Some thoughts on Christian teachers and teaching:
God has appointed teachers for the body of Christ, and teaching is a spiritual gift and office (see for example Ephesians 4:11-12 and Romans 12:6-8). Of course we all know of misguided Christians who take the erroneous view that they have no need of human teachers, because they have the Holy Spirit to guide them in all things. I have dealt with these ‘Spirit-only’ Christians elsewhere: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/01/26/holy-spirit-only-christians/
I am writing this piece for several reasons. One, I had realised from early on in my Christian walk that I had the gift of teaching, and it is what I love to do. So a big part of the ministry of CultureWatch involves teaching the Bible and theology. And that supplements the work I also am involved in with the culture wars.
Also, in my morning reading I read about Ezra and how he was sent to teach the people, as we find in Ezra 7. Consider what it says in verse 6 and in verse 10:
“Ezra went up from Babylonia. He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.”
“Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.”
The context of this is as follows: The Israelites had been allowed to return from Babylonian captivity and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Presumably when the Babylonians destroyed the temple some 70 years earlier, they also destroyed the sacred writings. So the role of Ezra in teaching was crucial here.
Let me offer a bit of commentary on this, and then close with some personal reflections. Peter Adam reminds us of what the biblical teacher looks like: not just someone with a lot of head knowledge, but someone with heart knowledge as well. He comments:
Of great significance to the community of God’s people in Jerusalem would be Ezra’s ministry of the word – his teaching and preaching. [He] had devoted himself to study, to do, and to teach the Scriptures. This is a remarkable combination! And by it, as Derek Kidner writes, “…study was saved from unreality, conduct from uncertainty, and teaching from insincerity and shallowness.”
So Ezra was skilled in Bible ministry, and this ministry came out of his devotion to study the Bible and to put it into practice in his own life. Ezra followed God’s law, and taught it. He saw this as his main ministry, and devoted himself to the preparation for his ministry; to living what he learned, and to teaching what he had learned. He was no selfish student, who learned merely for his own benefit. He was no hypocrite, who knew and taught all the right things, but did not practise them. And he was not selfish, for that which he learned and practised, he wanted to teach others. What a great work of God in Ezra, to make him this kind of person. What a great gift of God to his people, to send Ezra to them to do this ministry. And what a great example to us to walk in God’s words, and a great example for all who are in ministry, to study, do and teach the Bible.
Some personal reflections
Let me offer a few words about teaching and how it impacts on my own life. As should be evident, a teacher will often have to become involved in controversy, will have to challenge others, and will have to enter into theological and various other disputes and battles.
All that goes with the territory. To teach God’s truth means you will also be dealing with error, with false teaching, and with heresy. So controversy of necessity will be part of the teacher’s lot. But let me share something here that may sound strange to some of you, but it is true nonetheless.
I actually do not like controversy, and if I could, I would avoid it altogether. In contrast, some folks just love to argue and get into fights – especially on the internet and the social media. They relish controversy and seem to thrive when hotly debating others. They really seem to live for such things. They actually get their jollies out of such pugilism and seem to love arguing with others. As such, they can often be vexatious trolls as well.
But I am not one of those folks. Really! I do not enjoy controversy. It pains me to have to challenge others – especially friends – and I take no joy out of big arguments and debates. My happy life is quietly sitting in the corner, reading a book. It is not having to deal with constant debate and intellectual warfare. But in part God has called me to engage in this way, so I am stuck doing it to some extent. But I really am not a great fan of it to be honest. Just so you know…
And of course there is another important point about teaching that we need to keep in mind: we all need to pay close attention to James 3:1. It says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
So for me to be a teacher means I need to be quite careful here. I dare not run ahead of God or behind him, but remain in step with him. There is too much at risk if I do not. The dangers to me and to others are too great. With this in mind, R. Kent Hughes presents some helpful – and sobering – words on this passage:
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….
For these reasons, James demands (yes, it is a command), “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers.” Now, James is not trying to diminish the pool of teachers for the church. The church has never had too many qualified, Spirit-filled teachers or leaders at any time in its history. He is rather discouraging people from taking up the task for the wrong reasons. He also is not promoting ecclesiastical elitism that limits the teaching office to the ordained or super-educated. The church in the United States is dying from a lack of good teachers in its pulpit and Sunday schools, but we need teachers with right motives….
While all Christians will be at the Bema [the judgment seat of Christ], professed teachers of the church will undergo a greater judgment. Their teaching will be examined with far greater scrutiny. The preacher who prayerlessly prepares his sermons on Saturday night as he watches TV and on Sunday delivers short, anecdote-loaded topical homilies which have nothing to do with the text, and indeed are often unsound, will have his work torched!
Even more sobering, we teacher’s lives will be measured against what we teach. Do we preach about the tongue and then have roast congregation for Sunday dinner? Do we castigate our people for their materialism and then lust for more? This is strong stuff for pastors, adult teachers, youth workers, and Sunday School teachers.
Yes quite right. So at the very least, I covet your prayers as I engage in this teaching ministry. It is a great blessing to be able to teach others on behalf of God, but if not done wisely, carefully, and in tune with the Spirit, it can cause much harm, lead others astray, mar the church’s reputation, and bring dishonour to our Lord.