What Does Being “Above Reproach” Mean?
If the elder qualification lists in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 were undoubtedly exhaustive, we could simply say that being above reproach means meeting every qualification in both lists.
Yet since the lists are different (and don’t even include all the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5), we are wiser to conclude that the lists are intended to be representative, rather than exhaustive, and so we probably should not use the lists as definitive. Being above reproach, then, is probably more than just checking off the items on these virtue lists. But it’s not less.
To be above reproach is, arguably, the most general of all the elder qualifications, so it has to be defined more generally. A good start might be to say that it means being beyond reach of any criticism or accusation that, if true, would either disqualify a man from office for aberrant conviction, deficient character, or sinful outward conduct; or would cast serious doubt on the credibility of his own personal profession of faith in Jesus and the reality of his repentance. He certainly is not sinless, but neither does his example invite the kind of disparagement that undermines his public ministry or the testimony of the church he serves.
Of course, the condition “if true” is important. After all, both staff and non-staff elders are targets for all kinds of unjust criticisms. The public character and moral authority of the office inevitably invites discontent from all directions. If defined too carelessly or broadly, the very generality of the qualification could be weaponized as a catch-all reason for dismissing elders for differences in personality, opinion, morality, and doctrine.
Lest we forget, Jesus himself bore reproach. There is, then, something of a necessity to bearing the right kind of reproach in the Christian life and ministry, while bearing that unjust reproach with an attitude, demeanor, and comportment that is itself above reproach.
The bare reality of reproach toward an elder does not necessarily mean he is no longer above it. Members of churches, even majorities, can wrongly criticize and disparage an elder. This is why the reason for reproach must be serious, clear, outward, verified, and biblically delineated.
We might also say that above reproach means not being guilty of any clear character flaw or verified outward behavior that would bring the truth of the gospel or the holiness of the church into disrepute if publicly known. An elder’s character and conduct cannot clearly or consistently contradict his profession of faith, or his proclamation of the faith. No clear character defect comes immediately to mind when you think of him.
Perhaps we may not like his personality or resonate with how he communicates. We may resent his rebukes or chafe at his correction. But then we’d be wrong, not him.