It may be the most surprising of the qualifications for the teaching office in the church. Of course, pastor-elders must be “able to teach.” “Not a drunkard”? Indeed. But “well thought of by outsiders”? Hold on. Do outsiders really have a say about who leads in the church?
Beginning in 1 Timothy 3:1 (with aspiring to the work), the apostle Paul gives fifteen qualifications for the pastoral office. The first twelve focus on character and private life, with almost no explanation (and no real surprises). He slows down, however, and gives more context for the final three. The last qualification he names (the list is clearly not meant to be exhaustive) is almost certainly the most surprising: “He must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7).
Well thought of by outsiders — how many of us would have seen this coming? Some of us might have even assumed the opposite, that the collective disdain of outsiders might actually show what a great weapon a man would be for Christ’s kingdom.
They Crucified Christ
Doubtless, there is a place for a holy disregard for what unbelievers think. After all, we shouldn’t be caught off guard when they “suppress the truth” of God as creator and sustainer (Romans 1:18), as speaker (in the Scriptures), and as redeemer (in the gospel). We need not be bewildered when the world acts and responds like the world.
Is it not the words of Christ himself that best prepare us to not be “well thought of” by outsiders? “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11). “No prophet is acceptable in his hometown” (Luke 4:24). “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household” (Matthew 10:25). “Woe to you, when all people speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). The world crucified Jesus. Outsiders martyred the apostles, one after another. Surely, we should take very little stock in what outsiders think, especially in what they think of those who declare the truth.
And yet here, as the final qualification for church office, we hear that pastor-elders must be “well thought of by outsiders.”
Try to Please Everyone?
In Christ, we have good reason not to be shaken by every opinion of outsiders. But we also beware letting one biblical truth masquerade as the whole.
For some at least, it may be easy to settle into an unholy, careless lack of concern about what outsiders think, but the Scriptures say more than simply turn a deaf ear to outside opposition or hostility. Those of us who are surprised by the final qualification will likely stumble over just how much the New Testament has to say about having a genuine (though not ultimate) concern for what unbelievers think.
We remember Paul for statements like Galatians 1:10, “Am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” And 1 Thessalonians 2:4, “We speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” Yet this same apostle also writes, in 1 Corinthians 10:33, “I try to please everyone in everything I do.”
So, which is it? Do we seek to please men, or not? Do we pursue human approval, or not? And how, more specifically, are pastor-elders to relate to those outside the church?
Associate with Outsiders
Of the apostolic voices, Paul has the most to say about “outsiders.” His first mention of “outsiders,” in 1 Corinthians 5:9, clarifies that his previous instructions “not to associate with sexually immoral people” did not mean the immoral of the world but the immoral in the church (1 Corinthians 5:10). His point was not to separate from outsiders but from the one “who bears the name of brother” while remaining in unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:11).
What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:12–13)
To be true to the church and the world, we judge within the church on first-order sin issues (all the while not judging each other on second-order issues, Romans 14:3–4, 10, 13). But as the apostle lays that burden on us, he lifts another. “God judges those outside.” We are liberated from the need to judge “the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters” (1 Corinthians 5:10). Rather, we happily associate with outsiders and seek to be means of their redemption, by exposing them to the gospel of Christ and its counterintuitive fruit in our lives.
Be Alert to Outsiders
Paul portrays a healthy concern for the gospel’s reputation elsewhere in his letter. Whether it’s the conduct of widows (1 Timothy 5:14), slaves (1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:10), or young women (Titus 2:5), Paul would have us seek “in everything [to] adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10) and not bring any righteous reviling on the name, teaching, and word of God (1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:5). He would have us be concerned “to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2), and have us care that our good works “are excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:8).
It matters to the apostle, and to Christ, that we “walk properly before outsiders” (1 Thessalonians 4:12), and it should matter to us. Christ expects his church, in the power of his Spirit, to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5–6).
And as we give an answer, and provide a defense to anyone who asks the reason for the hope that is in us, Peter adds his voice to the concern with outsiders: “Do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15–16). Our apologetic is not only carefully chosen words, with a kind demeanor, but a life that benefits others, even outsiders. “This is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15).
Ask About Outsiders
But we do need to come back to Paul’s own explanation of the qualification. Surprising as it may seem, this concern for outsiders actually makes for a fitting final requirement, as it echoes (and extends) the first and overarching qualification: “above reproach.” Perhaps initially the accent was on the eyes of the church, but now we see a man’s reputation matters beyond the church as well.
Paul’s own explanation for “well thought of by outsiders” is this: “so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:7) The concern is with “disgrace” (or “reproach,” Greek oneidismos). Surely not all disgrace. But unnecessary disgrace. Unrighteous reproach. Disgrace, from outsiders, that is fitting because of sinful attitudes or actions present in the church’s leaders. In one sense, of course, every Christian represents Christ, and yet the stakes are even greater when the church formally recognizes some as officers. Their public failures do even greater harm to the name of Christ and his church.
Such “disgrace,” then, is “a snare of the devil” — a trap he loves to lay to sink the faith of some and solidify others still in their unbelief. The church is right where Satan wants her when the elders are disgraced among outsiders. Why? Because the devil wants to keep outsiders from the gospel. He wants outsiders to remain just that, outside. He loves when Christian leaders, of all people, give outsiders just cause for disgust. It’s one thing to be a fool for Jesus, but quite another to be foolish just as much on heaven’s terms as the world’s. So, we ask about outsiders when we consider candidates for office: What do they think, and why?
Audience of More?
While we ought to care and investigate what outsiders think about our church and its pastors, Jesus is very clear that we do not serve two masters. We have one Lord. First and foremost, we please Christ, not man. Our final allegiance is to him, our God. And yet, as we have seen, Christ is not our only audience. He is ultimate, but not only. We also seek to please others when it is not at odds with pleasing God. We pray for both. We aim to please God, and also men besides.
Life in a fallen world, of course, is not always so easy. At times, and maybe increasingly in the days ahead (as in the times of the early church), pleasing God and pleasing man will be at odds. And when we come to such junctures, Christians say, with Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). As for our first and final allegiance, we say, with Paul, “We speak, not to please man, but to please God” (1 Thessalonians 2:4).
Why Care About Outsiders
The world does not choose the church’s leaders. The thoughts and opinions of outsiders are not ultimate. But they do matter. We don’t ignore them, or presume disgrace to be a mark of faithfulness. To the question Should we care what outsiders think? the biblical answer is just as much yes (if not more so) as it is no. But most significant is why: that they may be saved. We want both to keep believing sheep in the fold and to win more:
To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. . . . I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. (1 Corinthians 9:21–22)
Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:32–33)
In the end, outsiders matter to us because they matter to Christ. He has other sheep, he says, to bring in (John 10:16). He delights to make outsiders into friends and brothers. And we hope and pray that he has many more in our cities who are his (Acts 18:10).
Outsiders matter to us because such were all of us. But we have been brought in. And good pastors know, firsthand, that Christ loves to make us frail, former outsiders his means for bringing in more, and for leading his church with such hearts and dreams and prayers.