So once again it is time to discuss pastoral combativeness as a virtue. This is not to say that pastors have some sort of a double-00 rating allowing them to be pugnacious or difficult to get along with. On the contrary, Scripture plainly teaches that one of the qualifications for ministry is that a man must not be “a brawler” (amachon). When he fights, it must be because he loves defending the sheep, and not because he loves fighting so much and wolves as enemies will do. In short, there is a difference between using a bully pulpit and being a pulpit bully.
Nevertheless some still want to raise the objection. If a pastor is a controversialist, one who is involved in polemical battles (from time to time), is he therefore unfit for ministry? After all, the apostle Paul required a pastor to be “well thought of by outsiders.” How can you be well thought of by people who think ill of you?
“He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” (1 Timothy 3:6–7, ESV).
Can this be said to be true of a pastor if that pastor finds himself, on this occasion or that one, running from a mob?
There are two basic ways to interpret this requirement. One is to absolutize it, and say that any pastor must have a good testimony, period. The consensus that he is an all-round good guy, from pagans and believers alike, must be unanimous. The gloss placed on the text changes it from “well thought of by outsides” to “well thought of by all outsiders.”
The other way is to say that when the inevitable slanders come, the godly pastor must have lived in such a way as to make the slanders laughable, and to ensure that those who would mount the slanders have an uphill climb. This is another way of saying that when a controversy erupts, the pastor must have a good reputation with those whose opinion counts.
For example, I would argue that Paul had a good reputation with outsiders at Ephesus, the place where he caused a riot. The stadium was filled with yelling unbelievers, stirred up by the silversmiths, whose trade in idols had been damaged by the gospel. Paul certainly did not have a good reputation with them — they were in fact enraged (Acts 19:28). And they were hot enough that the disciples would not let Paul go in to address them (Acts 19:30).
So how did he have a good reputation? He had pagan friends in high places.
“And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater” (Acts 19:31, ESV).
And another pagan, the town clerk, a man who was a believer in Artemis, was able to stand up in front of the people and say this as he quieted the crowd:
“For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess.” (Acts 19:37, ESV).
This lines up with how Peter sought to prepare believers for the inevitable slanderous onslaughts.
“Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ” (1 Pet. 3:16).
Christians should live in such a way as to provoke outlandish slanders, and simultaneously to reveal them as outlandish. A recent example that I might take from my portfolio was the accusation that I was a plagiarist because a source I was using said “double entendre” and I had said “double meaning.” I am particularly pleased with that one. To make it even better, Carl Trueman thought I had been thereby schooled in “basic research methods,” which apparently means never using the word double — a different kind of double bind.
So back to the problem. For those who would absolutize Paul’s requirement, saying that it means “be nice to everyone and everyone will be nice to you,” a few problems remain.
First, it makes Paul a royal hypocrite — requiring Christian leaders to do something he did not do. Not only did Paul not do it, he would boast in the bad reputation he had with outsiders (2 Cor. 11:18ff). He was beaten with rods three times. He was stoned once. He was flogged five times.
On this reading, his hypocrisy is heightened because he praises those who refused to desert him despite the damage it would do to their reputation with outsiders (2 Tim 1:16). The effrontery of Onesiphorus is hard to take — disregarding the plain teaching of the apostle like that, refusing to be ashamed of his chains. Those who sidled away from him no doubt did so muttering to themselves how important a good reputation/resume was if you wanted to teach in a good Reformed seminary.
Second, this reading cannot successfully evade the tenuous nature of their position by making an arbitrary distinction between the prophetic and apostolic office (for which inspiration is required) and the pastoral office, for which vases full of pussy willows are required. Paul teaches his disciples to imitate him as he imitates Christ (1 Cor. 11:1), and when the opprobrium of outsiders falls on him, he expects his friends to stand with him. Some did, most don’t — we are perhaps closer to first century Christianity than we thought.
Third, this ludicrous interpretation would require us to say that every pastor or Christian leader who has ever been martyred for the sake of Jesus Christ, beginning with Antipas, was thereby disqualified from the ministry. Outsiders don’t kill you when you have a good reputation with them. This way of thinking — substituting an unctuous testimony for an honest one — is nothing more than a way of pre-assembling denials of Christ prior to the outbreak of persecution. That way, when trouble rises, everything is ready to go.