How Pastors Win (and Lose) Our Respect

Of the fifteen distinct elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1–7, one in particular may be the least understood of them all: “An overseer must be . . . respectable” (1 Timothy 3:2). What does it mean for a pastor to be “respectable”? And does it not throw quite a curveball into an otherwise spiritual list of qualifications?

For starters, Christ not only calls for pastors to be “respectable” (1 Timothy 3:2) but for all Christians to live “godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). Respectable and dignified are largely synonymous. And one way Christ shows he’s serious about his followers being “respectable” is by requiring this virtue of his undershepherds. Christ means for his church’s pastors, elders, and overseers (three terms for the single teaching office, Acts 20:17, 28; 1 Peter 5:1–2; Titus 1:5–7) to live, teach, and serve as examples for the flock (1 Peter 5:3).

Pastors are to be respectable, not only to help the flock in its call to respect its leaders (1 Thessalonians 5:12), but also to model the kind of dignity the church should demonstrate to the world. Paul mentions “dignity” again in how a pastor fathers (1 Timothy 3:4), as well as a requirement for both deacons and their wives (1 Timothy 3:8, 11). Christ calls his church to respect her leaders, and he calls her leaders to do their part to be respectable.

What Is Respectability?

What, then, does it mean for a pastor to be “respectable”? One commentator says it “conveys the ideas of ‘seriousness’ and ‘appropriateness.’” (Towner, 170). It displays a kind of “orderly life” (Guthrie, 92) that puts others at ease and engenders trust. According to John Piper, “The idea seems to be one of not offending against propriety — a person who comports himself in situations so as not to step on toes unnecessarily.” Respectability loves others by not being rude (1 Corinthians 13:5).

The kind of dignity or respectability to which God calls his people is not simply outward appearance, words, and behavior, but a manifestation of inward virtue. It’s a subtle quality that demonstrates internal stability, and is not an outward show. It elicits respect and demonstrates worthiness of trust. Respectability often pairs with the inward focus of self-control (as in Titus 2:2; Mounce, 173), and together self-control and respectable complete “a picture of honorable and dignified bearing” (Towner, 252).

Good pastors, and growing Christians, will want to ask themselves, Do I live and speak in such a way as to help others take me and my Lord seriously? Does the way I carry myself in the church, and in the world, set the table for others to experience “serious joy” in Jesus because of me? Or do I needlessly undermine God’s worth by talking, dressing, or behaving like a fool? We acknowledge the difference between being respect-ed and respect-able. We are not charged to be respected; that lies beyond our control. But we can be respectable.

Good leaders, out of love for their people, cultivate and maintain a kind of humble, godly “dignity” that encourages, rather than discourages, respect from others. They make it easier, not harder, for the flock to take them seriously. As workers for the joy of their people (2 Corinthians 1:24), pastors want to help, not hinder, the church as she fulfills her part of the dance: to obey and submit to the shepherds in such a way as to “let them do [their work] with joy and not with groaning” — for the advantage of the church (Hebrews 13:17).

Comments, Clothes, and Carriage

Practically, what forms does such “respectability” or holy dignity take? The New Testament gives us at least three aspects to keep in mind, beginning with our words.

What We Say

Respectability encompasses our speech, from the stage, in conversation, and down to the words we publish for the world through social media. In particular, pastors show themselves respectable, or not, through their teaching. “In your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:7–8).

The foulmouthed pastor may elicit a short-lived rush of excitement for bucking tradition, but the draw will soon run dry. Undignified speech is no recipe for long-term stability, health, and trust in a pulpit, or in an individual, at the office, or in the neighborhood. When Paul requires “dignity” of deacons and their wives, he pairs it twice with words: “dignified, not double-tongued” and “dignified, not slanderers” (1 Timothy 3:8, 11).

Faithfully and compellingly preaching and teaching God’s word is the heart of a pastor winning (or losing) the trust and respect of his people. Respectability extends beyond our words and teaching, but for pastor-teachers “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) comes first.

How We Dress

Respectability also relates, unavoidably, to how we dress. The only other occurrence of the precise word for “respectable” in 1 Timothy 3:2 (Greek kosmios) comes just sentences earlier: “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control” (1 Timothy 2:9). How we dress, relative to societal expectations and norms, engenders respect or undermines it. And God means for his people, beginning with the leaders, to be the kind of people who, in both primary and secondary matters, seek to make respect easy for others, not more difficult.

It is at least juvenile, if not self-absorbed, to attempt to draw special attention, whether positively or negatively, by the way we dress. Love and maturity lead us to consider others, from a full heart, and to try, within reason, to put them at ease, rather than shock, offend, distract, or entice.

How We Live

More than mere comments and clothes, how we carry ourselves in life cultivates respect and trust, or not. How we treat the members of our family, with whom we may be quickest to let our guard down, demonstrates dignity or lack thereof (1 Timothy 3:4). How we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ — Jesus called it “love” — will either show the world we are his, or not (John 13:35) And how we deal with “outsiders” — whether “properly” (1 Thessalonians 4:12) or not, and “in wisdom” or folly (Colossians 4:5) — demonstrates to others whether we are worthy of their respect.

With our words, dress, and actions, we signal inward rest and security and stability, or neediness. We evidence whether our hearts are satisfied in God and ready to overflow to meet others’ needs, or not. We show ourselves to be starved for attention, or eager to give our attention to others. Humility demonstrates concern for others, while outward ostentation broadcasts an inward emptiness aching to be filled.

We Smell a Fake

Insisting our pastors be “respectable” — and calling all Christians to cultivate “dignity” — raises the question, Won’t such a standard make us too focused on externals? Doesn’t our God see things differently? “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). Given the inward emphasis of our faith, isn’t this a strange qualification for leadership and an odd aspiration for Christians, of all people?

God does indeed look on the heart, but our fellow creatures do not have our Creator’s vision. Carrying ourselves respectably should not be an act toward God to earn his favor, but a modest presentation toward others from a heart of love. True respectability is not a life-goal but a natural effect of self-control. It gives an external glimpse to others of the internal maturity God sees, and is himself working, in us. True dignity is not staged or put on. And when it is, it doesn’t take long to smell a fake.

We all know there is a kind of pretend dignity that’s not natural to a person’s maturity but put on for show, typically to compensate for some insecurity or perceived inadequacy. Such “dignity” is not produced by a heart satisfied in God, seeking to put others at peace, but a restless, growling stomach seeking to fill itself with others’ attention and approval. Faux dignity is selfish, rather than selfless. It dresses, acts, and speaks “up” to protect and posture itself above others. But selfless dignity serves. It comes down from its heights to associate with others, bring up the lowly, and foreground the needs of others.

Effected by Grace

Soon enough all the façades will fall. The curtains will swing back, the makeup will wear off, and every tree will be known by its fruit (Luke 6:44). The true dignity and genuine respectability that remain will be the kind that didn’t begin with us and isn’t decisively owing to us.

Christian dignity (Titus 2:7) grows in the soil of divine grace (Titus 2:11), and in particular the coming of Grace Incarnate. Christ not only dignified our race by becoming human, and then gave his own life for us, but now he works in us by his Spirit to remake us. Though we are deserving of disrespect, he counted us respectable, and now is making us truly worthy of respect, little by little. His grace dignifies doubly, not singly, by both accepting us fully, by faith, and making us more acceptable for a lifetime.

The power for pastors to be “respectable,” and for Christians to live “dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2), is not left to our willpower, discipline, and natural sense of sophistication, but to the Spirit of God himself. He is at work in and through us to free us from self and miraculously make us look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others. In humility we count others more significant than ourselves, and we do what we can, within reason, for others and for Christ, to be worthy of respect.