An overseer — an elder, a pastor — must be respectable. I realize this may seem like a strange topic at a pastors’ gathering. I’ve never heard a message on what it means to be “respectable” — which might be good, or close to good. As we’ll see, being respectable is not a topic that should dominate the consciousness of a healthy pastor. So in one sense, this might be a dangerous topic for a full session. You can easily give this too much focus. However, here it is in the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:2. We need to at least consider “respectable” as we evaluate men as pastor-elders, and I do think it’s worthy of at least a single session among pastors once in a generation.
Let me make sure here at the outset that no one gets the impression that a pastor being “respectable” is the same, or anything like, being “cool” on the world’s terms.
God’s Terms — Not the World’s
Back in 2012, I traveled with John Piper to New York, where he was speaking on race, following the publication of his book Bloodlines. It was the end of March 2012, right at the tail end of what some sports fans might remember as “Linsanity.” An undrafted, no-name guard for the Knicks, named Jeremy Lin, went on an MVP-like streak — for about a month in February and March of 2012.
Lin is a Christian and had spoken publicly about how Piper’s book Don’t Waste Your Life had impacted him. A few days before the trip, an assistant chaplain for the Knicks contacted us about a lunch with John and Jeremy while we were there. We agreed to do it. So we met at a deli across the street from Madison Square Garden. And it turned out Lin had just been injured and wasn’t able to make it, but the chaplain showed up and brought along a new pastor in town, named Carl, who was there to plant a church in Manhattan.
That wouldn’t be the last time I would hear of Carl. In the years that followed, I would hear how big the church had become, and how he had become an actual celebrity pastor, you might say, hanging out with famous recording artists and pro athletes.
Then, last year, I heard Carl had been fired. In fact, Carl made the New York Times in a story that ran this past December. It was a tragic report both of his marital unfaithfulness and the culture that had developed at the church under his leadership. The Times said,
As [his] profile rose, many congregants felt the focus on fame and cultural power that had helped the church grow was overwhelming its spiritual mission. . . .
[Carl] was known for his look: tattoos, edgy glasses and not just style but fashion. Women’s Wear Daily described [his] “uniform” as a Saint Laurent leather jacket, ripped jeans and a low-cut T-shirt. He often sported a Rolex, too. Pastors and other staff members who arrived at [the church] wearing traditional suits and ties often gradually started to dress like [Carl]. . . .
At [this church], living well and looking good are sometimes framed as forms of evangelism. Janice Lagata, who was an early attendee at the New York branch, recalled leaders referring to a well-known verse from 1 Samuel that reads in part, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” The verse is traditionally interpreted as an exhortation to look past appearances. At [this church], the verse was “twisted,” Ms. Lagata said: God’s presence is not in doubt, but to attract superficial “man,” it was important to present the best “outward appearance” possible.
Brothers, to be very clear, the call for pastors to be “respectable” is emphatically not a call to “present the best ‘outward appearance’ possible.” It is not a call to dress to impress, or capture the eye with cutting-edge fashion.
Now, I know most of us don’t need this warning; we pastors can be a pretty folksy lot. However, that may be why we need to consider positively (again, every so often, not all the time) what it means, as a pastor, to be “respectable” — not on the world’s terms, but on God’s.
What does the risen Christ, through the apostle Paul, want from us when he says the elders of his church should be “respectable”?
Essential for Everyday Eldering
For the last decade, I’ve been assigned the eldership class for the seminary guys at Bethlehem College & Seminary. Originally, the course used Alexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership; then we put together a short list of books and key articles to address some of the most important topics under the heading of eldership. I came to love how this became a place to discuss with the seminarians many practical ministry issues that didn’t fit easily into their other courses — like, multi-site and video preaching and church-size dynamics and generational dynamics.
Over time, I came to see that the main practical issues in eldership we wanted to address seemed to pair with at least one of the fifteen qualifications in 1 Timothy 3. Imagine that: Paul knew what he was talking about with these qualifications. They are not just prerequisites to become an elder; they are essential for the everyday work of eldering and pastoring. So I began to structure the course around the qualifications. Now we take the qualifications, one at a time, looking to what that trait means, in biblical context, and then how it practically affects life and ministry for pastor-elders.
Which means we eventually come to “respectable,” which may be the least commonly understood of the fifteen. I didn’t understand it intuitively. And when I pulled the books on eldership down off the shelf, I found it was hard to find much about it — maybe a sentence or two, if that. Even the commentaries on 1 Timothy were thin on it.
I should acknowledge that there may be less to go on with “respectable” than any other qualification. The Greek kosmios appears only twice in the New Testament: here and just verses earlier in 1 Timothy 2:9. However, kosmios is largely synonymous with semnos, which the ESV translates as “dignified” in 1 Timothy 2:2; 3:8, 11; and Titus 2:2. (Related is the noun “dignity” in 1 Timothy 3:4 and Titus 2:7.) This is not a lot to go on (eight texts for starters), compared to other qualifications, but the picture begins to take shape, as we’ll see.
Orderly Life, Worthy of Respect
What does it mean, then, to be respectable?
In the adjective kosmios, you can hear the noun kosmos, which means not only the world or universe but its orderly arrangement — the world as the ordered world. There is a fixed structure and order to the world as God made it. The sky is above. The ground is beneath our feet. The ground slopes up into mountains, and down to the oceans. The planets and stars have their orbits. In the kosmos, God’s ordered world, everything has its place; it is arranged, by its designer.
Perhaps what gets at respectable as well as anything else is the concept of an “orderly life” that puts others at ease and engenders trust (see Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles, 92). Philip Towner says kosmios “conveys the ideas of ‘seriousness’ and ‘appropriateness’” (170). Similarly, Piper says, “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).
Positively, as BDAG captures it, it means “having characteristics or qualities that evoke admiration or delight” (561). Again, this is very similar to semnos (“dignified”), meaning to evoke special respect. Evoke may be the key verb: to evoke reverence, evoke respect. In other words, to help others take you seriously, for Jesus’s sake. To present yourself as “worthy of respect,” carrying with it a sense of seriousness or holy dignity. Noble, esteemed, admirable. Not being frivolous or crass or indecent.
“Respectable,” then, is irreducibly external. Mounce says it “refers to a person’s outward deportment or outward appearance” (173). Towner says it’s “an observable quality of behavior with an inward source” (262). He says that “respectable” appearing after self-control “is almost predictable. It occurs frequently alongside ‘self-control’ in the literature, the two together completing a picture of honorable and dignified bearing” (252). Inward self-control, outward respectability.
“The dignity or respectability to which God calls pastors is not simply outward appearance, words, and behavior.”
To be sure, the kind of dignity or respectability to which God calls his people, and his pastors, 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. It is a genuine external expression of inner maturity — not hollow or faked.
And it is fitting that those who would be considered the elders of the church would be respectable, as respect is the kind of posture that is fitting toward maturity — respect for the old (Deuteronomy 28:50) or respect shown to elders (Lamentations 5:12) — a holy deference in view of age or status. To be respectable means to be held in high regard, and again, on the proper terms: God’s, not necessarily the world’s.
Why Is Being Respectable Necessary?
But why would it be necessary for the elders, the pastors, in the church to be respectable?
First, 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” (2:2). And one way Christ shows he’s serious about his followers as a whole being “respectable” is by requiring this virtue of his undershepherds. Christ means for his church’s pastor-elders to live, teach, and serve as examples for the flock (1 Peter 5:3). Pastors model the kind of holy dignity the church should demonstrate to the world, to win the world, and not build up unnecessary barriers.
Also, pastors being respectable corresponds to the church’s call to respect its leaders:
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13)
Good pastors help the flock in its call to respect its leaders. Christ calls his church to respect its leaders, and he calls its leaders to do their part to be respectable — make respect easier, not harder. Church, respect your leaders. Leaders, be respectable. 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.
So, good pastors, and growing Christians, will want to ask not only about elder candidates but about themselves:
- Am I reliable? Do I engender trust?
- Do I live and speak and present myself in such a way, as a representative of Christ and his church, to help people take Jesus seriously, for one, and me seriously for Jesus’s sake?
- Does the way I carry myself in the church, and in the world, help others experience “serious joy” in Jesus because of me? Or do I needlessly undermine God’s worth by talking, dressing, or behaving foolishly?
Now, it is interesting to ponder the connotations of what it means to be “respectable” in various times and seasons, especially with relation to surrounding society, and whether the world’s view of respectability largely overlaps with a biblical view or not.
Two hundred years ago in this country, “respectability” was a hot-button issue during the Second Great Awakening between the educated clergy and the uneducated traveling preachers on the frontiers. This has been a perennial tension in American life: the respectability of the establishment versus the insurgent, populist upstarts.
Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity mentions Jonathan Edwards’s grandson, Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), who in 1808, at the founding of Andover Theological Seminary, denounced those persons
who declare, both in their language and conduct, that the [pastoral] desk [for study] ought to be yielded up to the occupancy of Ignorance. While they demand a seven-years apprenticeship, for the purpose of learning to make a shoe, or an axe; they suppose the system of Providence, together with the numerous, and frequently abstruse, doctrines and precepts, contained in the Scriptures, may be all comprehended without learning labour, or time. While they insist, equally with others, that their property shall be managed by skilful agents, their judicial causes directed by learned advocates, and their children, when sick, attended by able physicians; they were satisfied to place their Religion, their souls, and their salvation, under the guidance of quackery.
Hatch says that Dwight “linked the fate of Christianity to the reputation of its ministers. He assumed that the clergy were to be a separate order of men capable of elevating ‘mankind at large’ by their respectability, seriousness, intelligence, and piety — ‘the decorum and dignity, which are indispensable in the desk’” (19).
These were different days two hundred years ago. If Dwight could only see us now! I suspect there may have been something to say for the educated, “respectable” clergy not so quickly dismissing the unlearned preacher on the frontiers. But the main question for us in our context — 2021, in the city, or in the suburbs — is: What are the particular temptations of our congregations, and what does it mean for us as pastors, in our context, to be respectable on God’s terms?
Good leaders, out of love for their people, seek to 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 they take Jesus seriously.
As workers for the joy of our people (2 Corinthians 1:24), we want to help, not hinder, the church as it fulfills its 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).
Conduct, Comments, and Clothing
Practically, then, what forms might such respectability and holy dignity take? Without pretending to be exhaustive, let’s look at three that the texts on dignity would lead us toward.
1. How We Live: Conduct and Lifestyle
The KJV renders kosmios in 1 Timothy 3:2 as “of good behavior” — which is an important aspect of being respectable, even though, as we’ll see, more is included.
How we carry ourselves in life cultivates respect and trust — or not. How we treat our brothers and sisters in Christ (Jesus called it love) shows the world we are his — or not. John 13:35: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And 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). Also, how we deal with “outsiders” demonstrates to others whether we are worthy of respect — or not (1 Thessalonians 4:12; Colossians 4:5–6).
“By our conduct, we signal inward rest and security and stability — or neediness.”
By our conduct, our behavior, 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 undue attention, or eager to generously give our own attention to others. Humility demonstrates concern for others, while outward ostentation, or carelessness, broadcasts an inward emptiness aching to be filled.
Of all the people in the church who should be most conscious about exercise and healthy eating, should it not be ministers of the gospel? God calls pastors to be examples in our conduct — that is, in our overall lifestyle. . . .
. . . I’m persuaded that overeating, as the fruit of a generally indulgent lifestyle, has become a tragically acceptable sin among many Christians in North America. I’m also equally persuaded that a lot of pastors should jump on a bike, go for a run, walk, or build some modest muscle, and they’d likely get more work done. A lack of discipline in areas such as food, exercise, and drink typically reflects a lack of discipline in other areas of the Christian life.
But the most important word to add here in this section on conduct is the other mention of dignity in the elder qualifications. First Timothy 3:4: “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive.”
What does it mean for a father to keep his children submissive “with all dignity”? It might be a reference to the children submitting with dignity. However, it seems far more likely, since the qualifications are mainly about the man, not his children, that the father “with all dignity” keeps his children submissive. In other words, it speaks to “the manner in which authority is exercised over the children” and shows “a measure of suitability to exercise authority over church members” (Towner, 256). The question is not just, Can he keep his kids (and the church) in line? but, How does he do it? Will he be harsh, threatening, overbearing, domineering? Or will he do it with dignity — through forethought, words, and persuasion?
As you know, there are undignified ways to keep children submissive. Which is not how the family or the church should be led. Homes need dads, and churches need pastors, who are not passive, but who actually lead, and do so in a certain way — as 1 Peter 5:3 says, “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Ephesians 6:4 speaks to such respectable fathering: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger [undignified], but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”
Bob Yarbrough, in his excellent commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, says we need “big men, not little autocrats” — men who demonstrate
forgiveness, care for others, prayer and regard for God’s word, self-sacrifice, loving service, respect for others, listening to others, finding joy in what pleases others rather than oneself, making personal changes and forsaking sin for the sake of improved relations with other family members, in many cases seemingly endless delayed gratification, and much more. . . . This task requires big men, not little autocrats. (200)
So, first, we must be respectable in our conduct.
2. What We Say: Communication and Teaching
Respectability also encompasses our speech, in the assembly, in conversation, and in the words we publish for the world online. When Paul requires “dignity” (semnos) of deacons and their wives, he pairs it twice with our speech: “dignified, not double-tongued” and “dignified, not slanderers” (1 Timothy 3:8, 11).
In a special way, pastors show themselves respectable — or not — through their teaching, their words. Titus 2:7–8: “In your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned.” Being “skillful at teaching” or “teachers at heart” is what sets the elders apart from the deacons. Leaders in the church are those, says Hebrews 13:7, who speak the word of God through their teaching. Which makes the respectability of our words so critical.
So, brothers, we would do well to pray earnestly for the sanctification of our speech, that our words would not be crass or crude, or too clever or too sophisticated, but substantive and accessible. Faithful to God’s word and clear to our congregation. That in a world of communication drowning in frivolity, our words would have a seriousness to them (serious joy!) and prove reliable and worthy of respect.
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. The well of genuine authority in the church is the trustworthy word of Christ. So the elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Respectability extends beyond our words and teaching, but for pastor-teachers “rightly handling the word of truth” comes first (2 Timothy 2:15). The sheep hear their Savior’s voice in his word (John 10:3–4, 16, 27), and as they hear his voice faithfully and compellingly proclaimed — in a manner worthy of respect — they will grow in their trust of and respect for the preacher.
A new phenomenon in our day is that some pastors regularly publish casual and often uncareful words on social media for their people and others to see. We do well as pastors to think about our words being respectable not only in the pulpit and in the context of corporate worship, but everywhere we put our words — perhaps especially when we put them online to be read by anyone at any time.
Yarbrough includes these comments on 1 Timothy 4:7 (“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths”) from his 2018 commentary:
Some ideas or proposals are so far beyond the pale of plausible that a pastor has no time or business giving them the dignity of extensive attention. This does not mean writing people off crudely (cf. Titus 3:2 [“show perfect courtesy toward all people”]). But overall, Paul’s view (and example) is to focus on and promulgate the truths of Christ and the faith, not to be distracted with undue attention to aberrant beliefs. There are contemporary analogies, for example, in conspiracy theories, so-called urban legends, and endless issue-oriented (and often polemical) blogs and websites from which most pastors find it wise to recuse themselves. (238)
Amen. Brothers, let’s “focus on and promulgate the truths of Christ and the faith” — in our preaching and teaching and conversations and letters and text messages, and online (if we feel any sense of call and interest investing minimally there). And after all we’ve seen in the last year, which has been filled with so many conspiracy theories and urban legends and endless issue-oriented polemics, I can’t help but resonate with Yarbrough’s word, and encouragement, that “most pastors find it wise to recuse themselves.”
Positively, when Yarbrough mentions Paul’s “example” in parentheses in the quote above, he adds this footnote:
It is an ongoing source of scholarly frustration that Paul is not more specific about the names and views of his opponents. He tends to focus on what he holds to be true and redemptive rather than allow gospel detractors to set the agenda for his remarks or exhaust his energies in venting so as to profile them.
That’s an important word for us: Paul “tends to focus on what he holds to be true and redemptive” and does not “allow gospel detractors to set the agenda.” He doesn’t say that gospel detractors don’t inform Paul’s ministry — indeed, they do! We have thirteen letters from Paul that give evidence to his being informed by, or aware of, error. But being aware of, and responding to, error through a “focus on what we hold to be true and redemptive” is a far cry from letting error set the agenda.
So, brothers, may God give us the grace, if we are online, to be respectable in our online presence, no matter how base the standards go. We owe it to our people, and to the name of Christ — and to model it for our people — that we not lose our witness with the triviality and frivolity of online behavior that is unworthy of our church’s respect.
3. How We Dress: Clothing and Appearance
Finally, then, and perhaps least important, though not unimportant, respectability relates, unavoidably, to how we dress. God made this visible, material world and made humanity in his image, to visually represent and display him in the world. An image is irreducibly visual.
As we mentioned, the only other occurrence of kosmios in the New Testament comes just sentences earlier in 1 Timothy 2:9: “Women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control.” How we dress, relative to mature societal expectations and norms (not immodest trends), 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 easier 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. This cuts both ways: preaching in an old hoodie and slobby jeans, or in designer kicks and $5,000 leather jackets. 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.
We are unavoidably saying something to others with how we dress and comport ourselves. Here, we as Christians will want to be especially diligent not to take our cues from the unbelieving world. As society continues to devalue marriage and cultivate a hookup culture in which dress subtly (if not overtly) signals sexual availability, we will want to think carefully and fundamentally differently about how we dress. We cannot simply take our bearings from the world.
The image of an ambassador might be helpful for us as pastors. We are not the king. We are ambassadors. A good ambassador doesn’t dress to look like a king, or eclipse the king. Nor does he dishonor the king by wearing conspicuous rags. Rather, the ambassador seeks to honor the king whom he represents, not draw attention to himself. This is true for all Christians, but especially so for pastors. We do not want our clothing to be conspicuous, either because of how fashionable we are, or how surprisingly casual and informal we are.
Brothers, as pastors, as ambassadors for Christ, let’s dress to honor our king, and not distract from him or draw attention to ourselves. Let’s dress to put others at ease and engender trust as Christ’s spokesmen as we open his word through our teaching.
God’s Work in Us
Again, true dignity is not staged or put on. True respectability is an outward echo of inward peace. It gives the world a glimpse into the internal maturity God sees, and is himself working, in us.
“Homes need dads, and churches need pastors, who are not passive, but who actually lead.”
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 sense of 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.
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.
Being respectable does not mean that you won’t be mistreated, that you won’t be falsely accused, or slandered, maligned, or insulted. In fact, being genuinely respectable, on God’s terms, might make you a target of the evil one. But there is a respectable, dignified way to handle mistreatment. Indeed, when unfairly and poorly treated, true dignity shines its brightest. There’s a time, like Jesus, to simply remain silent before your accusers. Other times to own and apologize for any part that’s yours. And other times, like Jesus, to say calmly, bring forward the evidence.
They crucified the most respectable man who ever lived. And we respect him all the more because of how he handled it.
And he is the one now 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 (Philippians 2:3), and we do what we can, within reason, for others and for Christ, to be worthy of respect.