Is “Above Reproach” Its Own Qualification, or a Qualification of the All the Others?
Does Paul’s requirement that an elder be “above reproach” act as its own qualification, or does Paul mean for it to qualify all the other qualifications—as in, “above reproach by not being adulterous” and “above reproach by not being a drunkard,” and so forth?
Since it is first in the list, the most natural reading suggests the answer is both. “Above reproach” is its own qualification, and it can be applied to all other qualifications. To be above reproach is different from adultery or drunkenness. It suggests you’re not even open to accusations of adultery or drunkenness. You’re not walking up to the line or making things murky for those watching you.
Our elders were forced to consider this qualification in the heat of the moment. A pastor of our church had not crossed any one line. He had not committed adultery, was not a drunkard, was not a lover of money, was not violent, and so forth. Yet he had conducted himself in a way that was very foolish with respect to one of those other qualifications. You might say his actions showed him to be walking toward one of those lines without crossing it. Several members of the church had raised the matter with elders. He was warned not to repeat such foolish actions. Yet he repeated them, prompting still other people to raise them with elders.
And all this, we decided, indicated he was below reproach, even though he formally met all the other qualifications. His folly had made him easily accusable, such that accusations had a ring of truth. He had lost credibility as a minister of God’s Word. Therefore, we asked him to resign.
HOW OTHERS DEFINE THE PHRASE
The process of getting to that decision was not easy. We eventually reached unanimity in asking him to resign, but that took a while, and we had to search out what different commentators had said. We found the following discussions especially helpful:
- “Since all God’s people are called to live holy and blameless lives (Phil. 2:15, 1 Thess. 5:23), since the world casts a critical eye at the Christian community (1 Pet. 3:15-16), and since Christian leaders lead primarily by their example (1 Pet. 5:3), an irreproachable life is indispensable to the Christian leader.”1
- “Slightly different but related to ‘respectable’ (koismos in 1 Tim. 3:2) which ‘conveys ideas of self-control, proper behavior, orderliness.’”2
- “As low-bar as ‘above reproach’ may sound in some ears, with just a little reflection we can discover some of the wisdom in it. This banner qualification is not merely ‘innocent’ or ‘righteous’ or ‘acquitted’, but ‘above reproach.’ We are looking for men above being reasonably charged with wrong in the first place.”3
- “The term means, writes commentator George Knight, ‘not open to attack or criticism’ (The Pastoral Epistles, 155); ‘he is not objectively chargeable’ (156). He’s not one who makes a practice of dancing around the fine line of righteous reproach.”4
- “Since Paul is writing to pastors of local churches, it stands to reason that the arbiters of whether an overseer is ‘above reproach’ are those on the local level who are close enough to attest (or contest) a man’s character. The gist: your elders and pastors should be examples of godly graces and Christian maturity.”5
- “Take heed to yourselves, lest your example contradict your doctrine, and lest you lay such stumbling blocks before the blind, as may be the occasion of their ruin; lest you unsay with your lives, what you say with your tongues; and be the greatest hinderers of the success of your own labors … one proud, surly, lordly word, one needless contention, one covetous action, may cut the throat of many a sermon, and blast the fruit of all that you have been doing.”6
- “‘Anepilemptos’ (above reproach) means ‘not able to be held…’ In Titus 1:6 the same idea of being above reproach is conveyed, but a different term (anengletos — ‘unreprovable’) is used.”7
- “The all-too-common practice today is to forgive a leader who sins and immediately restore him to his ministry. The church, like God, must not hesitate to forgive those who truly repent. To immediately restore them to the ministry, however, lowers the standard that God expects leaders to follow.”8
HOW WE SUMMARIZED THE QUALIFICATION
After all this study, we summarized the qualification “above reproach” for ourselves with these points:
- There should be no reason for the elders or congregation to question the character or integrity of a pastor.
- Discerning the credibility of any accusation should never be a matter of personal favor or affection for the pastor. Reproach should be discerned objectively for the sake of stewarding the office.
- A pastor should not have to be repeatedly reproved on matters of his personal conduct or in regards to maintaining accountability.
- The primary responsibility for being above reproach is laid on the pastor himself. Elders of the church (and members) do not bear the primary burden of defending his choices.
- Falling below reproach as a qualification does not usually happen in a moment. It is discerned over time. Not all sin is disqualifying. Some sin can be repented of and allow a pastor to continue in ministry.
It took our elders much discussion and prayer to come to a unified place of understanding. But a clarifying moment came when we stopped to ask ourselves, ”Why are we even needing to have this conversation?” It wasn’t simply because someone had made an accusation; it was because the brother’s own choices and the nature of his actions were clearly foolish (we all agreed on that), such that the accusations were credible. The very fact that we were laboring so long about the matter was evidence to us that he was below reproach. He did not have our collective confidence any longer.
Our elders had to consider how to obey Christ’s call for overseers to be above reproach in real time. If possible, you want to have this conversation with your elders before it happens.
HOW TO COMMUNICATE TO THE CONGREGATION
When it came time to communicate the matter to the congregation, we wondered how much to share. We needed to communicate that he had fallen below reproach, yet not unnecessarily drag our brother into further public disrepute.
It was a challenge for the elders to discern the level of “trust us” when it came to sharing the details of the accusations, since there was no overtly disqualifying behavior (adultery, drunkenness, etc.). We had nothing to hide. But the matter did not necessarily require all details to come forward. It was a challenge for some members to grasp “falling below reproach” being a reason to accept a resignation from a pastor they love. We made ourselves very accessible for conversations and clarification as possible.
The entire event was disorienting at times because the matter of reproach is not as easily discernible as graver sins. This all required unity, wisdom, and labor in prayer by the pastors. It required patience, trust, and fiercely upholding the Word of God by the congregation.
This is the qualification of the pastor: no accusation thrown at him should have any stickiness to it after appropriate investigation. Sadly, sometimes the most trusted pastors commit the gravest sins. It surprises us, shocks us, and hurts us. Sometimes accusations against a pastor turn out to be untrue. But sometimes a pastor dances around the fine line of righteous reproach to the point he cannot be trusted with the ministry of the Word and oversight of the church. That’s what it means to say he’s not “above reproach.”
 Strauch, Alexander. Biblical Eldership, 189.
 Strauch, Alexander. Biblical Eldership, 193.
 Mathis, David. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/above-reproach
 Mathis, David. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/above-reproach
 DeYoung, Kevin. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/what-does-it-mean-for-an-overseer-to-be-above-reproach-and-thought-of-well-by-outsiders/
 Richard Baxter. Taken from John MacArthur commentary on 1 Timothy, p102.
 MacArthur, John. Comm on 1 Tim 3, p103.
 MacArthur, John. Comm on 1 Tim 3, p103-102.