According to 1 Timothy 3:2 an overseer (whom I take to be the same as an elder or pastor) must be “above reproach” (cf. Titus 1:6, 7). Along the same lines, verse 7 says “he must be well thought of by outsiders.” What do these two requirements mean?
Let’s start with what the requirements cannot mean. Surely, Paul is not saying that a man who would serve as an elder or pastor must be without any enemies or any accusations, for elsewhere in his correspondence to Timothy, Paul intimates that many have opposed him, deserted him, and been ashamed of him (2 Tim. 1:8, 15, 16; 4:10, 14-16). Moreover, we know from Paul’s other letters he was accused of being everything from fickle and foolish, to overly weak and overly harsh (2 Cor. 1:12-23; 10:1-10). Likewise, in Acts, Paul is often derided as a rabble-rouser, a violator of the Torah, and an enemy of the law of Moses (e.g., Acts 21:27-36). Paul was certainly not above reproach in the eyes of his opponents, neither did he have a good reputation with all outsiders.
We see this same dynamic even more plainly with Jesus. If anyone could be labeled “controversial” or “embattled” or “haunted by serious allegation” or “surrounded by scandal,” it was Christ. He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Luke 7:34), a false prophet (Luke 7:39), a Sabbath breaker (Luke 6:2, 7), a friend of sinners (Luke 7:34), insane (Mark 3:21), demon-possessed (John 10:19-20, 31-33), and a blasphemer (Matt. 26:57-67). He died as a convicted criminal with hardly a public friend in the world. He was, as Rich Mullins put it, “a man of no reputation.”
So unless we want to exclude Paul and Jesus from serving as an overseer in the church, we must conclude that being above reproach and being well thought of by outsiders must mean something other than, “everyone likes this guy; he has no enemies and no accusations against him.” Not only is this standard untenable for almost anyone who has a public profile in today’s social media world, it’s not biblically consistent. The qualifications in 1 Timothy and Titus must mean something else.
Even if Paul did not mean to disqualify himself (or Jesus!) from ministry, he must have had someone or something in mind.
It’s telling that Paul begins both lists—the one to Timothy and the one to Titus—with the requirement that an elder be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6). This characteristic serves as a general heading for the entire list of qualifications. In other words, a man is “above reproach” when he is known to be a man who is faithful to his wife, sober minded, self-controlled, a good manager of his home, gentle, respectable, and so on. Since Paul is writing to pastors or local churches, it stands to reason that the arbiters of whether an overseer is “above reproach” are those on the local level who are close enough to attest (or contest) a man’s character. The gist: your elders and pastors should be examples of godly graces and Christian maturity.
If the requirement to be “above reproach” focuses on the discernment of the local believers, the qualification to “be well thought of by outsiders” concerns the wider non-believing community. Again, knowing what we do about Jesus’ public ministry, the requirement must not be pressed to mean that the elder must be universally beloved by the unregenerate world. Rather, the issue for us, as it was for Ephesus, is that “the leadership of the church should bring no unnecessary disrepute upon the church through improper and immoral actions” (Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 183).
Let me give an example. I’ve mentioned on this blog before that my wife and I try to be involved in our kids’ (public) schools. We’ve served on committees, raked the field at baseball games, kept times at track meets, and volunteered in a number of small ways. On top of this, I go to the same gym several times a week and frequent almost all the same restaurants, striking up conversations whenever I can. All of this means I manage to be around a lot of “outsiders.” If they think my blog is whack, my views are repulsive, and they believe all kinds of nasty things about me (which I hope they don’t, and I think they don’t), that would not mean I have fallen foul of 1 Timothy 3:7. If, however, most of the outsiders who know me from school or from the restaurant or from the pool know me to be rude, untrustworthy, undependable, and hypocritical, then my church should be take notice. The key, I think, is that even if a pastor cannot have a good reputation with outsiders everywhere (probably impossible for anyone with more than a handful of Twitter followers), he should be respected (even begrudgingly) by the outsiders who see him up close.
In short, the idea behind “above reproach” and “well thought of” is largely the same: the elder-pastor-overseer must live a life of Christlike character and virtue that is not easily refuted by those who know him best. The closer you look, the better the mature Christian appears.