The Elder and Teacher (I)

Over the years of my ministry, I have prayerfully tried to be a teacher. In previous congregations, I was grateful to have been able to teach most, if not all, the catechism classes for the students who spanned the range from Grade 3 through Grade 12. I was grateful for the opportunity to establish good and solid doctrinal foundations in an entire generation of God’s people, and I was grateful because of the pastoral contact such teaching responsibilities gave me. (Such pastoral contact with the children of the church ought not to be overlooked; it is cruciaI!)

But, with all that teaching, I neglected one very important thing, which I now am able to see in retrospect. By teaching all the classes, I kept elders from teaching. I’m sure some of the elders were pleased by the arrangement; after all, they had plenty of things to do. Yet, by keeping them from teaching in the church, I effectively hindered one of Christ’s own mandates, and hampered the use of one of the precious gifts the ascended Lord gave His church: a teaching eldership.


First, a brief review of several key passages. Read these carefully:

• “…go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19,20)

• “Now the overseer (elder) must be…able to teach…” (I Tim. 3:2)

• “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (II Tim. 2:2).

• “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach…” (II Tim. 2:24).

• “You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1).

I know that these instructions were given to various groups and individuals in the early church, and not all were addressed to elders as we know them. Indeed, the first passage was spoken by Christ to the apostles, and the last three to pastors Timothy and Titus in the early church. Yet, the critical requirement of the I Timothy 3:2 passage—that elders must be “able to teach”—ties your office in with the expectations and gifts of Christ to the church. Simply put, if you are an eider, you must be involved with the work of teaching.


And the teaching you must be busy with is discipleship! That’s the overarching point of Jesus’ words in Mark 28. We as churches must be busy daily with the responsibility of making and developing disciples who follow our Lord. That involves, as we shall see in the rest of this article and in the next, both the careful instruction and nurture of the youth of the church, and the well-planned instruction of the mature members of the church.

What do I mean by discipleship? The process of making disciples is the process, to a great extent, of reproducing yourself and your faith! Allow me to explain what I mean.

The Greek word for disciple is mathatas, a close cousin of the word for “lesson or instruction.” In the verbal form, it refers nor only to learning lessons, but to the relationship that exists between the mentor and the disciple. One “becomes a disciple”; one does not merely “learn lesson material.” One is an “apprentice,” not merely a student.

The importance of all of this is made clear by Jesus” words in Matthew 28 when He commands the church to “make disciples.” Obviously, Jesus wants the disciples the church makes, to be His disciples, not ours. Yes, just as obviously, the process of disciple-making will require more than just instruction in predetermined lessons: It demands the development of a relationship of trust, of modeling, of revealing the heart of your faith to another who must pattern his faith after yours. Remember Jesus’ definition of a “follower” (a disciple)? “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and fake up his cross and follow me” (Mk 8:34). No, Jesus is not minimizing doctrinal content; His command to “teach them to observe all that I have commanded you” makes that clear. But He is reminding us that discipleship is a living relationship with the Master. Such a thing cannot be taught as a series of lessons; it must be taught by apprenticeship, by modeling, by opening your heart and life to another.

That’s the idea you must have in your mind as you contemplate your duty to teach. Scripture never requires that you be competent to stand in front of a hall full of graduate students and deliver a wonderfully challenging and informative lecture. Nor does it require that you must be able to manage 36 squirmy first graders without help, and accomplish education in the process. What it does require however, is that you be able to communicate to a youngster or to a mature adult just what is involved in following Jesus Christ. You show that by “teaching them to observe” His commandments; you show that by revealing your own struggle of self-sacrifice; you do so by exposing the pain of self-denial while, at the same time, celebrating the joy of such commitment, because “faith is the victory that overcomes the world.”


What must you do to accomplish this assignment? To be sure, you must be deeply rooted in Biblical teaching. But that, too, involves more than you think. Remember the phrase “sound doctrine” in Titus 2:1? It refers not merely to a mastery of the nuances of creeds and their structure, but refers to Biblical teaching that is and provides health. That’s the point of “sound” doctrine. That which you believe and teach must not allow for disease, for unhealthy faith, providing information to be used as word-weapons for divisiveness and argumentation (see II Tim. 2:14). Instead, it is to be balanced, God-honoring, stimulating Christ-like living which is able-to-be-lived-out in the day-to-day faith of the man of God. In other words, you must be a master of application, able to make clear to your students just what the point of this Biblical truth is. Your students must become disciples who are not only smart in the knowledge of Scripture, but who are Biblically wise in walking in the ways of the faith.

Such teaching, such disciple-making takes time and a significant investment of personal commitment on your part. It’s not done only by leading a class; you must involve yourself with your apprentices. That can and should be done in the relationships you have with those in your district as you shepherd the flock. That can and should be done as you seriously purpose to get to know the children of the flock well, and shepherd these lambs. And it can and should be done if you are asked to teach Sunday School, catechism or an adult course. Good teachers offer more than information; they give themselves. No one can teach another to follow the Master who himself is not already following Him; no one can make disciples who is not already a disciple.

Next Month: Principles for reaching children

Dr. Sittema, editor of this department and author of the book Shepherd’s Heart, is the pastor of the Bethel CRC in Dallas, TX.