CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On Teaching (and Being a Teacher)

Dec 29, 2016

I refer here to the biblical gift of teaching. I am not discussing secular school teachers and the like, but those who have been called of God and gifted to teach the Body of Christ. I do this in part because this is a component of my calling and gifting.

Early on as a new Christian I knew this was my main spiritual gift. I have always loved to read, study, research and teach. Many have said that I have a gift of being able to take complex and difficult matters (theological, biblical and otherwise) and explain them in a relatively easy to understand fashion.

As such, it is vital to stay biblical with such a gifting. Scripture has much to say about teaching of course. The three main lists of spiritual gifts and spiritual offices that mention teaching are these:

teachRomans 12:6-8 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Ephesians 4:11-13 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? Now eagerly desire the greater gifts.

The point of my discussion here is not to compare and contrast these various listings of the gifts. Nor is it about how natural talents and abilities might differ from and/or coalesce with spiritual giftings. Neither is it my intent here to specify the body of teaching we ought to be running with. That I have sought to do elsewhere.

My main concern is to highlight the warnings about teaching which all teachers need to take quite seriously. The passage that is most relevant here is of course James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

I think of this passage often. As I mentioned, teaching is my chief gift, and most of my teaching of late comes in the form of writing articles on this website, as well as interacting on the social media. And many people have told me – for good or ill – that they look to me and my ministry as a form of teaching and discipleship.

I have almost a pastoral role to play in the lives of some believers it seems. This is a great honour of course, but it is also a great responsibility – one I dare not take lightly. That is why James 3:1 so often comes to mind, and keeps me humble and on my knees.

Teaching in New Testament times was an esteemed profession. Jesus of course was called “Rabbi,” or “Teacher”. The thing that differentiated his teaching from that of the Scribes and Pharisees of the day was that he taught with authority. As Mark 1:22 puts it: “The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.”

Matthew 7:28-29 says much the same: “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”

He spoke truth because he was the truth (John 14:6) and lived a life of integrity. As Jesus said in response to his Jewish critics in John 8:46: “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?”

So Jesus is the teacher par excellence that we should emulate. We should be speaking truth (orthodoxy) as well as living lives to back it up (orthopraxis). This in part is what James is getting at. As Peter Davids puts it in his commentary:

If the Jewish teachers were to be judged severely, how much more, Christian teachers? (Matt. 23:1–33; Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). An examination of the condemnations of false teaching both in the Gospels and in 1 and 2 Peter and Jude show that, as with elders (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1), the lifestyle of the teacher was more important than the words he spoke. Teachers were primarily models, secondarily intellectual instructors. By claiming this status the teacher put both life and words under God’s scrutiny, and he would hold them responsible for misleading the flock in word or deed.

Wow, that is serious stuff folks. And as Douglas Moo remarks:

Too many were seeking the status of teacher without the necessary moral (and perhaps also intellectual) qualifications. Perhaps, indeed, unfit teachers were a major cause of the bitter partisan spirit (cf. 3:13-18), quarreling (4:1), and unkind, critical speech (4:11) that seemed to characterize the community. James therefore begins his admonition about the tongue with a practical illustration of the problem uncontrolled speech can create.

Not only does James warn about the dangers in all this, but he implies that one can easily seek to be a teacher for all the wrong reasons. One’s motivations are important here. I like what R. Kent Hughes has to say about this:

The problem, in a word, was ambition, which has been and continues to be the bane of the church. Often instead of being Christ-driven people, believers are need-driven in public ministry. The need for public attention, to be thought intelligent, to show oneself wiser than others, to have influence and authority, can fuel the most ostensibly pious sermons….
James was well aware that evil ambitions were driving some to become teachers, and he also knew that if such people got into teaching positions they would suffer further corruption because teaching offices are fraught with moral dangers of their own. It’s a heady thing to dress in your Sunday best and stand in front of a congregation and be the authority for one hour—the voice of God to his people. But it can ruin your soul! This had happened to some of the rabbis. As Jesus said, “Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their prayer shawls long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi’” (“My great one!”) (Matthew 23:5-7). The same thing has happened in the Christian church. We have had our share of arrogant buffoons.

More strong but necessary words that we all need to take to heart – certainly myself. It is so easy to misuse and abuse any spiritual gift. I don’t want to be in that boat. So I covet your prayers that as I teach, I do so as a faithful representative of Christ.

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7 Responses to On Teaching (and Being a Teacher)

  • Praying for you Bill,
    Thank you for this piece, now I also consult the Almighty before I comment or respond to trolls on-line especially, the conversation from two days ago is continuing and the Lord is enabling me to give a full and accurate account of creation as well as Jesus ministry in the Gospel of John the disciple he loved whom he walked and talked with.
    Thanks again and thank you to your contributors, particularly Michael Watts for your last response on Cultic Christian Trolls (we gotta love ’em)!
    Blessings!!

  • Hi Bill, a very appropriate piece of work, and timely in following on from your essay on “Cultic Christian Trolls”. You have asked us to cover you in prayer, I for one will continue to commit to that. Your contribution to extending The Kingdom is too valuable not to do otherwise. Bless you abundantly, Kel.

  • Many thanks Sandra and Kelvin.

  • Bring on the council of elders where the gifted teachers are subject to others.

  • I know secular teachers are not the same as spiritual teachers in the world’s eyes. However they are subject to the same dangers as teachers in the church. I have taught in the public system and the Christian school system. I found that there was ambition among secularists and Christians alike, and that some of the best teachers of secular humanism are Christians – just like in the church. My model for teaching in the school system is no different than when I was a pastor/teacher – my model is always Jesus.

  • Thank you Bill for using your gifts so faithfully and generously. I really appreciate how you come back to God’s word, so that we can see for ourselves the truth of the matter.
    My prayers are with you for the coming year, that God will keep giving you all you need – love, courage, strength, resilience, understanding, forgiveness and lots more – as you bring us the latest on the world around us. Your light shines out into the darkness.
    As you give of your time and talent, may you experience God ever more closely and enjoy his blessings.
    Stefanie Mapley

  • Thanks so much Stefanie.

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