“And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” ~ 1 Timothy 3:7
The matter of a man’s testimony before the watching world is a frequently neglected topic. While churches give credence to the opinion of their members regarding a candidate’s qualifications for leadership, the opinions of unbelievers are often dismissed as irrelevant, biased, and ignorant. After all, unbelievers are blind to the truth and despise the things of the Lord (cf. 1 Cor 2:14).
How could they possibly give a helpful assessment of a believer’s character?
Some Christians—in an extreme reaction to the oft- (and wrongly-) quoted statement attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words”—also (wrongly) react by placing the emphasis entirely on what Christians profess, thereby implying that in the end, the consistent display of honorable behavior has little to do with evangelism.
Yet Paul states otherwise (1 Tim 3:7). According to the apostle Paul, the opinion of unbelievers matters—so much so that their assessment of a man, if negative, may even derail his aspirations for eldership in the church.
The Meaning of a “Good Reputation”
The phrase “a good reputation” literally means “a good witness.” The word “witness” refers to a “confirmation or attestation” of something based particularly “on the basis of personal knowledge.” What is under consideration here is not what the man himself testifies to. Rather, Paul states the man “has” (he possesses, owns) such a witness.
In other words, a candidate ready for leadership in the church is one who already enjoys a good witness.
In this case, what is to be confirmed or testified to is the man’s character. Based on first-hand, personal knowledge, a statement of approval is required concerning the irreproachability of a man’s life—that he practices from Monday to Saturday that which he preaches on Sunday.
The source of this assessment is to come “from those outside the church”—or more literally, “from those outside.” Those who are “outside” are those who are not members of “the household of God, which is the church of the living God” (1 Tim 3:15).
As commentators Lea and Griffin state, “The mention of the leader’s name should not cause derision among the opponents of the gospel. The behavior of the leader should provide an example of integrity and commitment to the gospel he professes.”
What is remarkable is the weight Paul assigns to the opinion of unbelievers in the assessment of a leader’s character. While it is easy to discount the judgments of unbelievers as biased or warped, Paul gives a defining role to such judgments. In fact, even on the basis of an unbeliever’s reproach a man can be disqualified from leadership in the church. As Donald Guthrie states,
It is not that outsiders are arbiters of the church’s choice of its officers, but that no minister will achieve success who has not first gained the confidence of his fellows.
Strauch also writes,
The unsaved watch and are very astute. They observe what a Christian is like at work and in the community, and will be the first to see if there is a dichotomy between profession and practice. Their opinion of a Christian leader’s character cannot be dismissed, for it affects the entire church’s witness.
As with the previous qualities, Paul explicitly states the rational basis for his requirement: “so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil” (1 Tim 3:7b).
For Paul, a bad testimony of a man's life made by the watching world results in two costly consequences for him:
First, it leads to a fall into reproach. The word for “reproach” is a strong word referring to an extreme disgrace. It is the exact opposite of the word “above reproach” found at the beginning of this list (1 Tim 3:2a).
Who observes this extreme disgrace?
Most likely, the assessment comes from those same “outsiders” who were observing the professing believer’s conduct. When unbelievers observe that a believer does not practice what he professes, they cast disparagement on the man, the church he attends, and the message he believes. But such a negative assessment is intensified when it is made against a believer in leadership.
As Strauch writes, “A Christian leader with an unfavorable testimony in the local community will ‘fall into reproach’ in a far more destructive way than those he leads.”
Second, a bad testimony leads to a fall into the snare of the devil. The word “snare” is sometimes used to refer to “a device used to catch animals,” or—as in this case—to refer to “that which causes one to be suddenly endangered or expectantly brought under control of a hostile force.”
What is this “hostile force”? It is actually a who. Paul identifies it: “the devil.” The word Paul uses for “devil” is one which emphasizes Satan’s adversarial, slanderous nature. He ever lives to insult and revile the people of God, particularly when they stumble.
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Paul describes the devil as a hunter who discreetly sets his trap to catch the elder without warning. How does he succeed? He catches his prey by bringing to the attention of the world the hypocrisy of the church leader.
The devil’s methods to discredit believers in general and Christian leaders in particular cannot be underestimated. He has had thousands of years to study the hearts of men and refine the weapons he uses—which commonly include pride (see 1 Tim 3:6), wealth and success (see 1 Tim 6:9), women, and ambition.
He lays his traps with skill, and every Christian—especially those aspiring to positions of leadership within the church—must be aware of his schemes.
Cultivating a Good Testimony
Paul’s words emphasize the need to consider the influence your life has on the unbelievers who observe your lifestyle. These unbelievers may be as close as unsaved family members, but they also include neighbors, coworkers, fellow students and teachers, and even the government. The kind of influence you have on them is not a moot point, but one which either establishes or denies your readiness for leadership and influence in the church.
A good testimony can be cultivated by applying these principles:
Obey the law
The government is one category of “outsiders” who observes the quality of people’s lives and is charged with making assessments on their innocence or guilt. Anything from obeying city by-laws to paying taxes are opportunities for Christians either to demonstrate their “good testimony” or to provide an opportunity for unbelievers to cast reproach on the name of Christ (Rom 13:2-4; 1 Pet 2:14).
Word hard at your work
Christians should understand the dignity and purpose of work better than anyone. Though sin carried the curse into the domain of work, work itself is not a consequence of sin. From the very beginning man was created to work, and such work was never intended to be selfish in nature. Work is exercising dominion over creation to make the world a better place as a reflection of the skill and power of God, and for the good of human beings and creation itself. As J. I. Packer states,
All work . . . is oriented to the welfare of other people—directly or indirectly. The answer to the question [of how Christians can view their daily work as ministry] is to be conscious of your work as service to people.
As such, Christians should be very conscious of their testimony in the workplace—particularly with respect to the quality of their labors. Unless unable to work because of physical handicaps, Christians should always provide a net surplus to society and never live in perpetual dependence (1 Tim 5:8; Col. 3:23; 1 Thess. 4:11-12; 1 Tim 6:1).
The more hostile the culture becomes to the gospel, the more Christians consider retreating into isolation. But isolation is no way to fulfill one’s obligation to be a light to the world (Matt. 5:14-16; Phil. 2:14-15).
Be a worldly saint
In other words, be a true saint who does not withdraw from but rather engages in the world for the purpose of evangelism. Search for ways to be active in the affairs of unbelievers. The example of Christ is particularly profound on this point (Matt. 9:10-13; 1 Tim 1:15a).
Note also the instruction of the apostle Paul. While we are to avoid a “sinning brother” until he repents, we are not to avoid the “unbelieving sinner” (1 Cor. 5:9-13).
Love the church
The unusual love believers have for each other is intended not only for the benefit of the Christian community, but for the benefit of the watching world. By observing this love in genuine display, unbelievers will be attracted to it (John 13:34-35).
Be ready to speak
This is where the statement—“Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary use words”—falls sadly short. As important as good works are to evangelization, words are essential (Rom. 10:14-17; 1 Pet. 3:15-16).
Love the lost
Many Christians do not care about their testimony in the world because they lack true compassion for the lost. If we truly loved the lost, we would be deeply concerned about the influence each of our actions has on unbelievers (1 Tim. 1:15a; 1 Tim. 2:1-4).
Wage wise warfare
Christians must be alert to the spiritual battle taking place over their testimony before the watching world. The devil is setting unseen traps—all with the goal of destroying Christians’ witness. Such a reality calls for alert and diligent warfare against these schemes (Eph. 6:11-12; 1 Pet. 5:8-10).
Thus, the church should not too readily dismiss the opinion of the world when approving a man for leadership. The world is astute, and it observes a man where his character is tried most - in his daily life outside the walls of the church.