On the Apostle Paul’s Above Reproach Criterion

Posted by R. Fowler White

1 Tim 3:2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach … (δεῖ οὖν τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνεπίλημπτον εἶναι).
Titus 1: 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach … (δεῖ γὰρ τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνέγκλητον εἶναι ὡς θεοῦ οἰκονόμον).

Introduction. While considering whether men who experience same-sex inclinations should be ordained to or remain in the office of elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), one focus of attention has been the Apostle Paul’s criterion in 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 requiring candidates for eldership to be above reproach. To put that requirement in perspective, it is useful to observe that, in the commentaries on these texts, there is substantial agreement that the above reproach standard is most likely a summary of the specific qualifications listed thereafter. Granted that consensus, our question in the following post is this: does the criterion allow for variable assessment by sessions and presbyteries when applied to individual cases? Before we take up that question, let’s consider several preliminary stipulations.

Three means. First, we propose to stipulate that self-description is one of three parts that make up a man’s call to ministry. When elders, in their ordination vows for the PCA, “approve of [its] form of government and discipline …, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity” (BCO 21-5.3), that approval involves their affirmation that “ordinary vocation to office in the Church is the calling of God by the Spirit, through the inward testimony of a good conscience, the manifest approbation of God’s people, and the concurring judgment of a lawful court of the Church” (BCO 16-1). In this light, ordained PCA overseers have affirmed that there are three means through which “the calling of God by the Spirit” is realized. (Fittingly, Paul’s charge to Timothy in 1 Tim 4:12-16 with 1 Tim 1:18-19a; 2 Tim 1:6, 14 illustrates all three components.) We affirm, then, that, when it comes to making judgments about fitness for office, assessment will include but will not be limited to a man’s self-description. We follow the Apostle’s example as expressed in BCO 16-1 and stipulate that the Spirit of God gives His testimony that a man should be inducted into or remain in office through all three measures mentioned above.

A Good Reputation. Second, though the preceding summary may be agreeable enough, we suggest that it strengthens our consensus to fill in the picture in BCO 16-1 from the contexts of 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7. Factoring in the content of 1 Tim 1:3-11; 3:7; 4:12-16; Titus 1:10-16; and 2:7-8, we confirm that a candidate’s self-description is not the Apostle’s only or even primary focus. This is not to say that Paul advocates an approach of suspicion, but rather one of earned credibility. In a phrase, trust but verify. Why? Because Paul is eager to establish the necessary contrast between the church’s elders and false teachers when it comes to their self-description, doctrine, and practice. In doing so, he calls special attention to what the false teachers believe and declare about themselves: they profess to know God (Titus 1:16). We do not doubt the candidates for eldership also professed to know God. What is of interest to the Apostle, however, is not a man’s profession (self-description) as such, but rather the consistency of a man’s teaching and practice with his profession. In other words, a man’s self-description is of no interest to Paul if neither his doctrine (1:10-14) nor his practice (1:15-16) matches up to it. Even if a man believes and declares himself conscientiously to be above reproach, his open and honest self-description is not sufficient or conclusive to demonstrate that he is as he believes and declares himself to be. Transparency and authenticity, while praiseworthy, are, in themselves, inadequate to prove qualification or to protect against disqualification.

Unmistakably, we anticipate that a man will humbly describe his character and conduct—personal, domestic, and public—as a fitting example for others to follow in their own profession, doctrine, and practice. Particularly in his self-description, we expect that a man will conscientiously describe himself in terms of his Christian experience and inward call to the ministry (BCO 24-1.a). We also expect that, in distinction from a recent convert, he will present himself as a man of mature profession, teaching, and practice, devoted to genuine experiential religion, including his ongoing crucifixion of indwelling sin and all its corruptions to our nature that incline us to evil. Overall, then, the contexts of 1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:7 provide us a synopsis of the point expressed in BCO 21-5 and BCO 16-1: a candidate’s doctrine and practice must bring no reproach on what he believes and declares himself to be, nor on what the church believes and declares itself to be. He must be above reproach—have a good reputation—not only with those inside the church, but also with those outside the church, including with the church’s opponents.

A Good Reputation with Outsiders? Third, though we can all agree that, for the Apostle, the above reproach criterion involves the specific qualification of a good reputation with those outside as well as inside the church (δεῖ δὲ καὶ μαρτυρίαν καλὴν ἔχειν ἀπὸ τῶν ἔξωθεν, 1 Tim 3:7; 4:12-16), we can also agree that a shared approbation from outsiders and insiders presumes a shared definition of the good, at least on pertinent issues. Clearly, however, we should ask, how can those outside and inside the church come to share a definition of what is good? Since we would all agree that Paul does not look to outsiders to define the good, we can surely agree that the good reputation qualification presumes that insiders know what is good from God’s revelation in the apostolic traditions (which included the law of Moses), in nature, and in conscience, and that outsiders know what is good from His revelation in nature and conscience (Rom 1:18-23, 32; 2:14-15). Accordingly, as Ridderbos reminds us, though Paul declares that outsiders are all subject to God’s wrath (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28; Eph 2:3), he also acknowledges differences among them. He knows that not all outsiders are guilty of the most heinous sins. Some show the requirement of God’s law written in their hearts, as their conscience, though defiled by sin, bears witness to good and evil as defined by God’s revelation (Rom 2:14-15). They are thus commendable, even if in a civic sense only, for their good conduct (Rom 13:3-5; cf. 1 Cor 5:1-2; 1 Tim 5:8).

Knowing, then, that outsiders vary in their judgments, it is for the church to accept the judgment of outsiders only when it accords with God’s revealed will (cf. Rom 12:17; Col 4:5; 2 Cor 8:21). Remarkably, this is what Paul himself does when he accepts as true the testimony of an outsider about the Cretans (whose reputation included the practice of homosexual religious rites) as he applies it to certain divisive teachers in the Cretan church (Titus 1:12-13a; 1:9-16; 3:10-11). Therefore, when it comes to the matter of sexual immorality and specifically homosexuality, we reasonably infer that Paul acknowledged differences among outsiders. Though some in Greco-Roman culture showed the requirement of God’s law written in their hearts, the Apostle well knew that, outside the NT church, homosexuality was widely tolerated or approved in that culture (e.g., Rom 1:32a), just as it had been tolerated or approved in Canaanite and other ANE cultures outside of the OT church. When it came, then, to the issue of a good reputation with outsiders, the Apostle does not require the church and its officers to gain the respect of all outsiders without exception. Instead, he requires the church and its officers to gain the respect of outsiders who by nature do what the law requires … [who] are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law … [who] show that the work of the law written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them (Rom 2:14-15). In this way, we get our bearings on our time. We see that it is not materially different from the ancient past. We know that outsiders today vary in their judgment about homosexuality and other sexual immoralities, but we also know that they largely affirm these vices in greater or lesser degree. Thus, when our congregations, sessions, and presbyteries come to Paul’s specific qualification that an elder candidate should have a good reputation with those outside the church, we should look only to those outsiders who share our definition of what is good. If, as a result, we lose the respect of other outsiders, we remain faithful to implore them to join us in acknowledging that we are all sinners in God’s sight, justly deserving His wrath and without hope except in His sovereign mercy, and in believing in our Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior of sinners, receiving and resting upon Him alone for salvation as He is offered to us in the Gospel.

Variable Assessment. With the preceding stipulations in place, we take up finally the question of whether the Apostle’s criterion allows for variable assessment when applied to individual cases. In the context of our considerations, we submit that allowance for variable individualized judgments among the churches is plainly at odds with the deliverance of universally binding standards to the congregations and with the connectionalism of the NT church. The overt aims of the Apostles to prevent individualization and to promote standardization of profession, teaching, and practice in the churches meant that judgments in the churches would not vary without accountability. Particularly as that connectionalism stemmed from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the NT makes it explicit that the Council’s decisions were to be kept from one church situation to another, wherever the Gentile mission bore fruit (Acts 15:23; 16:4-5; 21:17-25). Moreover, there is evidence sufficient to indicate that to ensure the consistency of profession, doctrine, and practice in all the churches, the NT letters themselves, like the Jerusalem Council’s letter, were effectively open letters—hence official documents—for all the churches impacted by the Apostles’ Gentile mission (see, e.g., Col 4:16; Rev 2:1­–3:22). In general, from the earliest to the latest days of the Gentile mission, the NT bears witness that the Apostles set boundaries to prevent individualization of profession, doctrine, and practice among the churches by requiring them to implement the universally binding apostolic traditions delivered to them (2 Thess 2:15; 3:6; 1 Cor 11:2, 16; 1 Tim 6:20; 2 Tim 2:2, 14; cf. 1 Cor 7:17). Once delivered to the churches, sessions and presbyteries were to apply those traditions with a view to standardizing what was professed, taught, and practiced in the congregations. Furthermore, given our focus on the above reproach criterion, it is noteworthy that embedded in the traditions of the Apostles was the moral law of Moses (e.g., 1 Tim 1:8-11; Rom 13:8-10), including the specific provision in the official resolution issued by the Jerusalem Council: the requirement of sexual purity (Acts 15:19-21, 29), the terminology of which included homosexuality and other sexual immoralities. That being the case, the official ministry in the churches was (is) to be carried out to promote their purity, to prevent their impurity, and to hold them accountable for their judgments relative to those purity standards. In fact, the NT documents associated with the Gentile mission show that this requirement was an indispensable point of emphasis in the churches (Acts 15:23; 16:4-5; 21:25; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; 1 Thess 4:1-8; 1 Tim 1:10; Rev 2:14, 20-21).

Thus, though sessions and presbyteries may have reached varying judgments in individual cases, this did not mean that the apostolic standards were inherently subjective. To the contrary, the connectional principles of biblical church polity—mutual accountability, mutual dependency, and mutual submission—constrain our conclusion that the Apostles took the necessary steps to ensure that their standards, including officer qualifications with the above reproach criterion, would not vary from one situation to another, and that judgments about fitness for office by sessions and presbyteries, while variable when applied to individual cases, would be subject to external official review and correction. Of these principles, the Apostles’ correspondence to the congregation in Corinth, to Timothy and Titus, and to the congregations of Asia Minor provide multiple occasions addressing standards of sexual conduct (1 Cor 5:1-13; 6:9-20; 1 Tim 1:3-11; Titus 1:9-16; 3:8-11; Rev 2:14-16; 2:20-24).

Conclusion. In summary, when weighing the question of whether a man who experiences same-sex inclination should be ordained to or remain in the eldership of the PCA, it seems prudent to begin with the premise that evaluation of a man for office will include but will not be limited to his self-description. In addition, his doctrine and practice will be consistent with what he believes and declares himself to be and with what the church believes and declares itself to be. In this way, a candidate will gain a good reputation with those inside and outside the church, with the church accepting the judgment of outsiders only when it accords with God’s revealed will. All of these factors work together to fill out the picture of how the Spirit of God gives His testimony that a man should be inducted into or remain in the eldership through the testimonies of the candidate himself, a congregation, and a church court. Against the preceding backdrop, when we consider whether the Apostle’s above reproach criterion allowed for individualized judgments about fitness for eldership when it came to men experiencing homosexual inclinations, we have to deny that claim and oppose those who affirm it. Such a claim is at odds with the connectional obligation of congregations, sessions, and presbyteries to promote the consistency of the church’s profession, teaching, and practice with the apostolic traditions in general and with the sexual purity standards of Scripture in particular.