"If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach..." (1 Tim. 3:1-2a).
The nobility of the pastoral office requires a certain character. The reliable men churches are to seek for the office must be men whose inner and outer lives are sewn together with integrity and Christ-like character.
The second characteristic that Paul lists after desire is "above reproach." This first characteristic is really an umbrella for all those that follow. A man is to be blameless in his outward conduct. He is to be upright and just in his dealings with others.
Paul says that the elder is to be beyond question in this regard. It's a reputation that is deserved. An elder is to be the kind of man that no one suspects of wrongdoing and immorality, the kind of man that people would be surprised or shocked to hear charged with such acts. It's certainly not that he is sinless or perfect, but that his demeanor and behavior over time has garnered well-deserved respect and admiration from others. This is critically important because once an elder at least two things are assumed: that man is then held out as an example for all areas of life to all the sheep (1 Tim. 4:12; 1 Pet. 5:1-3) and elders are to be granted the benefit of the doubt in the protection from charges they receive in the congregation (1 Tim. 5:19). One of the worst thing you can have is a man lacking in character setting a bad example while being shielded by the generosity of judgment the office warrants.
Another critically important thing is that an elder be held in high esteem for his character, not for his wealth, popularity at parties, or any such worldly thing. There is a real temptation and pitfall when it comes to discerning whether men meet this requirement of being beyond reproach. We may be tempted to grant this status to men on the grounds that they have "made it in the business world," "have a long family history with the church," or "everyone really likes Joe, he's a great guy." The apostle isn't commending notariety in those terms, but a dignity of character commensurate with the office. If a man is popular in the worldly sense but lacks the "beyond reproach" character Paul identifies, he will likely lead out of his popularity instead of character. He may fear man more than God (a temptation at times acutely felt in the office), or attempt to run the church like his business, or assume certain "rights" because of his standing in the community or his family name. That man may cripple an eldership for a time.
All Christians must be above reproach, but Christian elders must be so. How do we find such men? How do we train men in this attribute?
On the Lookout for Those "Beyong Reproach": Some Observations to Make (Please add others)
1. Take note of those men who are faithful in their dealings inside the church. For example, do they keep their commitment to give regularly and sacrificially to the church? Do they swear to their own hurt, keeping their word when others might not blame them for backing out of a commitment?
2. Take note of men who "command respect" (in the best sense of the phrase) from others. Are there men who inspire uprightness in others? Perhaps by their very presence people out of respect for them seem to "straighten up" or show more zeal. Perhaps he is a man that everyone turns to or nominates for positions requiring ethical integrity because they are confident he will "do the right thing."
3. Take note of those men who carry on their lives outside the church with integrity. Are they men who show up to work on time, or men who can't hold a steady job because of poor work habits? Are they men who manage their financial affairs well, paying debts and living within their means, or are they men living beyond their means financially and failing to meet obligations?
Some Questions to Ask (Please Add Others)
Assuming church leaders have such a man in view, a few questions might be asked during the "courting" of that man for eldership.
1. Is there anything in your life you feel disqualifies you for serving as an elder? It's a wide open question but a good basic way of beginning to hear the man's self-assessment and possibly find out more about his integrity.
2. Would any of your coworkers or family be surpised to hear that you were a leader in your church? Here, you're sorta probing for whether the man's reputation is good among others outside the church. The question relies on the man's knowledge (imperfect) of his reputation among others, but it's a start. Church leaders may decide to ask this question of some of the man's business associates or coworkers to get a response from them as well.
3. Are there persons who would say you should not serve in any church's leadership? And why would they say this? Elders are to enjoy good reputations inside and outside the church. If there is some outstanding "beef" from others, it would be good to explore (a) the nature of that dispute, (b) how the potential elder has handled that issue--whether godly or not, and (c) whether the opinion of others disqualify the man.
The character of the elder is paramount in importance. The nobility of the office requires that only men with befitting integrity hold it. In a day where most people, Christians included, are repulsed by the idea of "judging others," being patient to discern mature and "beyond reproach" character for potential elders may be one of the most difficult things churches do in finding reliable men. But it's necessary for the health and purity of the Lord's Bride.
And because it's necessary, cultivating this kind of integrity--both in the current elders of a church and prospective elders--is critical. Questions, encouragement, and accountability regarding our conduct in various settings should constantly be on the agenda in our discipling and teaching efforts.
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