As seminary draws to a close and the next chapter of life is down the road, no longer in a distant future, but hopefully in the near present, dating future churches becomes a part of life. As you begin to date them (by date I mean of course courting) you begin to “get to know” the church. But then it’s not just me dating, my friends are dating other churches, we get together at lunch (or coffee) and talk about our first phone call, meeting, or the visit where we meet the parents. We’re not gossiping, but finding out how the process is going because after all, we love each other, love Jesus, and want to minister to people the Good News. But one discussion comes up time and time again with those dating churches, among elders, exegetes, students, and lay-men. What does it mean to be “above reproach”?
Often this discussion comes in context of a church, pastor, or person’s perspective of “freedoms” (drinking, seeing R-movies, listening to secular music, driving a sports car, eating meat offered to idols, and other related issues). Some churches require a pastor or elder to sign away certain freedoms so that he may remain above reproach. Why? What is the intention? There are a few:
1. The pastoral staff and elders should be imitated in his walk with Christ. The pastor therefore needs to be such a good example that he does not partake of certain activities because those activities could be offensive.
2. Partaking of certain freedoms could cause another to stumble.
3. There might be certain people in your congregation who struggled or are struggling with a certain issue (drinking) and therefore you, pastor do not want to be an excuse for him to drink.
4. You don’t want to bring reproach on the church because culture might frown upon the activity.
These are all valid concerns and at the heart of the issue is love. Do we, who desire to servant-lead our people, love them enough to lead them in such a way that our desire to have personal freedom does not get in the way? We should!
But, is asking a pastor or elder board to refrain from drinking, smoking, dancing, and seeing movies the right step? Does that lead to above reproach? Often the proposed position is taken because the church wants to keep the pastoral staff clean and avoid criticism, the charge of sin, or not being above reproach.
To answer this let me affirm one reality: A pastor needs to be above reproach. If you finish this blog post and say, “He doesn’t believe a pastor needs to be above reproach.” Then PLEASE SCROLL back up this point and re-read it until you figure out that I believe a pastor needs to be above reproach.
What does it means to be above reproach? This is actually easy to define. Turn in your Bible to 1 Timothy 3. Beginning in verse 2, read until you reach verse 7. Then turn in your Bible to Titus 1:5. read until verse 9. Did you catch that? You just read the definition of what it means to be above reproach.
Strauch provides good insight:
“Heading the list of qualifications stands the general, overarching, ‘all-embracing’ qualification: ‘above reproach’. To be above reproach means to be free from any offensive or disgraceful blight of character or conduct, particularly as described in verses [1 Timothy 3:]2-7.”
Notice the qualifier, “as described [in the rest of the list].” The great question is “What does Paul mean by ‘above reproach’?” I believe he defines it so that Timothy, Titus, and those reading the letter would know EXACTLY what he meant. It means he’s a husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted [please note the qualifier] to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. . . .
Paul knew exactly what he meant by “above reproach” and he made sure the reader knew too. So now the question. If this is what it means to be above reproach, then why do we create or add to the list other actions? Was Paul’s list insufficient for the 21st Century? Did Paul not understand there would be people in congregations who would be drunks and possibly struggle when he or she is around wine? In fact, if meat-offered-to-idol eaters existed, how come Paul didn’t mention that in his list to Timothy? Was Paul not concerned with holiness? The way we interact with meat idolatries and alcohol, you would expect that principle to be primary in Paul’s mind when discussing pastoral ministry.
Think about this. One reason we have organizations, churches, elder boards with the requirement not to drink wine is because it could cause the weaker brother to stumble or you have someone in the church who has a history of sin regarding said substance and we don’t want them to say, “See the pastor does it, it’s okay.” We then run to Romans and 1 Corinthians, using meat as the paradigm for alcohol (or insert other cultural sin here). But, when Paul lists his above reproach list he says nothing about eating meat? Why? Maybe Romans 14:16 provides a good answer, “Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil.” What Paul? Do not let what for you is a good thing be spoken of as evil! That’s a command!
Think about our list. Pastors don’t drink, smoke, chew tobacco, dance, listen to secular music, but just pray every Friday night for those who are out watching rated-R movies. Now, is your congregant really going to say, hey, I picked up the wine and got drunk because I know you pastor drinks wine? Probably not, I have a greater shot of him looking me in the eye telling me he drank the wine because Jesus drank the wine! It’s problematic when Jesus himself cannot meet the criteria our elder boards are required to hold too.
The “Do not do” list created to be “above reproach” seems more like a reclassification and redefinition of holiness. Paul’s list defines the qualifications, we do not need to add to it! The “do not do” list reveals our own cultural presuppositions and preferences then it does biblical holiness. If we’re to be consistent with the “do not do” list, we must add computers, McDonald’s, and living in smog or other unhealthy cities. Thousands struggle with internet pornography. Some men have to cut ties to the internet and computers. Is it possible our computer will cause them to stumble? Where does our list stop?
We cannot have higher standards than Jesus! We cannot think our treatment of a subject is not only holy, but super-holy, as if we can have higher standards than the Lord. If the Bible does not agree with your definition of holiness, then you need to redefine your definition of holiness! There are not layers of holiness as if you’ve attained to a different level. You can’t have a “higher” standard than Jesus!!!!!
So the question comes up, what about the weaker brother? Some of us exalt the weaker brother as if he is actually the holy one! So is abstaining from one of the gray areas permanently the answer? No. Scripture commands us to correctly inform and train the weaker brother! Sure, we might avoid doing or discussing a freedom in front of the weaker brother but it doesn’t require permanent abstention. Pastors need to train the weaker brothers to think biblically! We need to train him to call sin sin, the origins of sin, and the work of Christ!!
In summary, the “Do not do” list is problematic for four reasons:
1. It promotes the wrong idea of holiness.
2. It also promotes the wrong idea of sin! Sin comes out of the heart. Sin is not bottled up on a shelf and sold over the counter. It comes from out the heart. The bottle isn’t sinful, the person wielding the bottle is sinful. The most dangerous thing is the human heart!!
3. It calls what is a good thing evil.
4. It undermines 1 Timothy and Titus.
We need to orient our view of holiness from Scripture. It should be reflected in how we mimic Jesus. A pastor who drinks one glass of wine a week (again, not getting drunk) can be imitated because he shows restraint, control, and discretion through his actions. If he loves Jesus and his character proves a love for Jesus then anyone could imitate his practices and remain holy–above reproach.