You say you want to be a teacher? Oy!
by Dan Phillips
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body (James 3:1-2)
The apostle issues a rather remarkable command here. He was writing in a day when no one could listen to Phil Johnson on a CD, nor S. Lewis Johnson (no relation) on his I-Pod, nor a book by Gary Johnson; no one could read Calvin’s Institutes on his laptop. No one could get a graduate from WestminDallaTriniTalboMaster’s on the phone.
There just weren’t a lot of qualified teachers.
So you might expect the apostle to say, “Teachers? Need ’em! Gotta have ’em! You think you have the gift? Brother, take the mike!”
On the contrary, James very somberly warns, “You think you want to be a teacher? Oh boy, you’d better sit back down and give that one a second thought. You take that mantle on yourself, brother, and you are begging for stricter judgment.”
A teacher in the church of Christ is meant to get up and say, “Here is what the word of God teaches.” Did you know that God prizes one quality in a pastor above all others? Indeed He does: it is working hard in the word and teaching (1 Timothy 5:17; do the math). The pastor-teacher is called on, in the most dramatic and heart-in-the-throat tones imaginable, to preach the Word, in fair weather and foul, and no matter what the thronging masses want (2 Timothy 4:1-4).
So he’d better (A) know what he’s talking about, and (B) be prepared to stand up for what he says.
In the list of qualifying characteristics that mark a pastor, the only trait that shouldn’t equally be pursued by all Christian men is the one we’re discussing: ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:9). He must be examined as to his abilities in this area before ever he takes the position.
So words are the stock-in-trade of the pastor. When he is at his best, he uses them to communicate God’s truth. God holds him accountable for what he says. When he says, “I am a pastor,” in that same breath he is saying, “and I invite stricter judgment on myself for what I say.”
Anyone who is saved is saved by faith alone in Christ alone. And that saving faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes not by interpretive dance, nor a great guitar solo, nor a pleasant smell, nor lovely decor. Hearing comes by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Christ is made known by truthful words – just as surely as He is is denied by deceptive words (cf. 1 John 2:22-23; 4:1-5, etc.). Words matter; they matter a lot.
So a pastor who speaks to a church should expect to answer to that church for what he says. If he goes on the radio, he should expect to answer to that audience for what he says. If he blogs, if he writes in the local newspaper, if he speaks at rallies – and, certainly, if he writes books, he should expect to answer for what he says. He should expect to be held to the standard of God’s Word.
No responsible pastor blinks in surprise when someone asks for clarification. He expects it. He invited it the day he presented himself before God and the Church as a pastor. To be a pastor means to be a teacher of the Word of God, and it means to be judged in his pursuit of that activity.
It may seem odd, or even petulant or hostile, to non-pastors – particularly those with little knowledge of church history – when one pastor presses another for clarity on a given issue or issues. And it can be silly if it is an over-intense focus on relatively peripheral issues.
But what an historical perspective grants one is the knowledge that the history of church fairly bristles with men (and women) who have couched deadly, damning error in fine and lovely words. Central, essential doctrines have been and are being denied and perverted by the nicest folks, in the sweetest words. John Calvin discusses this very thing as he recalls Arius’ and Sabellius’ use of weasel-words, and the resultant need to define the truth precisely, and to put the edges in the right places, so as to flush out false teachers plainly and decisively (Institutes, I, xiii, 5).
Paul issued this warning to the Ephesian pastors:
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. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears (Acts 20:28-31)
When a pastor today is earnest in being sure that he understands what another pastor is saying about essential truths, he is doing his job. He is heeding the warnings and exhortations of the apostles. He is obeying God.
It isn’t always the funnest part of the job, though. You see, it is our duty to be earnest and serious about these things, and it is our duty to think through implications that others don’t have the time, training, or calling to think through. We know that this won’t always be transparent to everyone, so it may seem that we’re simply being critical for the sake of being critical, or because we think we’re better. We aren’t, and God knows we don’t. In fact, we may groan heavily at the outset, knowing that a crowd of spectators will cry “Foul!” as we pursue the faithful discharge of our God-given duty. It simply is the job of a faithful shepherd to watch out for the sheep, whether our flock says “Thank you” or not (Hebrews 13:7, 17),
And so we pastors are understanding when we ourselves are the subjects of such reasonable examination. It is our desire to be clear, and to be understood. Plus, we understand James 3:1 and its implications, and we know that our brother-pastors are only doing their job when they are reasonably cautious to understand what we’re saying.
And it’s okay to say “I don’t know” or “I’m still working that one through,” about a whole host of matters. But then again, there is a host of essentials on which it really isn’t okay to say “I don’t know,” because we really should have worked those out before we stepped into the office.
So when you’re spectator to a pastor publicly questioning another pastor about his core beliefs, try to understand: if both are being faithful to God’s call in His Word, the first is only doing his job, and the second knows it and appreciates it. In fact, faithful pastors welcome the opportunity to clarify their core beliefs.
Rather than throw brickbats (or frozen meat-chubs) at the reasonable questioner, thank him for taking Acts 20:28 seriously.
And rather than shielding (or beating your breast for) the questionee, encourage him to respond honestly and straightforwardly, and thank him for taking James 3:1 seriously.
After all, it’s our #1 job.