As I write these words, I am sitting at the computer of a friend in a seminary office where I have been teaching a course in Church Education and Catechetics for the last two weeks. The experience has been most instructive for me as it has, I trust, for the students. It also steeled my resolve to write about something the Bible makes clear, but which, by many elders, is doubted, debated, or flat-out denied. That is the clear statement by the Apostle Paul in his letter to Timothy (I Tim. 3:2) that one of the requirements for elder is that the elder—every elder, without exception must be “able to teach.”
I’ve heard many elders react rather strongly to that. “Preachers are trained; we aren’t.” “Some elders have the ‘gift of gab’ and can teach, but not all of us can.” “It’s expecting too much of every elder to teach. Why, many of us are farmers or factory workers. It’s simply not fair to have that level of expectation for us.”
Sorry, it may hurt, but you have to deal with the real truth of the passage. It doesn’t say all currently sitting elders are by that very fact good teachers. It doesn’t say that unqualified-to-teach elders ought to suck it up and get into a classroom irrespective of their inability and discomfort. It says, simply, that if you can’t teach, you have no business being an elder! I quote the Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit: “Now the overseer must be…able to teach.”
The sad fact is that many churches have gotten themselves into real problems by installing into office men who, on this issue alone, are disqualified Scripturally from the requirements for the office of elder. Now they’re stuck with a current, functioning eldership that is not qualified for the New Testament duties of the office. That serves to explain why, as I travel about to conduct seminars for elder training in local churches, I receive so many reactions that would imply (politely but nonetheless urgently) that I’m a bit nuts if I really expect elders to do all I write that they should. Well, friends, the problem is not that my expectations are out of whack; it may be instead that men are currently in office who do not possess the Biblical qualifications for the work the Holy Spirit expects them to do. And if that is the case, you may have to become brutally honest with yourselves about that, confess your disobedience to the I Tim. 3:2 passage before the face of God corporately with you brothers, and begin immediately to train the men you have in office now so as to remedy, as best you are able, your former disobedience.
But that doesn’t address the future. Every church faces the duty to nominate and propose men for the office of elder. Some do it yearly (still clinging to the tradition of term eldership despite a lack of Biblical warrant for the practice); but all do it. So, the first thing that must be done is to nominate according to the specific teaching of the passage. How does the local church go about finding out whether men are “able to teach”? Surely, a degree in education is not requisite, is it? Surely, not only professional teachers with years in classroom experience is not expected, is it?
No, of course not. Rather than looking to the secular model, we should look again to Scripture. First, notice (in Romans 12:7) that the Lord’s spiritual gift of teaching is given to individuals within the church, and the church is to “let him teach” so that the church may benefit from the Lord’s grace. That is to say, within the body of believers, the local church will surely see demonstrated in the lives of some men the spiritual endowment that makes them eager to and enabled to communicate effectively the message of Scripture, the doctrines of the faith, the practical instruction of the Christian life. The question elders ought to be asking about potential candidates is not: “Could he teach if we make him an elder?” but rather, “Has he been teaching already, and how effective is he in that ministry?” To be sure, most who teach or disciple could stand to be cultivated and developed in their ministry skills; you don’t only look for accomplished classroom instructors, nor is that what the text requires. But to find men who are “able to teach” you must look to men who are already teaching.
I suggest you consider this exercise. Just like some believers simply cannot stop encouraging the weak and the timid, simply cannot avoid putting an arm of comfort around a broken-hearted believer crushed by the pains of life, simply cannot avoid exercising the “gift of encouragement,” so also some believers are endowed by the Holy Spirit with this gift of teaching. They seemingly turn every experience into a lesson, an opportunity to help a youngster or a new believer grow in grace and knowledge. They simply cannot “not teach,” and seem to think always on the level of discovering ways to communicate more effectively what the church believes, and what they know of Christ and His Word. Look for that kind of man, and, in the words of Rom. 12:8, “Let him teach.” As you do so, your evaluation of his gift of teaching will help you determine, in connection with the other requirements listed in I Tim. 3, whether you have elder material or not!
The second practical matter I would suggest to you as you commit yourselves to obey this requirement is to cultivate teachers wi thin the local body of believers. Take seriously Paul’s words to Timothy (II Tim. 2:2) and seek out “reliable men” and cultivate them for the future. That is, have mature and seasoned elders and pastors take young men under their wing for leadership development. I know of a large and effective church in Denton, Texas where, besides preaching and giving leadership to the elders, the only thing the Senior Pastor is asked to do is to cultivate men who will give future spiritual leadership. He trains young men who must make formal written application to apprentice under his ministry, meeting with them 5 mornings per week from 6 AM to 7:30 AM for the duration of a one year commitment. Honestly! Over the last few years, he has personally trained over one hundred men of God who are now thoroughly educated in Biblical knowledge, doctrinal training, and who have been equipped and trained for youth ministry, teacher-training and education ministry, singles’ ministry or some similar ministry within the local church. A good percentage go on to seminary; every one without exception is involved in an active and leadership way in local church ministry, with oversight and high expectations. And from that group of ministering servants, elders are later selected.
Perhaps you aren’t ready to release or reassign your local church preacher for such a commitment. But the duty to cultivate and equip elders and ministering servants of God is no less urgent in your church than in the church in Denton. The Bible says clearly that the task of the officebearers in the local church is principally to “equip the saints for ministry” (Eph. 4:12). Do it where you live!
Dr. Sittema, editor of this department, is pastor of Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX and author of the new book, With a Shepherd’s Heart.