “above reproach” — especially if we think it to mean “sinless.” But that is not what blameless means. We cannot be perfect, but we can be blameless. Perhaps no passage captures the dynamic of sinful yet blameless like 1 John 1:7–10:
If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
“What we’re looking for in our pastor-elders, in essence, is normal, healthy, model Christianity.”
If you would be “blameless,” don’t pretend to be sinless, but do with your sin what God, in Christ, would have you: admit your sins and confess them, lay hold on God’s forgiveness in Christ, and walk in the light. And when you are at fault, and to blame, walk toward it, not away from it. Admit your wrong and seek peace, with God and men. And though not sinless, you will be blameless before God. You yourself are not without blemish, but you have a Savior who is (Hebrews 9:14; 1 Peter 1:19).
This much, and more, Christ requires of formal leaders in his church. It is inevitably a public calling, in the church and beyond. And so, for the good of the flock, and the good of the gospel in the world, Christ through his apostle bids us to appoint pastors and deacons whose lives are exemplary. They are to be “above reproach.” No reasonable or founded blame or reproach can be leveled against them, as they happily, and undistractingly, lock arms with a team of pastors to care well for the whole of the flock.