A bishop then must… have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Tim. 3.2, 7, KJV)
Today I want to look at a verse that a lot of us know, but I want to offer a slightly different understanding on it, that to me harmonizes better with Scripture, with Biblical Greek and with real life leadership:
I have traditionally been taught, and taught, that this verse means that if you are as a pastor about to appoint an elder that the elder should have a good report from the world. That the person’s boss, employees, family, last church, last mosque, community should have glowing reports about their attendance, character, chastity, capabilities and kindness. However, that has never sat well with me because at the end of the day, you cannot control what people outside the church say about you. You could have an employer who hates you because you are born again and go to church, you could have an employee who thinks you are a terrible boss because you make them accountable. My wife, Amanda, once met once of my former students in a social setting who told her I was the worst teacher they had ever had – the reason, I made them do work and told them off when they didn’t!
We live in a world where people are routinely falsely accused, where mob justice rules and people get cancelled for not agreeing with abortion and a homosexual lifestyle or whatever, it will eventually become impossible to find anyone “without” who has a good word to say anything about a genuine disciple of Christ.
Now, when I studied New Testament at Masters level, we did a lot of work on the genitive case in Greek (the case of possesion, normally marked and translated in English as “of”, for example “the armour of God”, “the faith of God”, “the fruit of the spirit”. It shows ownership. Now the genitive in Greek can often be read both ways, and we use our common sense to work out that is more likely that God owns armour than armour owns God! But in this case, we have a sentence that could mean:
A bishop must have a good report FROM them which are without. In other words, people outside the church should be giving him a good report and saying good things about him.
A bishop must have a good report ABOUT those which are without. In other words, the potential elder should be giving a good report about those who are without the church.
So which one do we choose? Firstly, the church has historically chosen the first one, which makes sense – if you have a traditional job interview you get references, and you use those references to decide if the person should get the job, so it makes sense you should do the same for a potential elder in the church. But the kingdom of God is upside down, and so let’s explore that it might be the other way around, that an elder must be the one giving the good report.
Firstly, this is something the potential elder has control over. They cannot control what is coming out of the mouths of others about them, they can definitely influence it by their behaviour, and I am not saying we shouldn’t be a good witness, but ultimately the report FROM those outside is outside of our control whether it is good or not. However, we can control whether we speak a good report or not, so that is something that we can be accountable for. Having worked in recruitment for a season, we soon find out references from others are often worthless due to bias and dishonesty, but finding out what someone says about their last place of employment – that can be enlightening!
Secondly, as Christians are not called to get a good report, we should in fact not be surprised when the world hates us (1 John 3.13) and Jesus said we are blessed when we are insulted and people say false things about us (Matthew 5.11). Not only is a good report from those without guaranteed for someone who is living for Jesus, getting a few bad ones is pretty much guaranteed.
Thirdly, when I read “good report”, I immediately am drawn to the account of Caleb and Joshua when they spied on the promised land. Moses was not concerned about what the Canaanites said about Caleb and Joshua, he didn’t find out if they were the best spies that had ever spied in the nation. He was looking for a good report from their mouth – we can take the land, we can win, we can overcome. Moses got an evil report (Numbers 14.37) from the other spies – they are giants, we can’t make it, we cannot win, we are going to lose, we will never walk in God’s promises. But Caleb and Joshua had a good report – we can take the land, there is so much fruit there, there is victory there.
As a pastor you need to be very concerned about two groups of people. Firstly, those who the world loves. Jesus said in Luke 6.26 that “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” We actually need to be very careful of people in our churches who have never had grief or persecution from the world, that can be a clue they are not actually living for Christ!
You also need to be concerned about people who have a bad report of their “outside”. The person who says “my work is terrible, my booss is awful, my last pastor was horrid to me, my husband hates me” is a person with a bad report about those without. You give a person that negative and that faithless a small group of people to disciple, I guarantee after the first meeting they will be telling you what is wrong with the people in the group, their mindset is negative, they are what the Scripture calls “fault finders”. These people fall into the condemnation of the devil – they end up becoming accusers of the brethren as well as accusers of those on the outside. You don’t need elders who do satan’s job for them!
No, you want to appoint elders who are Calebs and Joshuas, you want elders who give good reports – “I am doing great at work, there are no problems I cannot overcome, no people I cannot love, no situations I cannot prosper in”, “my last church? Well, I loved it and I served it, but I felt God wanted me to be in a church that teaches the complete work like you do, and I left well and decently”, “my family? We are doing well, I love my wife and children, we work out problems together, and we are walking forward together”. Those are the people you want as elders.
Pastors, when you are appointing elders – indeed in any situation where you are appointing leaders – yes, listen a little to what others say about them, but listen a lot more to what they say about others, that is the true key to discerning potential leaders.