1 Tim 3:2 and Titus 1:6-7 talk about an elder being "above reproach." How do you understand this phrase? The explanations I've heard are either impossible to attain (nearly perfect/sinless) or so subjective as to not be useful (not criticized). How can this phrase be understood in a way that allows for the sinfulness of all?
The Greek word is ἀνέγκλητος (anegklētos). The root word κλητός (klētos) means called or summoned and in classical Greek has a legal connotation (e.g. being "summoned to court"). The related verb ἐγκαλέω (egkaleō) means to bring charges or press charges, e.g.:
If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges.
The prefix ἀν- implies a negation, so that we can understand anegklētos as meaning something like cannot be charged with wrong doing. The NIV translates the word as "above reproach". The King James and some other versions use the term "blameless". Latin versions translated the word as irreprehēnsibilis, which we recognize as "irreprehensible".
All of this suggests that the word carries a meaning of being blameless or above approach in the sense of not being able to be accused of any wrongdoing by anyone. This is the sense I think you will find conveyed in most lexicons.
There is the sinfulness of all, and yet at the same time, the "holiness, without which none shall see the Lord" (Heb 12:14).
The Christian is supposed to seek blamelessness, especailly if he is to commend others to a holy way of life.
"Above reproach" means to not give bad example (i.e. so as to be complained about, and to give a bad name to Christ, with whose authority they preach and shepard: Christ taught about hypocrisy, namely of those who teach with God's authority, and so do a good work, and teach rightly, yet themselves won't live according to it (Lk 11:46).
But there is also the aspect of the elder or bishop being a choice leader from the flock who is holy in an exemplary way, in a true sense. For example, Zechariah, being a priest (and his wife) were both "righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless" (Lk 1:6). Yet even blameless and righteous men stumble at different things. For Zechariah it was insufficient faith for the revelation given him by the angel, for which he was stricken dumb (Lk 1:18-20).
This doesn't require perfect or absolute holiness, since you can not show bad example and still be a sinner in private life (Mt 23:27-28; Prov 26:23).
Of course certain men have greater degrees of sanctity: it's obvious that these are better suited to preach the holiness of Christ, and commend His ways to others.
G-423 - 1Tim. 3:2; 1Tim 5:7; 1Tim. 6:14
G-423 anepileptos an-ep-eel'-ape-tos
from G1 (as a negative particle) and a derivative of G1949;
not arrested, i.e. (by implication) inculpable.
KJV: blameless, unrebukeable. ((Nobody can call you into account for anything.))
Google Books - p 50
Understanding the New Testament: 1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus, and Philemon By William Victor Blacoe
G-410 - 1Cor. 1:8; Col. 1:22; 1Tim. 3:10; Titus 1:6-7
G410 anegkletos an-eng'-klay-tos
from G1 (as a negative particle) and a derivative of G1458;
unaccused, i.e. (by implication) irreproachable.
G1458 egkaleo eng-kal-eh'-o
from G1722 and G2564;
to call in (as a debt or demand), i.e. bring to account (charge, criminate, etc.).
KJV: accuse, call in question, implead, lay to the charge.
[Same source as above - Google Books - p. 215]
Above reproach here means without blame. This scripture can be understood from the context of Jesus teachings:
16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
It means doing service acceptably, without blame before God and men, since we are the light of the world, ambassadors of Christ.
15 That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights
It means not to be engaged in questionable affairs that will bring reproach to the word.
1 Timothy 6:14,15
14 That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ:
15 Which in his times he shall shew, who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords; In the words of Jesus:
48 Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. It means walking justly, holy, conducting one self in a dignified manner in word or deed, as an ambassador of Christ:
8 Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
It entails vigilance in walk, soberness, good behaviour, sound in doctrine, conducting duties in ones office without blame, without corruption
1 Timothy 3:2-4
2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach;
3 Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous;
4 One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity;