Some time ago, at our weekly Sabbath dinner, my father said something like, “No sense dying with a good reputation.” I forget what brought that on, but my daughter Rachel asked, “So you have a good reputation?” And he said, “Better than it ought to be.”
In emphasizing what I am about to emphasize—which is the biblical importance of having a bad testimony—we have to go out of our way to make the point that there is another sense in which we are to have a good testimony. We are told this repeatedly in Scripture, and in many different ways. An elder must have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7). A woman may be enrolled as a widow if she has a good reputation for good works (1 Tim. 5:10). Young men are to behave in such a way that adversaries have nothing bad to say about us (Titus 2:8). We are to live in such a way that when we are slandered, those who do so might be ashamed of what they have said (1 Pet. 2:12). So then, walking worthy of the gospel is a good thing. So then, there is a good way of having a good testimony, and a bad way of having a good testimony.
The second caution is this. Just as there is a good way of having a bad testimony, so also there is a bad way of having a bad testimony. It is true that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim. 3:12). But it does not follow that all who are persecuted are in that position because of godliness. It is true that we should be concerned when all men speak well of us (Luke 6:26). That is how the false prophets of old were received. But it does not follow that if you succeed in getting men to speak ill of you that you are thereby found to be a true prophet. The apostle Peter speaks directly at that confusion. Let no one suffer because he is a thug (1 Pet. 4:15). But if you suffer as a Christian (1 Pet. 4:16), then the instruction is this—do not be ashamed.
The Devil Is Not Stupid
When a Christian is being persecuted for being a Christian, the devil lies about it. No one is persecuted for their nobility, their love, their care for the poor. No, the early Christians were accused of incest, cannibalism, and atheism.
And so what this means is that believers must constantly navigate their circumstances, deciding whether they want a godly testimony, biblically defined, or a glossy PR press release testimony. There is a good way and a bad way of being respected, and there is a good way and a bad way of being disrespected.
So then, the apostle Paul insists that Christian leaders have a good reputation (1 Tim. 3:7). At the same time, he commends Onesiphorus for not caring about having a good reputation, for not being ashamed of Paul’s chains (2 Tim. 1:16).
Now it seems to me that nothing is plainer than that the modern Christian world is obsessed with having the wrong kind of good reputation. We have been led into this ditch by men who automatically assume that anything “negative” is a poor testimony. There is nothing good to be said about it. And it certainly is not God’s way of building the church.
Trying to Get a Call
Imagine a resume filled out by the apostle Paul. Imagine him trying to get a call at a modern Christian ministry. No—imagine him trying to get a call at a modern Christian ministry that was named after him. The form they made him fill out did not having any boxes to check that included things like being shipwrecked, beaten with rods, stoned (2 Cor. 11:25), or left for dead (Acts 14:19).
“For who maketh thee to differ from another? and what hast thou that thou didst not receive? now if thou didst receive it, why dost thou glory, as if thou hadst not received it? Now ye are full, now ye are rich, ye have reigned as kings without us: and I would to God ye did reign, that we also might reign with you. For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death: for we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honourable, but we are despised. Even unto this present hour we both hunger, and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no certain dwellingplace; And labour, working with our own hands: being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: Being defamed, we intreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day. I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you” (1 Cor. 4:7–14).
There are three categories of people here. The first is the apostolic leadership, the ones with a dodgy reputation. The second is the Corinthian church, a tall steeple church with old money, filled with believers who are also sophisticated and wise. Paul could almost wish it were actually true. And then there were the outsiders, the people doing what they do to the apostles. Let’s walk through what Paul actually says here.
Ministry Gets Real
You Corinthian Christians are full. You are rich. You have managed to reign as kings independently of the apostles. Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if the apostles could coast on the coattails of the Corinthians? Then they would be in fat city. Then the Christian faith could really go places.
But alas. God had different plans. God is the one who put the apostles last. The foundation stones for the entire Christian church were the stones that were placed at the bottom, down in the lowest place. The apostles were not the cross on the steeple; the apostles were the footings. The cross down below feels a bit different.
God appointed the apostles for death. He was the one who made them a spectacle to three audiences–first to the world, then to angels, and then to men. A gaudy spectacle, bruised and bloody.
The apostle Paul then sets up a contest between him and the urbane Corinthian Christians. The apostles were fools for sake of Christ—the Corinthians had figured out how to be wise in Christ. The apostles were weak, but they, being Ivy League graduates, were strong. Their slick web site ensured that they were cast as honorable, while God had determined the apostles would be despised.
Down to the present, Paul says, they hunger, thirst, are naked, are beat up, and are homeless. They work hard, doing so with calluses on their hands. They are reviled, and bless in return. They are persecuted, and endure it. They are defamed, and entreat those who defame them.
They are made—by God, remember—as the filth of the world, and as the off-scouring of all things. They are the apostolic dumpster scrapings.
And who should be embarrassed by all this? Interestingly, notice how Paul wraps this section up. “I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you.” If anybody should be embarrassed by all this, it wouldn’t be the person who was pelted by the insults of the world. It would be the Christian who never has been. Paul did not bring up his record with the Corinthians because he was trying to brag.
So do you have a good reputation? And is it better than it ought to be?