Do Outsiders Still Matter? An Overlooked Qualification for Pastors

I take it that this session — in a breakout track called “Ministry in the World” — is meant to press us back into the world. Steven was assigned to address chaos and confusion, and Erik the sexual revolution. Both of these begin with our being “in the world” and help us think about how to live and minister in ways “not of the world.”

But now, in this session, the force goes the other way. In Christ, and as pastors, we are “not of the world,” and yet, as Jesus says in John 17, we are sent back in, by his commission, to win many for him from the world:

The world has hated them [Jesus prays about his disciples] because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one [keep them from the snare of the devil!]. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. (John 17:14–18)

You hear the direction in Jesus’s prayer. Instead of saying, they are in the world, help them not be of the world, Jesus says they are not of the world, and now I send them in. Jesus doesn’t just play defense; he goes on the offensive. Which, in its own way, is the thrust the final qualification for pastor-elders has in 1 Timothy 3, “well thought of by outsiders.” As Bob Yarbrough comments on 1 Timothy 3:7,

[Paul] assumes that there will be a live connection between those inside and those outside the church. In settings where church communities or their members have grown isolated from “outsiders,” this verse is a reminder that social separation . . . can be overdone and detrimental. (203)

As we take up this focus on 1 Timothy 3:7, it might be good to acknowledge that, for some, this may be the most unexpected or surprising qualification.

Hopefully we’re not surprised to hear that pastor-elders must be able to teach. Not a drunkard? Of course. Not violent? Yes, please. Not quarrelsome? Hmm, okay, that sounds freshly relevant in recent years. But well thought of by outsiders? Hold on. Does this mean that outsiders have a say in who leads the local church?

How many of us would have seen this coming if we didn’t know already that it was here? Some of us might have even assumed the opposite, that the collective disdain of unbelievers would be a great badge of honor, and show what a great weapon a man must be for Christ’s kingdom.

Holy Disregard for Disgrace

Now, clearly, we have a place in the Christian life for a holy disregard for what unbelievers think. Romans 1:18 tells us that unrighteous men “suppress the truth” of God as Creator and sustainer — how much more, then, will they deny and oppose God’s speaking (in the Scriptures) and Christ’s redeeming (in the gospel)? We know this. We should not be shocked when the world acts and responds like the world.

In fact, it is the words of Christ himself that best prepare us not to be “well thought of” (at times) 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)

“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)

Let’s make sure we have this clear: the world crucified the one we confess as Lord. Outsiders martyred the apostles, one after another. Surely, then, we might resign ourselves to put very little stock in what outsiders think, especially in what they think of pastor-elders who together teach the word of Christ as central to their calling and lead the local church.

Yet here, in 1 Timothy 3:7, as the culminating qualification for the church’s lead office, we hear that pastor-elders must be well thought of by outsiders.

Of the apostolic voices, Paul has the most to say about outsiders. Let’s try to capture how he would have us orient on outsiders, in four parts, and the fourth will bring us back to 1 Timothy 3:7.

1. Associate with Outsiders

Paul’s 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). He was not instructing the Corinthians to separate from outsiders but from the one “who bears the name of brother” yet remains in unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:11). He says in 1 Corinthians 5:12–13,

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.”

To be true to the church, and to the world, we judge within the church on clear sin issues (all the while, per Romans 14 [verses 3, 4, 10, 13], not judging each other on items of mere preference). But as Paul lays that burden on us, to judge “those inside the church,” he lifts another: “God judges those outside.” In Christ, we are liberated from the need to pronounce judgement on “the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters” (1 Corinthians 5:10). Rather, we happily (and carefully) associate with outsiders, seeking to be a means of their redemption by exposing them to the gospel of Christ and demonstrating its counterintuitive fruit in our lives.

And as pastors, and fathers, we kindly and clearly warn our families not to be like those outsiders. And we make sure that the decided influence, in our associations, flows from us to outsiders, not vice versa.

So, first, associate with outsiders.

2. Be Aware of Outsiders

Paul reckons with outsiders again in 1 Corinthians 14. This time the context is corporate worship, and far from ignoring outsiders or planning the gathering in such a way as to estrange them, Paul wants to welcome and engage them. He wants to win them, to repentance and faith in Jesus. To be sure, he does not instruct the church to orient its worship to outsiders but only to keep them in mind when considering the intelligibility of the corporate gathering.

Rather than the indecipherable terms of tongue-speaking, Paul would have the church speak prophetically in its public gatherings, that is, words understandable and clear to all. He asks, “How can anyone in the position of an outsider say ‘Amen’ to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?” (1 Corinthians 14:16). In other words, his hope is evangelistic:

If . . . the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds [note: this is not something we’re aiming for!]? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Corinthians 14:23–25)

So, associate with outsiders, and be aware of, even welcome, outsiders.

3. Be Alert to Outsiders

Beyond 1 Corinthians, we find Paul’s pronounced concern for the gospel’s public reputation in the Pastoral Epistles. Whether it’s the conduct of widows (1 Timothy 5:14), or slaves (1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:10), or young women (Titus 2:5), Paul would have Christians seek “in everything [to] adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10) and not bring any justifiable reviling on the name, teaching, and word of God (1 Timothy 6:1; Titus 2:5). He would have Christians be concerned “to show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:2) and care that our good works “are excellent and profitable for people” (Titus 3:8), within the church and outside. It is a striking theme in the letters to Timothy and Titus.

It matters to Paul, and to Jesus, that we “walk properly before outsiders” (1 Thessalonians 4:12). Christ expects his church, in the power of his Spirit, to “walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5–6). (Interesting he moves from outsiders to speech; we’ll come back to that.)

So, associate with outsiders; be aware of outsiders; and be alert to outsiders.

4. Ask About Outsiders

Now we come back to Paul’s own explanation of the qualification in 1 Timothy 3:7.

Let me offer three observations, then, about verse 7, the one stand-alone-sentence and final qualification.

1. The qualification presses us toward specifics.

The ESV has “he must be well thought of by outsiders.” A more literal rendering would be: “But it is also necessary to have a good witness from outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace and a trap of the devil.”

Note the difference: “to have a good witness from outsiders” pushes us toward specific outsider testimonies, rather than some general, amorphous sense in the air of what outsiders think. This sounds like we would do well to ask a few particular “outsiders” to bear witness about the man — say, those who work with him, or live near him, or have played or coached with him, or went to school with him. A wise council of elders might check some references and solicit testimonies from flesh-and-blood associates, outside the church, who have known the candidate well in real-life situations.

“Mark this: a ‘good witness’ from outsiders means not just the absence of a bad witness, but an actual ‘good witness.’”

And mark this: a “good witness” from outsiders means not just the absence of a bad witness, but more positively, an actual “good witness.” He is “to have a good witness” from those outside the church, which gets at that “live connection between those inside and those outside the church.” Is the candidate’s, or the sitting pastor’s, social separation overdone or detrimental? Does he know many, or any, outsiders?

Another question we might ask is whether the Titus 1 list includes any analogous requirement. We do find the related “above reproach” (twice) that also leads the 1 Timothy 3 list. And it would be worth pondering how many of these attributes, especially the negative ones, will be evident to outsiders, not just fellow insiders: “not . . . arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain” (Titus 1:7).

Beyond those, we might point to the specifics, in Titus 1:8, “hospitable” and “a lover of good” (both phila- roots, philozenon philagathon). Hospitable, of course, is literally “a lover of strangers,” or outsiders. Jesus commends the welcoming of strangers (Matthew 25:35); Paul reminds Gentile Christians that we were once strangers to the covenants of promise (Ephesians 2:12); now we are no longer strangers, but members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19); and in Hebrews 11:13, even now, in this age, we are strangers and exiles. We have been strangers to Christ, and in being bought near to him, we have newly become strangers to the world. We know about being strangers, and what it’s like to be welcomed with divine hospitality.

So too “lover of good” has in it a kind of outward impulse that relates to moving toward and acting honorably among outsiders. “Lovers of good” are men who are wide- and warm-hearted, maturely magnanimous. They believe in good, and look for good (among insiders and outsiders alike). They do good, and genuinely love the good. They demonstrate the broad hearts and capacious, expansive souls that, in time, become bracing evidence of a sinner’s supernatural encounter with God himself in Christ.

So, again, the qualification is not simply “well thought of” but “have a good witness from outsiders” — which presses us to ask about specifics.

And to ask ourselves, do I “have a good witness from outsiders”? Do I know multiple outsiders well enough, whether neighbors or other associates, that they could give “a good witness” on my behalf? Am I making investments in the places I live, work, and play, serving in my town or city, as to be personally known by individual outsiders?

2. The reason is to avoid disgrace.

Paul gives us his explanation for including “well thought of by outsiders”: “so that [the pastor-elder] may not fall into disgrace.” So, we have two distinct realities here: first is the life leading up to and surrounding the pastoral office, that is, the pastor’s reputation with outsiders. Then, secondly, we have the possibility of one of the church’s pastors, while in office, falling into a state of public disgrace.

Now, Paul’s concern with “disgrace” (or “reproach,” Greek oneidismos) is surely not a condemning of all possible disgrace, whatever the terms. Elsewhere this term for “disgrace” or “reproach” refers to what Jesus bore for us (Romans 15:3), or the righteous reproach, gospel reproach, Christians bear when suffering for Jesus’s sake (Hebrews 10:32–33; 11:26; 13:13–14).

A question, then, we might ask about any public reproach or disgrace that a pastor-elder endures is this: Is it “the reproach [Jesus] endured”? Is it gospel reproach? Is it, then, a necessary disgrace, because Christ and his truth is the real issue, or is this unnecessary disgrace because the pastor himself has failed the truth, or failed to exercise wisdom or failed to conduct himself Christianly, disobeying Christ’s commands?

In other words, as 1 Timothy 3:7 highlights, is it unrighteous reproach? Is it disgrace from outsiders that is deserved because of foolish and sinful attitudes and actions in the church’s leaders?

So, practically, if there is some disgrace related to a pastoral candidate, let’s say, a key question to ask would be: Why is this reproach, this disgrace, falling on him? Is it because of his own folly, just as much on Christ’s terms as the world’s? Is he a “fool for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:9–13) or a fool in Christ’s eyes as well? Is he speaking truth but in an un-Christian way?

What if a pastor is clean of disgrace when called, and then begins to acquire a worsening reputation while a pastor? Stephen might serve as a good example for us on this. Acts 6:3 gives us the first ever officer qualification specified in the church age. Do you know what it is? Good reputation. “Brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute [“well spoken of”], full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:3). Stephen had a good reputation when he became one of the Seven. How long did that last? It doesn’t sound like very long.

So, what is the church to do when some outsiders who rose up to dispute with Stephen “secretly instigated men who said, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God’” (Acts 6:11)? The church knew what Stephen actually said and what he meant. Clearly, this is gospel reproach, for Jesus’s sake, and so you stand by your officer. Acts 6:13 says the witnesses who came against him were false. (And there may be a difference to consider between standing by your already appointed officer and newly making an officer of a man with an already disgraced name.)

In Matthew 5:11, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you” — and then he says, “falsely on my account.” If the reproach heaped on a pastor-elder is “false on Jesus’s account,” the outside witnesses do not carry the day. Stand by your man.

So, the qualification presses us to ask about specifics. The reason is to avoid public disgrace. And finally, what about that last phrase in verse 7?

3. The devil delights to disgrace the church.

The end of verse 7 says, “so that he may not fall into disgrace and a trap of the devil.” Here we have two nouns, connected by and: disgrace and a trap of the devil. How does the “and” work?

Does it mean that the devil’s trap is a second and additional reality beyond disgrace (like two stages, first public disgrace, then the disgraced pastor subsequently falls into a trap)? Or is the snare a second way of saying the first — that disgracing the pastor is the devil’s trap? I think the latter makes more sense, in the context and more broadly — that public disgrace is the devil’s special trap, his frequent scheme, how he draws it up and designs it. He works the angles all the time to publicly disgrace pastors. That’s exactly what he wants: publicly disgraced pastors, and their churches with them.

“The devil loves it when Christian leaders, of all people, give outsiders valid, reasonable cause for disgrace.”

A disgraced pastor — who is reproached by outsiders, not on false or gospel terms, but on the moral terms of Christianity itself — is a trap Satan loves to exploit. He squeals with delight as the jaws snap shut. And with it, he kills three birds with one stone. He renders the pastor himself less effective, if not totally ineffective; he injures or torpedoes the faith of some insiders; and he solidifies unbelief in outsiders — whom he wants to keep from the gospel. He wants outsiders to remain just that, outside the church, and in his clutches. So, the devil loves it, when Christian leaders, of all people, give outsiders valid, reasonable cause for disgrace. (And he loves to use modern media to magnify it.)

Again, it’s one thing to be a fool for Jesus, but quite another to be foolish just as much on heaven’s terms as the world’s.

Brothers, let’s know the devil’s devices and beware his schemes. He tempts leaders in the church, and aspiring leaders, into the kinds of sins that will bring reproach on them and the church. So, beware the perennial temptations related to money, sex, and power. And beware the new field of public temptations in our generation that many, sadly, are not yet taking as seriously as we will learn to in the future: online self-disgrace, with worldly outrage, hot-takes, and rash comments.

And we might take special warning as pastors, as men for whom words often come so easy. In previous generations, Satan would disgrace pastors as others spread the news about a pastor’s sins and folly. Today Satan adds to his schemes the delicious strategy that pastors can just directly disgrace themselves with public online folly.

Why Care About Outsiders

To be clear, the world does not choose the church’s leaders. The thoughts and opinions of outsiders are not ultimate. But they do matter. We ignore them to our own peril, and we should not presume public disgrace as a mark of faithfulness. To the question, “Should we care what outsiders think?” the biblical answer is just as much yes as it is no (if not more so yes; the no’s are exceptions, not the rule). But most significant is why: that outsiders may be saved. We want both to keep believing sheep in and to win more from the world, as Paul did:

Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:32–33)

“The thoughts and opinions of outsiders are not ultimate. But they do matter.”

In the end, outsiders matter to us because they matter to Jesus. And he has other sheep, he says, to bring in (John 10:16). He delights to make outsiders into friends, and brothers, as he has done with us. And we hope and pray that he has many more in our towns and cities who are his (Acts 18:10).

Outsiders matter to us because such were all of us. But we have been brought in. And good pastors know, firsthand, that Christ loves to take frail, former outsiders and make us his instruments for bringing in more, and for leading his church with such hearts and dreams and prayers.

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