What is the Character of a Gospel-Driven Leader? Part Seven

Thursday, May 06, 2010

7. A Local Church Should Have the Tower of His Faithfulness Taller Than the Shadow of Any Reproaches.

"The overseer then must be above reproach..."
(1 Timothy 3:2)

Perhaps the worst thing in leading a local church is the inner fear that “someone will find out.” Numbers 23:32 says, “Be sure your sins will find you out.” How horrific it is when it happens to you while leading a local church. To be sure, any public leadership position, especially including political ones, brings the possibility of public reproach. Anything you did in the past that you’re ashamed of in the present will most likely come back from the past to haunt you in the present. One should always be certain of that…especially local church leaders.

That’s why Paul writes to Timothy that anyone who passionately pursues and desires the roles and responsibilities of leading a local church should be first and foremost beyond any reproach. The original Greek word behind our English word “reproach” literally means “not to be laid hold of” (Hendrickson & Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Thessalonians, and the Pastoral Epistles, p. 120). In other words, Paul is telling Timothy to identify and appoint men to be elders who above all have nothing in their past that would come back to bite them in the butt while they’re leading.

Now, the reason for this is pretty simple and obvious. Men who have reproaches in their lives can’t lead not because they’re not forgiven of these things. Rather, they can’t lead because the reproach will obscure and eclipse Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd. In other words, if my sin is so obvious and glaring, then people will look at me and my sin rather than at Jesus. Therefore, they won’t listen to what I’m saying or teaching. And this renders my ministry ineffective. Reproach makes it hard for believers to follow. The famous early church pastor, Gregory of Nyssa, remarked on this.

“When making a vessel of iron, we entrust the task not to those who know nothing about the matter, but to those who are acquainted with the art of the smith. Ought we not, therefore, to entrust souls to him who is well-skilled to soften them by the fervent heat of the Holy Spirit and who by the impress of rational implements may fashion each one of you to be a chosen and useful vessel? It is thus that the inspired apostle bids us to take thought, in his epistle to Timothy, laying injunction upon all who hear, when he says that a bishop must be without reproach…[H]e knows full well that the subject is molded by the character of his superior and that the upright walk of the guide becomes that of his followers too. For what the Master is, such does he make the disciples to be” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Volume IX: Colossians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, p. 170).

Another famous writer, also a seminary professor in the present, has written something similar and more pointed.

“Paul is instructing Timothy so that he can know how it is necessary to behave in the household of God. This is important because the church is a pillar and protector of the truth, and it is essential that church leaders be a certain type of person because the clear presentation of the gospel is at stake” (Mounce,
Word Biblical Commentary: Volume 46, Pastoral Epistles, p. 169).

One of the things Timothy was undoubtedly facing here in this church was that there were a whole host of ex-pagans who were recent converts to Christianity. To be sure, Paul spent three years in Ephesus building and strengthening the church there, occurring somewhere between 53-57 A.D. (Acts 19; 20:31). And it had been several years later that Timothy was sent to carry on the apostolic work there, sometime shortly before 63 A.D. which is when 1 Timothy (and Titus) was written. But when he got there and began the work of identifying and building leadership, it would have been somewhat of a challenge to find believers who weren’t just months old in Christ, or who may have been still struggling with a break with their pagan past.

Paul wanted to ensure that leaders in the local church there were exemplifying the things he taught them, and not eclipsing them. This is one reason why Paul said he didn’t want new converts to be leaders (3:6). One of the practical out-workings of this challenge then was to find men whose tower of faithfulness was taller than the shadow of any reproaches. This was a concept presented to me one day by a friend of mine named Rick Holland in a meeting we were having together. We were discussing whether or not a man who had fallen into sexual sin of some sort could ever pastor again. That was his answer: when the tower of his faithfulness is taller than the shadow of his reproach. I think that captures Paul’s instructions to Timothy here regarding a local church leader.

This is a good summary of the word “character”, by the way. When we ask what kind of character a local church leader ought to have it’s that, plain and simple. This is so necessary in the local church, regardless of culture or place in history. A local church leader who is “above reproach” cannot mean someone who has no sin in his life, of course. That’s impossible and can never be true of anyone, including a local church leader. Rather the emphasis here is on a man whose public, visible, outward reputation causes everyone else to speak highly of the church. When it comes to scandal or shame, nobody can point the finger of accusation fairly at him. This is opposite of what it was like in Paul’s day, and even in ours today, where some leaders have scandalous behavior. These were men,

“whose character and behavior had been so horrendous that they were dragging the church down into disrepute” (Mounce, p. 169).


“a true overseer must be the type of person whose personal behavior will counter that of the opponents and help the church regain its credibility” (ibid).

I’ve known of churches like this before, and perhaps you have as well. Unfortunately for me, I’ve known of churches like this whose horrendous behavior was in the name of Jesus! And this is many times the case, in fact. There are churches, for example, who take their “doctrine” so seriously that they have become this exclusive, legalistic, fundamentalist, nasty, angry, vicious sort of church. That’s a reproach on a church leader as well. And that kind is just as bad as the kind where a local church leader is known for gross sexual immorality.

Regardless of which kind of reproach it is, the consequence is the same: lost people ignore them and their message. The gospel does not go forward, but instead it is ignored altogether. And that’s precisely Paul’s point. In fact, it’s along this same line of thought that Paul ends his list of qualifications for local church leaders in verse 7. There he writes:

“And he must be well thought of by those outside the faith, so that he may not fall into disgrace and be caught by the devil’s trap” (3:7, NET Bible).

Now, I want to address an important issue here before I move on. It has always been true that while local church leaders should not have any reproach in their lives, they are not always without critics. Opponents of Jesus, of authority, of the local church, and of rationality will always be out there looking to pick fights and cause injury to leaders and their churches.
Despite the fact that local church leaders are genuinely “above reproach” there will always be people within his sphere of influence (and even outside of it) who will believe it to be their duty in life to find some sin in the leader’s life to charge him with. These people are actually opponents of the leader, the church, and therefore of Christ Jesus Himself. Their evil, however, does not qualify as a genuine reproach on a local church leader. Here’s what makes it a genuine reproach: when a serious sin is discovered and/or pointed out that has either been covered up or has not been repented of. If this is true of a local church leader, then he is no longer above reproach and the biblical method of dealing with him should be implemented.

But back to the point, opponents of local church leadership will always be trying to concoct some story about the supposed sin of a leader. In their hearts, they are not submitted to God nor any authority He has established. So they attack the closest representation of that authority in their lives. If they’re church members, they’ll go after their church leader.

They think so long and hard against the leader that they eventually find something in his past or his present that they believe is a sin. They then pump all the vitriol and contempt they can into it, and breathe on it with the fires of rebellion in their heart, spewing it onto the leader. And while the method in which it is delivered is Satanic, if the story is accurate, there is a indeed a reproach, and therefore a problem. The manner in which it was brought was wrong, unbiblical, sinful, evil, etc. But that doesn’t necessarily excuse the leader from any sin he may have committed. And neither will the evil manner in which was brought be excused either. Regardless, this is why it is so crucial for men who want to be local church leaders to always be aware that there is a real devil and he is looking for anything he can get his hands on to disqualify a leader and bring a bad reputation to Jesus and His church.

This reminds me of a man who would have been a great local church leader were he living in the New Testament instead of the Old Testament. His name was Job, and he was so very much beyond reproach that the Devil had nothing on him. I love that story! He had to come to God looking for a follower of God to pick on. And GOD suggested Job to Satan, not the other way around. THAT is a great picture of “beyond reproach”…you’re so beyond any reproach that when Satan thinks of trying to use something in someone’s past to pick on them or beat them up, your name doesn’t come to his mind! Now, that’s not true in every case where Satan is involved in picking on saints. Jesus told Peter that Satan had specifically asked permission of God to pick on Peter, but it wasn’t because of any reproach Peter had committed. Rather it was about a reproach he knew Peter was going to commit, because of Jesus’ prophecy about Peter’s sin. But you get my point.

If such an accusation against a local church leader should arise, there is a biblical way to handle it. Paul also instructed Timothy,

“Do not accept an accusation against an elder unless it can be confirmed by two or three witnesses. Those guilty of sin must be rebuked before all, as a warning to the rest. Before God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, I solemnly charge you to carry out these commands without prejudice or favoritism of any kind” (1 Tim. 5:19-21, NET Bible).

To be sure, the process instructed by Paul to Timothy here is a reference to Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:5. You’ll find much the same concept repeated by Jesus in Matthew 18:16. The point here is this. When dealing with a local church leader who is thought to have sinned in some manner that is perceived by the offended person(s) as serious for a leader, that person can’t simply come up, make the accusation, point the finger, and expect the leader to stop leading. Instead, there is a fair process by which something like this is resolved.

Two or three “witnesses” should be asked to join in to observe the interactions between the offended person(s) and the leader. These witnesses are not necessarily “eye” witnesses, who have personally seen the leader commit the sin. They certainly can be. But more in keeping with the purpose and function of the witnesses, they are to be men or women who can act as sort of a jury in the matter. They can observe, listen, and objectively analyze and weigh all the information and help make a decision on whether or not the leader is in fact in sin that would be considered a biblical reproach.

If their conclusion is that the leader has sinned in such a way as to bring a reproach on himself, he should be publicly rebuked. Paul’s instructions to Timothy on this seem to indicate that the leader should be rebuked before the whole church family, so that the rest of the elders will watch and learn. At this point, in light of the concept of a reproach and its ripple effect on the church of Christ, it is appropriate for the leader to step aside from leading for at least as long as it takes for the tower of his faithfulness after repentance to grow taller than the shadow of that reproach.

If, however, the leader is proven to be innocent, then it seems wise that the reverse would take place. Even though there is not necessarily any specific text or instruction on this matter, it would seem wise that the two or three witnesses would report to those with knowledge of the accusation that the leader is in fact innocent. And the other leaders will subsequently be encouraged by observing the process, as well as by the integrity of their fellow leader. As one commentator has written in his commentary on the pastoral epistles,

“Enemies may bring all manner of accusations, but these charges are proved to be empty whenever fair methods of investigation are applied. With the church and in accordance of the rules of justice, this man not only has a good reputation but deserves it” (Hendrickson & Kistemaker, pp. 120-121).

In conclusion, let me say that “above reproach” or “beyond reproach” for a local church leader is an introductory and summary phrase on which Paul intends to hang the rest of the qualifications that follow. It is said that this word in the Greek is a boxing or fighting metaphor, in which the athlete leaves no part of his body exposed to his opponent (Pulpit Commentary, Volume 21, 1 Timothy, p. 50). The running list of qualifications that follow are like the parts of a leader’s body. None of these areas of his life should be left exposed to sin, Satan, or opponents of the gospel. Thus, the qualifications Paul lists in these few verses are a more detailed description and reflection of what it means to be above reproach.

Given the breakdown of the qualifications in my illustration, I'll move on to deal with them by category in the following posts.

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