So here’s my fourth of a series of five blogs on the five ministries of Ephesians 4:11. This blog is about teachers.
After school I spent three life-changing years at Nottingham University. By the end not only had I gained a degree in History but I had met and was about to marry the love of my life, Sam. But something else had happened to me too during those Nottingham years that was formative for my future: I had grown leaps and bounds in my faith. And as I look back, the people who helped me grow most as a disciple in that period were teachers.
So I really benefitted from the teaching ministry of David and Joyce Huggett at St Nics Church and by the small group teaching of a great group of Christians who were part of the Beeston Christian Fellowship. I read many books by gifted bible teachers. And most of the visiting speakers I heard at Nottingham University Christian Union were teachers – and very good ones too. Teachers. It was teachers who really helped me grow.
Teaching, education and the role of teachers is crucial for the whole of life – so much so that it is the central theme of the September 2011 edition of Monocle, hot off the press. Likewise in the church, the role of the teacher is foundational and fundamental. That’s why St Paul lists teachers as one of the five key roles needed if a church is to be healthy (Ephesians 4:12).
What is a teacher?
The Greek word in the bible for teacher is didaskalos, meaning one who provides instruction. So teachers instruct. They help people learn, grasp and see. Christian teachers help people see things as they really are – from God’s perspective. They do this as they teach the bible – God’s inspired word (2 Tim 3:16).
Teachers in the Bible
The bible has some great examples of good (and not good) teachers. So in the Old Testament teaching began in the home and in the context of family life, but the main recognised teachers were priests and prophets. Instruction also came from wise people, and particularly through the wisdom literature, inspired by among Solomon and his counsellors.
The apostles became important teachers in the earliest church, with Peter, John and Paul leaving letters that were deemed to be so divinely inspired that they were eventually included in the canon of Scripture. In The Acts of the Apostles we read that key teaching centres developed and one of these was in Antioch (Ac 13:1). This is still the case today where certain churches become renowned as places of brilliant teaching.
Timothy was a young church leader in the New Testament was was called to teach (1 Tim 4:11; 6:2) and is a great inspiration for young emerging leaders. To some extent, all five ministries mentioned by Paul in Ephesians 4 involve teaching, but clearly ‘teachers’ have particular gifts in this area. Of course the greatest teacher of all is Jesus Christ, who the disciples called rabbi, meaning master and teacher. No one has surpassed his words, his wisdom and the consistency of his life and his teaching. He is the model teacher – the teacher of us all.
What do teachers do?
Teachers in today’s church are in the communication business – communicating God’s word from the bible. For the benefit of those new to bible teaching, it’s worth noting that the process of understanding and then communicating God’s word involves the same three-stage process used by prophets – stages which their subsequent listeners may never know about, but which are significant if good instruction is to take place. The 3 stages are: revelation, interpretation and application.
a) Revelation – this asks the simple question of the bible text: what does it say? It involves looking at words and being confident of the accuracy and suitability of the translation, as the bible is a translation from Hebrew (the Old Testament) and Greek (the New Testament).
b) Interpretation – this asks: what does it mean? It involves looking at the context of the passage and having some understanding of the culture of the day, so the clear meaning can be shared.
c) Application – this asks: what should I do? It is about applying the text to life today.
Good teachers will, after a while, naturally cover all three areas as a matter of course.
But sometimes teaching in church falls short and lacks bite or power. This could be for all sorts of reasons, but let me mention a few areas where teachers have to take care.
1. Complexity. The first is to NOT make things complicated, but to keep things simple. The temptation is to try to communicate too much. Teachers can find this difficult because they have so much they would love to share, buy they mustn’t. Alastair McGrath was one of my best lecturers in Oxford and would lecture very simply, always finding a memorable way for us to get a handle on issues that could be confusing or difficult. He knew his subject so well that he did this brilliantly.
2. Hypocrisy. Whilst no-one is perfect, teachers must sincerely seek to practice what they preach. When I was about 10, I was on the way home from school one day and noticed my Sunday School teacher ahead of me on his bicycle. He had faithfully taught me Sunday by Sunday about Jesus and living as a Christian. Suddenly a car cut him up, and his response was to violently shake his arm in the air, screaming the rudest and crudest swear words I had ever heard. I was shocked. Whilst I felt sorry that the car had cut across him, I lost much respect for his teaching at that point. Why? Because when under pressure he didn’t practice what he preached. This is a challenge to all teachers – including me – to live lives of integrity.
3. Theory. A third temptation for the teacher is to be too theoretical or overly theological. So good illustration is important and applying the message is crucial. Sharing examples from real life helps people see how the message can be lived out in practice. Funny stories always go down well, and teachers should be wary of telling too many stories that make themselves look good all the time. Good teaching is not about making the teacher look good but about making Jesus look good, and helping people trust him more.
4. Prophecy. Teachers should daily read the bible and over time get to know it well. It is all God’s word – what the bible calls God’s logos – his message to us. As such, teachers should be able to teach from most or even all aspects of God’s word. However, I know that sometimes the teacher is aware that the message being given is more than just good, wise, general teaching but has a strong prophetic edge that the congregation or individuals in it really need to hear. The bible calls this prophetic teaching God’s rhema. Whilst it can sometimes be helpful to draw a distinction between these 2 aspects of God’s word (especially in times when prophecy has been lacking), rhema is not more important that logos and in reality the two overlap, so we must avoid exalting one over the other. This was illustrated for me one day when I was at a church service. After some singing the preacher stood up and said that he’d been praying all week about the message he should bring, and hadn’t received anything, so there was no message that week and he sat down and the service continued without a sermon. I remember feeling disappointed and short-changed, and wondered why he hadn’t just given us some good teaching. Looking back now, I realise that the church unhelpfully over-emphasised rhema over logos, so much so that they were naively prepared to accept no sermon that day! Prophetic teaching of course can be extremely helpful, but in the end of the day we are called to live out the whole of God’s word and so we mustn’t be afraid simply to teach. God will use it!
Pastoring through Teaching
One of the best ways that people are pastored and shepherded, is through teaching. Good teaching leads and feeds the flock. This however has led some to state that pastoring is only done through teaching, and the fact that Eph 4:11 could be read so that ‘pastors’ and ‘teachers’ are one role (ie.’pastor-teachers’) supports such a view. John Calvin, however, did not think so, suggesting that the administration of discipline, the sacraments, warning and exhortation belonged particularly to pastors. I agree. John Stott is helpful here, when he writes: ‘although every pastor must be a teacher, gifted in the ministry of God’s Word to people… yet not every Christian teacher is a pastor’.
Teachers are normally thinkers and have good minds. They rightly like to think things through. They use the gift of reason very helpfully. But teachers must beware not to be so reliant on reason, and the reason of others, that they fail to listen to the guiding voice of God’s Spirit, both as they prepare and as they speak. As a teacher of God’s word I have a good library with helpful commentaries and dictionaries to assist me. But I must beware of going to them too early in my preparation. Instead I must prayerfully grapple with God’s word for myself first, so that the word takes hold of me and I own it. The commentaries are then helpful to go to later, to fill out, give background information and to make sure that I am being faithful to the text. That way I find I am able to communicate not just somebody else’s message but a message which I have fully owned and embraced.
So teachers are crucial for healthy church life. More teachers need to be recognised equipped and released to build up the church so we can fulfil God’s call to bring his transformation to the world around us. I am praying that the Lord will be raising up many more fantastic teachers for the church in the North in these days.