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.