The idol of reputation

Everybody wants a good reputation. Nobody enjoys people speaking ill of them. And let’s face it, the Lord Jesus expects elders in his church to be ‘thought well of by outsiders’ (1 Timothy 3:7) and ‘beyond reproach’ (Titus 1:7). Reputation matters.

Of course, that doesn’t mean an elder must be universally liked. As Kevin DeYoung helpfully explains here:

If [outsiders] think my blog is whack, my views are repulsive, and they believe all kinds of nasty things about me (which I hope they don’t, and I think they don’t), that would not mean I have fallen foul of 1 Timothy 3:7. If, however, most of the outsiders who know me from school or from the restaurant or from the pool know me to be rude, untrustworthy, undependable, and hypocritical, then my church should take notice. The key, I think, is that even if a pastor cannot have a good reputation with outsiders everywhere (probably impossible for anyone with more than a handful of Twitter followers), he should be respected (even begrudgingly) by the outsiders who see him up close.

He argues the same is broadly true within the church too:

If the requirement to be “above reproach” focuses on the discernment of the local believers, the qualification to “be well thought of by outsiders” concerns the wider non-believing community. Again, knowing what we do about Jesus’ public ministry, the requirement must not be pressed to mean that the elder must be universally beloved by the unregenerate world. Rather, the issue for us, as it was for Ephesus, is that “the leadership of the church should bring no unnecessary disrepute upon the church through improper and immoral actions” (Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, 183).

Whenever people make accusations against elders, the reality is that these things need to be weighed and judged by the church. Independency demands that these things are not outsourced to others, but ought to be weighed and judged by the church, within the church itself. Being above reproach and well thought of by outsiders i.e. not a hypocrite is judged by the church itself.

As much as reputation matters, it is possible to make it an idol. One of the things I have learnt in pastoral ministry is that sometimes you will be unfairly and unreasonably accused of things and you will not always get your day in court. Sometimes people will think and say things about you and there will be no right of reply not guarantee you will be properly understood. As Jani Ortlund so rightly says here, ‘After almost fifty years in a ministry marriage, here is a piece of advice I wish I had understood from the early days of marriage to my beloved pastor: be willing to risk your reputation.’

I think there are two key ways we unhelpfully worry about reputation. We can either worry about the reputation of our churches and we can worry about our own reputation. When we are unduly worried about either reputation, it can push us to act both unbiblically and unwisely.

When we worry unduly about reputation, we can end up spending more time concerned with how things might appear than we are with being faithful where the Lord has put us. We can be more worried about the reputation of our church than we are about faithfully doing what the Lord has called us to do. We can be so worried about our own reputations that we will only act when things will appear good to outsiders.

Where these things do become an issue – where our reputation is called into question – we have to trust our church. As Independents, we believe accusations by those within or without must be weighed by the church. It is for the church to determine whether there is credit to these matters. Every accusation or grumble is not to be entertained, but must be weighed carefully by the church and – where there needs to be a judgement made – it is not for outside bodies to rule on matters, but on the church itself to say whether the accusations bear scrutiny.

That may not be good enough for many. There will be those who will insist on their view, or their accusations, irrespective of what the overwhelming majority of the church think. But in the end, we have to let go of our reputations. Ultimately, it is not before every accuser that we stand or fall, it is the judgement of Jesus that really matters. We cannot be in ministry and avoid accusations and, often, we will not find that we are ultimately able to make ourselves fully understood. Sometimes people will think badly of us and we will not be able to do anything about it. Again, as Jani Ortlund counsels:

Like Jesus, don’t waste your energy on how others perceive you or talk about you. Love Christ with such a striking radiance that all who come near you will easily see him more clearly. Then come join me in heaven, where the truth of our service will be told and we will serve our kind King together forever.