All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible 1995 Ed. (NASB95), published by The Lockman Foundation

As I’ve mentioned previously, most of the teaching of elders in western Christianity is deficient, since it’s almost exclusively confined to the impartation of knowledge, to the neglect of the embrace and the application of that knowledge in practical living. And yet there are still more elements of the teaching of many western “pastors” that come short of the model given to us by the apostles in the New Testament.

Many Bible and theology teachers in the western world fail to give adequate attention to the fact that the intended audience for their teaching are those whose minds have been renewed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who Himself is their direct Teacher. They underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit, and can veer into two possible extremes. First, they can think that the Holy Spirit is so weak, that they have to explain absolutely every detail of their subject matter in order for their students to understand. Second, they can think that the Holy Spirit is so slow to teach His people that they must be as basic and elementary as possible, to make their teaching easiest to understand. Neither of these extremes are consistent with the reality of the Spirit-indwelt assembly of believers. In most cases, both exhaustiveness and elementariness are unnecessary in the teaching of elders.

Another unfortunate consequence of failing to recognize the teaching work of the Holy Spirit in believer’s lives is that many teachers attempt to motivate their students to obey God’s will for them either unnecessarily or illegitimately. Since true believers have new hearts and affections, there are some things that they simply don’t need to be taught. Among these virtues is the practice of “loving one another” as brethren in Christ (1 Thess. 4:9). In addition, believers don’t need legal requirements, or laws, to compel them to obey the Lord. This is clearly taught by Paul in 1 Timothy 1:9, as we will see. Rather, the basis for all exhortation and command ought to be God’s grace in Christ, as described in the message of salvation (Tit. 2:11). The most compelling message that will motivate believers to follow the instructions of Scripture is not law, but the love of God in the Lord Jesus. And in fact, “the law of Christ” is love (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 9:19-21).

Finally, the content and communication of much teaching is out of alignment with that prescribed and modeled by the apostles. The elders of the New Testament didn’t merely go slowly through books of Scripture, explaining nearly every significant detail of a passage in order to contextualize it as closely as possible to the understanding of their contemporary student. Rather, they kept it simple by reading Scripture, explaining it as necessary, and then both fitting it into the overarching message of Jesus and His kingdom, as well as applying it in detail to specific and practical everyday aspects of living the Christian life. As for the communication of teaching in the 1st century church, most of the New Testament evidence shows that it usually wasn’t delivered in the form of a sermon or monologue, but in the form of a dialogue and even a discussion, with the teacher leading the discussion.

Given these errors in the teaching of elders today, we will look at an overview of the New Testament example and instruction for the teaching of overseers in four categories:

  1. The Need for Teaching
  2. The Nature of Teaching
  3. The Engine for Teaching

The Assembly’s Need for Teaching

It’s already been explained that one of the gifts of an elder is the skill of teaching and explaining the truths of Scripture. And we’ve already examined the goals of the elders’ leadership of an assembly in detail, determining that some of the main characteristics to be worked toward are humility, unity, love, knowledge, and usefulness, which culminates in supreme Christlikeness. Knowing these two facts, we have a basic understanding of why the Lord gave His people teachers.

The most fundamental reality that calls for the teaching of an assembly by gifted teachers is the fact that ideally, most assemblies should have one or more believers who have just been saved. And such spiritual infancy requires the teaching of the basics of Christianity, as Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians:

“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly.” (1 Cor. 3:1-3a)

While easy-to-digest “food” is needed for spiritual infants, there comes a point in time when such basic teaching must be left behind, and more substantial and complex truths should be taught. In fact, there comes a point in every believer’s growth at which he should be able to teach the gospel, and the basics of the Christian message. The author of Hebrews chastises his audience in this respect when he explains why it’s “hard” to explain a truth to them that they should easily understand:

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.” (Heb. 5:12-6:2)

In the case of the Hebrews, they were extraordinarily immature, since they had been taught by faithful leaders (Heb. 13), but were beginning to question the basic truths of the gospel of Jesus. That’s why the author reminds them that they ought to be teachers of God’s Word, and yet they need someone to again teach them “the elementary principles” of the gospel. So, it’s not always the fault of teachers that Christians misunderstand, and are ignorant of, the truth. However, even if the Hebrews demonstrated a woeful misunderstanding of the gospel, the author still urges them to grow in understanding and knowledge. He tells them to “press on to maturity,” instead of focusing on “the elementary teaching about the Christ” (6:1).

And according to this passage, the basic teaching about Christ can be summed up in three ways:

  1. repentance from spiritually dead works and faith toward the true God
  2. instruction about washings (or “baptisms”) and the laying on of hands
  3. the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.

The first subject of basic teaching is teaching regarding conversion. In order to be saved, one must repent, or “change his mind,” about his deeds by viewing them as “dead” to anything of spiritual or eternal value. In so doing, he must trust in God alone to give him spiritual life through the Lord Jesus. The second subject matter concerns one’s initiation into the community of the Lord. The “washings” could refer to the differences between the baptisms of John and Jesus, while “the laying of hands” may speak of that which was often necessary in the early church to receive the Holy Spirit. Finally, the last category of basic truths refers to the teachings about the end of the age, which will be marked by all the dead being resurrected, and then all people being judged and sentenced to their eternal destiny. Such things are only the basics of Christianity, and ought to be mastered as soon as possible.

The fact that even instructed believers could forget or fail to embrace and apply such things shows us the necessity of teachers in the Christian assembly. Yet the infancy of believers is not the only reason why teaching is needed. Even growing believers have weaknesses, misunderstandings, false beliefs, and even intellectual deficiencies that need to be corrected by the careful teaching of truth. But how does the teaching of elders effect change in the thinking, affections, and desires of their brethren? The answer is found in the nature of Christian teaching from the elders.

The Nature of Elders’ Teaching

The first thing that we must keep in mind always is that the work of the Holy Spirit is essential to all true Christian teaching. Since the elder’s teaching is always at least based on the truth of Scripture, we can recognize that the direct Author of his teaching is the Holy Spirit. Also, even the elder’s understanding of the truth is due to the teaching work of the Holy Spirit to grant him comprehension, remembrance, and the willingness to apply the truth. Not only so, but the elder’s act of teaching the truth to his assembly at least ought to be motivated and guided by the Spirit. And finally, it’s the Spirit Himself who directly grants his students the ability to understand, and the willingness to believe and apply the truth that they learn. So, from beginning to end, pastoral teaching can only be accomplished and bear good fruit because of the Holy Spirit.

The apostle John makes this work of the Holy Spirit clear when he writes to his “little children” in his first letter:

“As for you, the anointing which you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you abide in Him.” (1 Jn. 2:27)

The “anointing”, hearkening back to the “anointing” of Jesus, refers to the covering of the believers with the Holy Spirit, so that He now lives inside of them. So, He’s the one who teaches them “about all things,” and has taught them to “abide in” Jesus. Because of their learning from the Spirit, John shockingly claims that they “have no need for anyone to teach” them.

In order to understand what he means by this, we have to remember that by writing the letter to them, he was effectively teaching them. Thus, they obviously did need someone to teach them! And yet, as John makes plain, it was the Spirit who ultimately taught them “all things.” Therefore, the “teaching” of the Spirit He’s referring to is not the sole communication of information, but the work of persuading believers of its truth, impressing upon them its eternal value, and impelling them to respond to it by embracing it, and making it a part of their guiding principles. Hence, although human teachers are needed to impart truth, it’s the Spirit who directly empowers the truth, and uses it to change the minds, affections, and wills of those who learn it.

In addition to being the Teacher of believers, the Spirit is also the Trainer of their minds, so that the minds of all believers are able to consider realities in the light of truth, and to determine the content, character, and value of the ideas and events they experience. Paul describes this in his first letter to the Corinthians, where he maintains that, “. . . he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one” (1 Cor. 2:15).

In contrast to “an unspiritual man,” as he names in the previous verse, “he who is spiritual” refers to one who’s connected to the spiritual world because he’s indwelt and changed by the Holy Spirit. And because he shares in the life of the Spirit, he “appraises” or “evaluates” “all things.” Obviously, Paul’s not using the word, “all,” literally, but categorically, to mean that those who are indwelt by the Spirit evaluate every kind of thing.

The elder must keep this in mind when speaking to his congregation of brethren, since they have the ability to truly evaluate and appreciate everything that he says. So long as he uses language that they’re able to understand, the truth of God’s Word shouldn’t be hidden from them due simply to ignorance or slow thinking. He should be confident that, so long as they want to, they’re able to understand the teaching of Scriptural truths. This will relieve him of unnecessary pains at straining to make the teaching of Scripture understandable to the assembly.

Finally, as was mentioned previously, and due to the changed hearts and minds of believers, there are some things that shouldn’t have to be taught to believers, and manners of teaching that shouldn’t be used. A prime example of something that should go without saying to an assembly of believers is the need to love oneanother. Paul makes this very point in his first letter to the newly-planted assembly in Thessalonica:

“Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another . . .” (1 Thess. 4:9)

Why didn’t Paul need to write to the Thessalonians to love one another? Because they were “taught by God” to do so. And who was the Person that taught them to do this? The Holy Spirit, of course. From this, we can learn that the fundamentals of living like a child of God don’t need to be imparted to believers, no matter how immature they are, since it’s the Lord who implants into their hearts and minds the knowledge and desires necessary to reflect God’s character. What this means is that, in one way or another, the basic characteristics of a worshiper of Jesus will be manifested in a believer, no matter what instruction in those things he’s received. This isn’t confined to brotherly love, but would also include such fruit of the Spirit as love for God, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal. 5). Believers don’t need to be taught these things by men, but guided, encouraged, and urged, to practice them more. In fact, this is just what Paul does after saying that he didn’t need to write them about brotherly love, in saying, “but we urge you, brethren, to excel still more . . .” (1 Thess. 4:10b).

One of the important implications from this fact that the Spirit Himself teaches believers to do God’s will — as rudimentary as their obedience may be — is that the instrument of law is unnecessary, and even harmful, to use on Christians. Paul makes this clear in his first letter to Timothy, where he describes the intended subjects of the Old Testament Law by declaring that,

“. . . law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers . . . and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching . . .” (1 Ti. 1:9, 10b)

Here, he plainly states that the category of “law is not made for a righteous person.” What does he mean by “law”? The same type of law of which the Law is the supreme example. It’s a set of rules that are accompanied by promised punishments for failure of their observance. Now, when Paul says that such law isn’t “made for a righteous person,” he’s not saying that law can’t benefit the righteous in any way. He’s saying that law isn’t intended to govern or regulate the behavior of those who are “righteous.” Why? Because they are righteous in nature!

How do we know who he’s describing by the term, “righteous?” By looking at the people for whom law is “made” in his list. He describes such people who aren’t righteous as “lawless and rebellious,” “ungodly and sinners,” “unholy and profane,” along with a number of other descriptions of unrighteous people. All of these terms describe people who are characterized by, and practice, sinfulness of various kinds. And to sum up these characterizations, he includes any sinner not listed by calling them “whatever else is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Ti. 1:10). Given these qualities, what kind of person is he excluding? Believers, who are characterized by the opposite of the terms he lists. Therefore, we can know for sure that what he means by “a righteous person” is a believer in the Lord.

From these facts, our teacher is teaching without reservation that “law” or “laws” aren’t intended for believers. On the contrary, they’re intended for unbelievers, who are enslaved to sin, and live “contrary to sound teaching.” Why aren’t laws meant to be imposed on believers? First, because of the aforementioned reality that believers are inwardly taught by the Holy Spirit to be obedient to God, and to perform the fundamental duties of godliness. But if it’s not law that motivates and compels Christians to do God’s will, what does? The ultimate power for the obedience of believers is God’s grace, in accordance with Paul’s proclamation in Romans that believers “are not under law, but under grace” (Ro. 6:14).

The Engine for the Elders’ Teaching

According to the same passage that we just studied, all Christian teaching, which Paul calls “sound teaching,” is “according to the glorious gospel” (1 Ti. 1:11). That is to say, all truly apostolic teaching will be based on, and consistent with, the gospel of the Lord Jesus. This being the case, it follows that all teaching that isn’t tied to the gospel, either by implication, or application, is missing a key ingredient. This also means that the motivation to put Christian teaching into practice must come from the truths and effect of the gospel in a believer’s heart. This is why “law” can never promote true, heart-felt, obedience to God’s will. According to the gospel, what does change a believer’s beliefs, affections, and actions in a more Christlike direction? Paul famously calls it “the grace of God,” and outlines its practical power to transform lives in his letter to his apostolic representative, Titus, writing,

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age . . .” (Tit. 2:11-12)

In this key passage on teaching Christlikeness, the apostle tells us what is the ultimate engine of life change for believers. It’s not “the law of God,” it’s not the “wisdom of God,” but it’s “the grace of God.” The word “grace,” although popularly understood to mean “unmerited favor,” or “undeserved favor,” literally translates to “favor” or “benefit.” What kind of favor this is depends on context, and obviously here it conveys God’s undeserved favor toward hell-deserving sinners. But Paul doesn’t merely leave it as an abstract concept, and describes it as having “appeared,” or been “made visible.” What is he referring to specifically by this appearance of God’s grace? The appearance, life, and redemptive work of the Lord Jesus, who is God’s “grace” in human form.

So, the subject of this passage is God’s grace in Jesus and His salvation, which He’s brought to “all men.” And God’s grace in Christ does what for Paul, Titus, and all believers? The NASB uses the word, “instructing,” but a more accurate translation of the Greek word would be “disciplining” or “training.” It was a term used for athletic training, and communicates the idea of regular, persistent, careful, and painful instruction in quitting wrong behavior, and practicing what’s right.

In the case of the Christian’s life, it’s God’s grace as seen in Jesus that trains us to choose to abstain from sin, and to do what’s right. This passage describes grace’s negative training as motivating believers to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires” (v. 12). “Ungodliness” refers to character in beliefs and actions that are “unlike” God’s character, and unmotivated by acknowledgement and fear of God. Similarly, “worldly desires” are sinful desires that tempt us to find our fulfillment and satisfaction in this world, rather than in the next. Such sinful qualities must be denied, or shunned, through the training of God’s grace. In the positive aspect of training, God’s grace motivates believers to “live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (v. 11). First, it compels us to be “sensible,” or “clear-headed,” and thinking in accordance with the truth. Next, such sensible thinking allows us to outwardly do what’s “right” or “righteous” in God’s sight. And finally, our desire to please God will impel us to know Him and to delight in Him more, leading us to increasingly reflect His character in “godliness.” All of these essential qualities of thinking, desiring, and acting right are trained, instilled, and motivated by God’s grace in Christ. Hence, all Christian teaching should use as its foundation and ultimate power source the grace of God, as manifested in the death, resurrection, and saving work of Jesus. This is why Paul summarized his teaching service with the mission statement of, “we proclaim Him [Christ]” (Col. 1:28).

God’s Grace through the Spirit Leads Us to Scripture

Now that we’ve surveyed the need, nature, and engine of the teaching of elders, we must move on to the knowledge and nurturing of pastoral teaching. But this will be reserved for a later article.

In the meantime, consider these questions:

  1. Do the teachers in your Christian assembly recognize the specific needs of teaching among the different maturity levels of believers in your assembly? Do they provide the basic truths for those who are inexperienced in following Jesus, and do they teach the deep and complex truths as well to any believers who may be “skilled in the word of righteousness” and already familiar with the basics?
  2. Do the teachers in your assembly teach with reliance upon the Holy Spirit to make Scripture clear, believable, applicable, and effective in changing minds, affections, and desires? Do they teach in such a way as make it clear that their confidence isn’t in their preparation, communication, mannerisms, or personality, but in the work of the Spirit to teach His truth to His people?
  3. Do the teachers of your assembly use God’s grace in Christ as the motivating and compelling engine of their teaching? Do they base most of their instructions, appeals, commands, warnings, corrections, and rebukes on how God has lovingly benefited us through the Lord Jesus? In other words, are their instructions Christ-focused and gospel-based?
  4. Now think about how these areas of teaching apply to your learning and teaching of Scripture. Do you see your need for teaching from other believers? Do you live in light of the spiritual nature of Christian teaching? Are you being increasingly trained to believe, think, desire, and act more like Jesus because of your increasing, regular, appreciation of God’s grace for you through the Lord? Remember to seek the Lord, to rely on the Lord, and to delight in the Lord!