But why would it be necessary for the elders, the pastors, in the church to be respectable?
First, Christ not only calls for pastors to be “respectable” (1 Timothy 3:2) but for all Christians to live “godly and dignified in every way” (2:2). And one way Christ shows he’s serious about his followers as a whole being “respectable” is by requiring this virtue of his undershepherds. Christ means for his church’s pastor-elders to live, teach, and serve as examples for the flock (1 Peter 5:3). Pastors model the kind of holy dignity the church should demonstrate to the world, to win the world, and not build up unnecessary barriers.
Also, pastors being respectable corresponds to the church’s call to respect its leaders:
We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. (1 Thessalonians 5:12–13)
Good pastors help the flock in its call to respect its leaders. Christ calls his church to respect its leaders, and he calls its leaders to do their part to be respectable — make respect easier, not harder. Church, respect your leaders. Leaders, be respectable. We acknowledge the difference between being respect-ed and respect-able. We are not charged to be respected; that lies beyond our control. But we can be respectable.
Now, it is interesting to ponder the connotations of what it means to be “respectable” in various times and seasons, especially with relation to surrounding society, and whether the world’s view of respectability largely overlaps with a biblical view or not.
Two hundred years ago in this country, “respectability” was a hot-button issue during the Second Great Awakening between the educated clergy and the uneducated traveling preachers on the frontiers. This has been a perennial tension in American life: the respectability of the establishment versus the insurgent, populist upstarts.
Nathan Hatch’s The Democratization of American Christianity mentions Jonathan Edwards’s grandson, Timothy Dwight (1752–1817), who in 1808, at the founding of Andover Theological Seminary, denounced those persons who declare, both in their language and conduct, that the [pastoral] desk [for study] ought to be yielded up to the occupancy of Ignorance. While they demand a seven-years apprenticeship, for the purpose of learning to make a shoe, or an axe; they suppose the system of Providence, together with the numerous, and frequently abstruse, doctrines and precepts, contained in the Scriptures, may be all comprehended without learning labor, or time. While they insist, equally with others, that their property shall be managed by skillful agents, their judicial causes directed by learned advocates, and their children, when sick, attended by able physicians; they were satisfied to place their Religion, their souls, and their salvation, under the guidance of quackery.
Hatch says that Dwight “linked the fate of Christianity to the reputation of its ministers. He assumed that the clergy were to be a separate order of men capable of elevating ‘mankind at large’ by their respectability, seriousness, intelligence, and piety — ‘the decorum and dignity, which are indispensable in the desk’” (19).
These were different days two hundred years ago. If Dwight could only see us now! I suspect there may have been something to say for the educated, “respectable” clergy not so quickly dismissing the unlearned preacher on the frontiers. But the main question for us in our context — 2021, in the city, or in the suburbs — is: What are the particular temptations of our congregations, and what does it mean for us as pastors, in our context, to be respectable on God’s terms?
Good leaders, out of love for their people, seek to cultivate and maintain a kind of humble, godly dignity that encourages, rather than discourages, respect from others. They make it easier, not harder, for the flock to take them seriously as they take Jesus seriously.
As workers for the joy of our people (2 Corinthians 1:24), we want to help, not hinder, the church as it fulfills its part of the dance: to obey and submit to the shepherds in such a way as to “let them do [their work] with joy and not with groaning,” for the advantage of the church (Hebrews 13:17).