Therefore an overseer must be above reproach. — 1 Timothy 3:2
So to understand the first quality of a leader in the church, we need to know what the word "reproach" means. A suitable synonym might be "criticism." So in conjunction with the adverb "above," it would mean a potential leader who is "above criticism."
Now this qualification is very tricky given our times. Because criticism is weaponized against others. Being thirty days out from a midterm election, all you have to do is listen to the radio, watch television, or read texts that come across your phone to hear messages of criticism about leaders. So we have to clarify a bit the intent of this qualification.
What does Paul mean, and not mean, by being above criticism?
So let's agree that he's not suggesting to Timothy that there are leaders of perfect character in Ephesus and that he needs to find them. If this had been the case, Timothy would never have been able to find leaders for the church in Ephesus. That's because no one is without sin. Paul himself said, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23). So Paul is not inferring perfection of character that results in zero criticism. Instead, the spirit of this qualification in context with good theology would suggest that Timothy needs to locate redeemed men who have addressed and reconciled the sin and suffering in their life — first with God and then with others. Therefore they are above criticism.
If you want to know what this looks like in a man's life, just read Paul's letter to Philemon. Paul makes Onesimus, a runaway slave, go back and reconcile his unaddressed departure with his owner Philemon who was a believer. And as history tells us, Onesimus returns and becomes an elder or leader in the first-century church. That's the spirit of the qualification here. Paul is describing a man's effort to tend to anything that might be a criticism in his life. He is a man who doesn't leave the suffering caused by his sin unaddressed. Instead, he is someone who has done, and is willing to do, the hard work as much as humanly possible to deal with issues that might lead to public criticism.
So this man has to be able to do two things. First, receive God's grace for the reproach of his sin. Second, be willing and able to work through the reproach his sin inflicted on others. This is not describing a perfect man or leader, but someone who will give a full effort in the event of criticism.
So here is another example that illustrates the spirit of this qualification — it's Paul. Paul was formerly a reproach in his sin to the church. In fact, in 1 Timothy 1:13, Paul said, "formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief." Paul was formerly a reproach to the church, but when he wrote 1 Timothy, he was the church's most significant leader. So God is not looking for perfect men. He is looking for imperfect men indwelled by the Spirit who are willing to work through their ignorance and issues, thus fighting to stay above criticism.
Now I want to recognize that in very special circumstances remaining above criticism will be challenging, if not impossible. In these situations, reconciliation might not be impossible. Therefore, staying above criticism is also impossible — in a human sense. I would say this would disqualify you from leadership in the church. But this doesn't mean you should give up giving a full effort to receive God's grace daily and work to stay above the criticism. But you might not be able to be a leader in the church for a period of time, if ever.
And one more little nuance on this qualification. Sometimes you will not be above criticism for standing up for your faith. Paul was known for being a troublemaker, just read the book of Acts. In Ephesus, he stirred up a riot. A big one. Trouble seemed to follow him everywhere. Religious and government leaders publically criticized him all the time. But it was never for ungodly character. It was for preaching the gospel message. So know this. At some point, if you are a leader in the church, you will be criticized. You should be criticized. But if it's an issue of godly character, stay above it and on it. If it's for preaching the gospel, suffer through it.
ASK THIS: Are you being criticized for doing right or wrong?
DO THIS: Keep doing it if it's right. Stop doing it if it's wrong.
PRAY THIS: God, give me the courage to address my sin and suffering.
PLAY THIS: Better Man.