This post was first published in January, 2015. —ed.
Have you ever considered what the unbelieving world thinks about your pastor? He doesn’t need to be a household name or a celebrity preacher with a worldwide audience—it’s not a question of how famous he is. Put it this way: What do the nonbelievers in his life think of him? Is his reputation in the world an extension of his ministry, or does his conduct contradict and corrupt his testimony?
In 1 Timothy 3:7, Paul closes out his list of qualifications for church leaders with one final characteristic: “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.”
In his commentary on 1 Timothy, John MacArthur explains why Paul included the shepherd’s public reputation as a qualification for ministry.
The godly character of an elder must not be manifested only in his personal life, the church, and his home. He must also “have a good reputation with those outside the church.”
The word “reputation” translates marturia, from which our English word “martyr” derives. The word speaks of a certifying testimony. An elder’s character is to be certified by the testimony of those outside the church. A man chosen to lead the church must maintain a reputation in the community for righteousness, moral character, love, kindness, generosity, and goodness. All will certainly not agree with his theology, and he will no doubt face antagonism when he takes a stand for God’s truth. Nevertheless, those outside the church must recognize him as a man of impeccable reputation. How can a man have a spiritual impact on his community if that community does not respect him? Such an individual can do nothing but bring reproach or disgrace on the cause of Christ.
In Romans 2:23–24, Paul delivered a scathing indictment of Israel: “You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For ‘the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,’ just as it is written.” Israel, meant to be a light to the nations, instead caused them to blaspheme.
The Bible expects every believer’s life to be a positive testimony to the watching world, and that is especially true of those in pastoral positions. Paul exhorted the Philippians to “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” (Philippians 2:15). Colossians 4:5 urges believers to “conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders.” Peter wrote, “Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may on account of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12).John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Timothy (Chicago: Moody Press, 1995), 119-120.
A shepherd’s public reputation must adorn the gospel. If it doesn’t, he’s not qualified for leadership.
Why Does the World’s Opinion Matter?
Many men have forfeited their ministries in the midst of public moral failure. Each time, it’s a black eye for the testimony of God’s people and His Word. It also provides ammunition to those outside the church who would seek to discredit the truth of Scripture and God’s transforming work of salvation and sanctification. That’s the cost of moral shipwreck, and it’s all too familiar.
But what’s even more detrimental to the testimony of the church is when believers rush a failed leader back into ministry. The story of Ted Haggard is one example.
Haggard’s moral collapse was one of the most notable in recent years—it was a provocative story that involved drugs, sexual perversion, and high-profile hypocrisy. Since the story first broke in November 2006, it’s been covered in countless interviews, profiles, news stories, at least one documentary, and an Off-Broadway musical. His name is synonymous with corruption, deception, and hypocrisy.
And today, he is once again the pastor of a church. In fact, he was only briefly out of public ministry at all—a mere slap on the wrist.
When the church so dismissively whitewashes the sins of a pastor or elder, it communicates to the outside world that sin isn’t such a big deal; that holiness isn’t really that important; and that Christians are completely comfortable with a “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy from their leaders. It tramples on the biblical qualifications for leaders, and reduces the biblical commands for holiness, righteousness, and purity to a laughingstock. It makes a mockery of God, His Word, and His people.
If the church values God’s Word, it cannot carelessly reinstate men who have tarnished their reputations and disqualified themselves from ministry.
The Snare of the Devil
To reinforce the need for purity and integrity in leadership, Paul includes an exhortation about Satan’s attempts to tarnish and ruin the reputations of pastors and elders. John MacArthur explains it this way:
An elder “must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into . . . the snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7). Satan tries hard to entrap spiritual leaders so he might destroy their credibility and integrity. He’s like a roaring lion seeking to devour his prey (1 Peter 5:8), and spiritual leaders are a primary target.
Like all Christians, elders have areas of weakness and vulnerability, and they will sometimes fall into one of Satan’s traps. Only a perfect man doesn’t stumble (James 3:2). Elders must be particularly discerning and cautious to avoid the snares of the Enemy, rather than becoming victimized by them. Then overseers will be effective in leading others away from the Devil’s traps.
The Ephesian church needed to examine its leaders (Acts 20:28-31), and it’s the same for us today.John MacArthur, The Master’s Plan for the Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 2008), 263-264.
God’s Standards, Not Ours
As many in the church rely more and more on worldly wisdom and popular opinion, we need to remember that the biblical qualifications for church leaders are not a man-made list of credentials. Over the last few weeks we’ve repeatedly mentioned Paul’s authorship, but every word he wrote was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Make no mistake: These are God’s qualifications for church leaders.
As we said at the beginning of this series, the quality of a church is inextricably tied to the quality of its leaders. And because the evangelical landscape is overrun with CEOs, self-help gurus, stand-up comedians, and motivational speakers—all masquerading as pastors—God’s people need to be all the more committed to upholding the biblical standards for shepherds.