This post was first published in January, 2015. —ed.
America’s church culture suffers from an abundance of unqualified church leaders. What’s worse, many of these mavericks preside over a form of church government incapable of restraining or disciplining them.
Tragically, in many cases it’s the media that holds these leaders accountable—tragic because the media ends up doing a job that God has delegated to the church. Furthermore, the unbelieving world enjoys a front row seat to shameful scandals that bring reproach on Christ.
Many of these churches publically profess their allegiance to the Bible. However, the problem of unqualified leaders stems from a failure to heed Scripture’s clear teaching on the qualifications for church leadership. And it’s not as if those qualifications are a mystery; Paul was very clear about the qualities every church overseer (pastors and elders) must possess.
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. (1 Timothy 3:2–3)
Paul makes it clear that an overseer in the church of Jesus Christ must be first and foremost above reproach. The Greek particle de (translated “must”) emphasizes that this is an absolute necessity. A life without blame is the overarching requirement for leadership in the church.
The Need for Godly Leadership
The Greek word translated above reproach (anepilēmptos) means “not able to be held.” The man who is above reproach cannot be arrested and held as if he were a criminal because there is nothing for which to accuse him. Obviously, it does not mean he is sinless. It means that his life is not marred by some obvious sinful defect in character which would preclude him setting the highest standard for godly conduct. He must be a model for the congregation to follow (1 Peter 5:3). He also must not give the enemies of the church reason to attack its reputation (Titus 2:8).
Pastors must take great care to remain above reproach for several reasons. First, they are the special targets of Satan, and he will assault them with more severe temptation than others. Those on the front lines of the spiritual battle will bear the brunt of satanic opposition.
Second, their fall has a greater potential for harm. Satan knows that when a shepherd falls, the effect on the sheep is devastating.
Third, leaders’ greater knowledge of the truth, and accountability to live it, brings greater chastening when they sin.
Fourth, their sins are more hypocritical than those of others because they preach against the very sins they commit. In short, leaders need an abundance of God’s grace and power because of their greater responsibility and visibility.
The Leader’s Role in Maintaining Godliness
To protect themselves leaders must spend in-depth time in the study of God’s Word. They must be “constantly nourished on the words of the faith [Scripture] and of the sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:6). The psalmist wrote, “Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11). A leader must continuously expose his life to the light of the Word of God. He must also be a man of prayer, and be accountable to others in spiritual fellowship.
The Church’s Role in Maintaining Godly Leadership
The church also has a role in maintaining godly leadership. The church is responsible to measure its leaders by that standard of being above reproach. The all too common practice today is to forgive a leader who sins grievously and immediately restore him to ministry. The church, like God, must not hesitate to forgive those who truly repent. But to immediately restore them to leadership lowers the standard that God expects leaders to follow. And since leaders serve as the visible pattern of holiness and virtue for the congregation, the standard for the entire church is lowered.
In 1 Timothy 3:2–7, Paul lists four areas in which a man aspiring to church leadership may be evaluated as to whether he is above reproach. These have to do with his moral character, home life, spiritual maturity, and public reputation.
We will examine each of those critical requirements for church leadership in the days ahead.
(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Timothy.)