New Testament Teachings on Teachers
The Bible is multivocal, a library of books by different authors, each of whom was inspired by the Spirit of God. An important example of multivocality of the Greek scriptures is the topic of teachers. How we understand “teachers” is intimately bound up with the ecclesiastical structures we have inherited from our forefathers, how we view hierarchy, and our rationalizations related to authority.
The Greek scriptures speak with three or four voices on the subject of teachers, with one of them being in considerable tension with the others. The dominant voice is Paul’s, the church’s favorite, a distinctly institutional voice. The distinctly spiritual voice emanates from God Incarnate and John the Beloved Disciple. Finally, a kind of ”middle ground” is shared by James and Priscilla.
The Teacher-Acceptance School
From Paul we have one of his lists of spiritual gifts to the church: “And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers.” (Ephesians 4:11) Note that the two “offices” that are almost universally present in the churches throughout history are the ones most compatible with hierarchy and formal paths for education and ordination–pastors and teachers. These two also bear a close family resemblance to a major cast of characters in the gospels–Pharisees and scribes. For Paul, the presence of teachers in the church is taken for granted.
Priscilla shares Paul’s total acceptance of teachers: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Hebrews 5:12)
Unlike Priscilla, James the brother of Jesus urges fewer teachers, not more. “Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (James 3:1)
The Teacher-Rejection School
On the other hand, God Incarnate said, “Don’t let anyone call you ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one teacher, and all of you are equal as brothers and sisters. And don’t address anyone here on earth as ‘Father,’ for only God in heaven is your spiritual Father. And don’t let anyone call you ‘Teacher,’ for you have only one teacher, the Messiah.” (Matthew 23:8-10).
John follows Jesus closely, “You do not need anyone to teach you, the anointing he gave teaches you everything; you are anointed with truth.” (I John 2:27)
Obviously, the easiest part to understand of this intra-biblical discussion about teachers is the general acceptance but differing emphases of Paul, James, and Priscilla. “Teachers are among God’s gifts to the churches, but sometimes there should be more, and other times there should be fewer.”
The harder element to “explain” is this acceptance in the face of Jesus and John, who say, “Not only do you not need teachers, but don’t let anyone even call you a teacher. You have the Holy Spirit now!”
Scoffers could point to this and say, “See! A contradiction in your precious Bible! Now what do you have to say for your inerrant little book?!”
Others, like myself, will say, “This is just one of the unavoidable ‘tensions’ in the scripture. It’s nothing to fret over.” But let’s take it a step further than that.
What Can We Learn from this Diversity of Positions?
In I Corinthians 10 Paul writes two times, “Now these things occurred as examples.” He also wrote to Timothy, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (II Timothy 3:16-17)
A few questions regarding this variety of understandings of teachers, then.
- How does this variety of positions serve as an example to us?
- How is this variety of understandings of teachers profitable for (gasp!) teaching?
- How can we use this variety of inputs for rebuke, correction, and training in righteousness?
- How does the very fact of this variety make us adequate, thoroughly equipped for every good work?