In this series, I’m examining the relationships between leaders (elders) and teaching. Primarily, I hope to answer the following questions, “Does Scripture say that an elder’s primary responsibility is teaching?” and “Does Scripture say that the primary corporate teacher in the church is an elder (elders)?”
In one of my previous posts (“Teaching and the spiritual gift of teaching“), I concluded that there is a difference between teaching and the spiritual gift of teaching, just as there is a difference between giving and the spiritual gift of giving and just as there is a different between exhortation and the spiritual gift of exhortation. In the next post, (“Teaching and the responsibility of all believers“) I concluded that all believers have the responsibility of teaching. In the final post, I will examine teaching and the responsibility of elders.
First, if we agree that elders are believers and followers of Jesus Christ, then they already have the responsibility of teaching, per my previous post. Several questions remain however: 1) Do elders have more scriptural responsibility to teach? 2) Is the primary function of elders to teach? 3) Is the elder (elders) the primary teacher of the church according to Scripture?
Next, let’s look at the scriptural connections between elders and teaching. 1 Timothy 3:2 is one of the most direct connections between Christian leaders and teaching (here the leader is called a bishop or overseer or caretaker). In this passage, Paul says that the elder should be “able to teach”. The description does not mean that the elder has to have the gift of teaching, or that the elder primarily teaches. Instead, assuming that all believers have the responsibility to teach, the elder has shown that he can and does carry out that responsibility.
In a similar passage in Titus, Paul does not say that elders should be able to teach, but are those who are faithful to what they have been taught (Titus 1:9). In this case, Paul does not emphasize that the elder teaches, but that the elder faithfully lives according to what he has been taught. If faithfulness includes teaching (which I believe it does), then this means that the elder also teaches.
In 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul exhorts his readers (through Timothy) to doubly honor those elders who lead well and work hard in the word and in teaching. Thus, we should honor those elders who lead and teach well, as we should honor anyone who leads and teaches well (for example, see 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 where Paul says to highly esteem anyone who works hard, leads, and admonishes – elders are not mentioned in this passage, though they would certainly be included if they are doing those things).
In this passages, Paul does not command elders to teach, nor does he say that teaching is the primary function of elders, nor does he say that elders are the primary teachers of the church. Instead, elders are to teach (as are other believers), elders who teach should be honored (as should others who teach).
Notice, however, that these passage are not directed at elders. Instead, they are directed at others in order to help them recognize who should be elders.
There are two passages in Scripture which are directed to elders. In Acts 20, Paul calls for the elders from Ephesus and speaks to them together. He reminds them of how he taught from house to house (20:20). He instructs them:
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28 ESV)
So, Paul’s specific instruction to elders here is “to care for the church” (to pastor or shepherd the church). Paul does not include “teaching” in his instruction, although he obviously expects them to follow his example of teaching which he gave in Acts 20:20.
Similarly, in 1 Peter 5:1-3, Peter also directly addresses elders. He also commands them to “shepherd” or “care for” the church (called “the flock of God” by Peter). Following this command, he lists several contrasting descriptions of how elders are to care for the flock (i.e. not by compulsion but willingly). Teaching is not included in Peter’s direct address to elders either.
So, according to Acts 20 and 1 Peter 5, the primary responsibility of elders is to care for (“shepherd”) the church. While it could be argued that shepherding and teaching are the same thing, Ephesians 4:11 seems to distinguish between them, though there may be some relationship between the two. The reason that Paul wants the elders to care for the church is that he knows that others will attempt to lead them away from Christ. Teaching would certainly be necessary to care for the church, but not only teaching. Many other functions are necessary for the type of care that Paul commands.
In Ephesians 4:11, the spiritual gift of teaching (and spiritually-gifted teachers) is included among other gifted individuals (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors). While these could be elders – and while pastors/teachers are sometimes equated with elders – there is nothing in the passage to limit the spiritually gifted pastors/teachers to elders. In fact, the passage indicates that all gifted pastors/teachers (whether they are elders or not) are given by Christ to the church in order to equip the church to do the work of service.
In conclusion, we’ve seen that teaching is distinct from the spiritual gift of teaching. We’ve also seen that all believers are responsible for teaching, even though all believers do not have the spiritual gift of teaching. We’ve seen that elders (being believers and followers of Jesus themselves) should teach, and they should not be recognized as elders until they demonstrate their obedience in carrying out this responsibility (which, by the way, assumes that they are teaching before they are recognized as elders). We’ve also seen that both Paul and Peter command elders to care for (or “shepherd”) the church. While this may include teaching, it is not synonymous with teaching.
So, to answer our questions: 1) Should elders teach? Yes, all followers of Jesus should teach. 2) Is the primary function of elders teaching? No, their primary function is caring for people. 3) Should elders be the primary teachers in the church? That would depend upon whether or not the elders have the spiritual gift of teaching. But, by accepting the responsibility of being recognized as an elder, elders also accept the responsibility of caring for (or “shepherding”) the church (yes, even if they are not spiritually gifted “shepherds”).
Should elders teach? Yes. Should other believers teach? Yes. Aren’t there certain contexts where Scripture says elders should teach? No, Scripture does not make that distinction. Isn’t it okay for only elders to teach? Not if we follow Scripture and allow (and encourage) all believers to teach.
Now, a good follow-up study would be to consider various methods and types of teaching that we see in Scripture. Perhaps it would be encouraging to other believers if we recognize that a 5 minute teaching can be just as important and helpful as a 30-45 minute teaching, or that a discussion can be just as important and helpful as a monologue.
Short series on teaching and the spiritual gift of teaching:
- Teaching and the Spiritual Gift of Teaching
- Teaching and the responsibility of all believers
- Teaching and the responsibility of elders