“If there is one who is irreproachable, a husband of one wife, whose children have faith, not open to the accusation of reckless living or undisciplined behavior, for it is required that the overseer is irreproachable as God’s steward, not intractable, not short-tempered, not violent, not greedy, but hospitable, a lover of good, prudent, upright, pious, disciplined, being devoted to the faithful Word as taught, that he might be able to exhort people in doctrine that is sound and reprove those who deny it.”
Upright, or δίκαιος (dikaios) in the Greek, is part of a larger “δικα” word group that deals with one’s relationship to the law. This is significant for several reasons. Most importantly, in this context, it is a reminder that one’s being “upright” is not a matter of personal opinion, but it is a matter of being upright according to a fixed standard or law. Which law? In the case of the church, the obvious answer is: God’s law.
The sad thing is that as obvious as this application might be, it is often left unpracticed in the church. People like to set their own standards for morality and behavior. Some sins are dismissed while others are elevated. Some sins are even celebrated in certain circles. I had a Deacon once brag to me that he had chased a prostitute out of the church because he thought she would steal things.
But upright by God’s standard is one we can never really meet, so how can we expect it of our church leaders? To begin with, the born-again believer is declared to be righteous according to the Law by the work of Christ. We speak of this as Christ’s righteousness that has been imputed to us. In that sense, every believer can stand before God as if the righteousness of Christ was our own, though, like the pauper wearing the Prince’s clothing, the righteousness is not our own and we are simply there by our God’s grace.
So, then, is Paul simply stating that an Overseer must be a born-again believer, justified before God? Certainly one must be a believer to lead in God’s house, but there is more to what Paul is stating. For the impression is that the Overseer in God’s house must be one who seeks to live in a way that us upright — righteous even — in the eyes of God’s Law. No, we will not do so perfectly, but we are to strive in that direction, not concerned so much with man’s standards, but with God’s standards. And thus, as we seek church leaders, the first question that we must ask ourselves is not, “What will they seek to do while in office?”, but we should ask, “Will they reflect God’s Law while in office?”
There is a second reason that it is significant to point out that one’s “uprightness” is a matter of one’s relationship to the Law of God. There are many today, following the teachings of people like N.T. Wright, that are trying to change the nature of what we call justification. Wright argues that justification deals with our relationship to the Covenant Community of God, not with respect to our being “declared righteous” according to the Law. The language that Wright chooses to use is that justification is about “who can sit down at the table together, not about who is made right with God.”
Yet, justification also is part of this “δικα” word group, dealing with one’s legal status before a fixed law. In fact, the term we translate as justification is most commonly used with legal terms and not with covenantal terms. You may not think this significant on the surface of things, but Wright’s views strike at the very way the Bible teaches that we are made right with God, instituting a form of works in alongside of God’s grace. But, as Paul writes, if works are involved, then grace is no longer grace (Romans 11:6). And even though Wright’s views contradict what Reformed theologians have consistently taught about the Bible through the ages, many Reformed Christians have begun pursuing Wright’s teachings.
For the average Christian, how important is this? Very much so. While this discussion began in the halls of academia and with liberal theologians like Albert Schweitzer, Wright’s ability to write well has brought these ideas into the mainstream and Christian booksellers will gladly take your hard-earned money in exchange for Wright’s books. To be fair, Wright gets a number of things correct, but this is not one of them and the Christian has a responsibility to make a reasoned defense of his faith (1 Peter 3:15), which means we must guard against such teachings.
In the end, the Overseer of the church must be a man of the Law, seeking to live an upright life but ultimately finding his righteousness in Christ alone…as ought we all.