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One Thing Sets Elders Apart

Able to teach. Ah, that memorable criterion in 1 Timothy 3:2. That ashing light that distinguishes the elders from the deacons. That one qualification for the pastoral office that sets it apart from what the New Testament expects of all Christians (though all should pursue maturity, and become teachers, in some sense, Hebrews 5:12–14).

All church offices should be above reproach, one-woman men, good household managers, not drunkards, not greedy, not untested. The respective lists of qualifcations for pastor-elders (1 Timothy 3:1–7) and deacons (1 Timothy 3:8–13) read so similarly in substance, with just this one trait sticking out: “able to teach.”

Authority Through Teaching

It is teaching, after all, given the nature of the New Testament church, that is at the heart of the pastoral offce. What Christian pastors offer, most fundamentally, is not their cosmopolitan and interdisciplinary learning, ability to entertain masses, or executive facility. They are stewards of God’s very words. God has given his church “the pastor-teachers” (Ephesians 4:11) as those with the ability to receive, understand, integrate, index, access, winsomely defend, and effectively communicate his word to his people and to the world.

The New Testament does not vest pastor-elders with authority in and of themselves. Rather, their influence is tied directly to the true source of authority in the church: Christ himself, expressed in the words of his first century apostles. Christ is head of his church. He has the final say. And he appointed apostles to speak authoritatively on his behalf in that first generation of the church. The church’s enduring objective source of authority today is their written word. Which is why teaching that word is so centrally important in the Christian church.

Faithful pastors in faithful churches have authority only to the degree that they faithfully teach the apostles’ word, which is the very word of God.

Centrality of Teaching​

Inevitably, our churches will lose their way over time if we lose touch with the central importance of teaching in the New Testament. If we think of teaching more like getting a degree than having our next meal. More like something we endure for a while and then graduate, and less like something we receive regularly to stay alive. But teaching, right across the Scriptures, from old covenant to new, is plainly the latter, not the former. Sitting under gifted teaching is not a season of life for the Christian, but a lifestyle. What does the Bible teach about the role and qualifications of elders? Scripture: 1 Timothy 3:1, Hebrews 5:12, 1 Timothy 4:13, Titus 2:7.

Just to take a sampling from the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus), teaching serves a much more central role in the life and health of the church than many of us today are prone to think in the twenty-rst century. Consider just seven observations, among others.

1. God’s reputation relates to what the church teaches. The very honor and name of God himself in our cities is at stake in what our churches teach. “The name of God and the teaching” go together, either in being revered or being reviled (1 Timothy 6:1). This alone should be enough to awaken us to the importance of Christian teaching.

2. It was essential for the apostles to be teachers. The nature of the Christian faith — with ongoing teaching at its heart — means that it was essential for the apostles to be teachers, not just decision-makers. Twice Paul mentions that he is not just an apostle (which might seem like all he needs to say), but also a teacher (1 Timothy 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11).

3. The church’s mission requires teaching. Christian disciple-making, the lead charge in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20) requires teaching. It is essentially teaching. The word disciple means “learner.” To be discipled is to be taught, to follow another’s teaching (2 Timothy 3:10), and vital to the disciple-making process is not simply training up new Christians, but training up “faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). And the Commission makes it explicit: “make disciples . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

4. God means for his word to be taught. The word of God, spoken through first-covenant prophets and new-covenant apostles, is not simply to be heard, but taught. “All Scripture is . . . profitable for teaching” (2 Timothy 3:16). Church leaders, like Timothy, are charged, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). Teaching, as we have seen, goes hand in hand with true authority in the church. “To teach or to exercise authority” (1 Timothy 2:12) are not two distinct activities, but one. In the church, leaders exercise authority centrally through teaching, and teaching is their chief channel of exercising authority.

5. Error spreads though “false teachers.” Error in the church spreads through teaching (1 Timothy 1:3–7; 4:1; Titus 1:11). What do false teachers do? They teach. The fact that those who spread error are called false teachers alerts us to the importance of teaching, for good or for bad, in the church.

6. Elders address error through true teaching. The battle lines between truth and error are drawn between teachers, not any other proficiency or skill. Faithful leaders propagate “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness,” while those who infect the church “teach a different doctrine” (1 Timothy 6:3). When the time comes that wandering souls no longer “endure sound teaching,” they “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Timothy 4:3). It’s not a matter of whether we will have teachers, but who they will be.

7. Pastor-elders in the church are teachers. Leaders in the local church devote themselves to teaching (1 Timothy 4:13). False teaching must be answered with true teaching, and true faith only stays true through ongoing true teaching. Teaching is not optional in the church; it’s essential. So Paul instructs Timothy to “teach these things” (1 Timothy 4:11; 6:2), and to keep a close watch not only on himself but on the teaching (1 Timothy 4:16). Titus must “teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), and “in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned” (Titus 2:7–8).

Leaders in the local church, then, are not denied as savvy decision-makers or experienced businessmen, but as “those who labor in word and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). So when we remember our leaders, we remember them as “those who spoke to [us] the word of God” (Hebrews 13:7)

Food for Hungry Souls

Simply put, the idea of pastor-elders being savvy decision-makers, but not teachers, is foreign to the New Testament. Also foreign is the concept of ministry-specialized “pastors” who mainly administrate programs and jettison the regular practice of pastoring through teaching. Such men who are gifted servants, but not teachers, aren’t barred from church office. They are a tremendous blessing to the church. They are useful for many forms of ministry leadership and service, but they are not elders. This is why God has given us a second office called “deacon.”

The cultural pressure today is extraordinary for pastors and elders to be practicing, and proficient at, just about anything else other than teaching. But if we are to be faithful to the teaching of the Bible, to God’s own word to us, we will push against the tides to reduce, minimize, and go thin on teaching in the life of the church. We’re not handing out degrees, but feeding souls. And that doesn’t happen well without skilled, dedicated teachers working week in and week out to shepherd the flock.

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