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?


About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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6 Responses to New Testament Teachings on Teachers

  1. John Meunier says:

    I don’t see a “teacher rejection” school in your texts.

    Jesus instructs the disciples to follow the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees (23:3), but he says they should not have teachers among themselves as he is with them and is their teacher. When Jesus instructs them to “disciple” all nations and teach them at the end of Matthew (28:19,20), it appears that a different set of instructions apply post-Easter. At the very least, it is hard to say Jesus opposes teaching. He may oppose certain titles – father, rabbi, instructor – but wiser people may offer more light on that.

    As for 1 John, it appears to be a rhetorical device. A few times in that longer passage he writes words to the effect of “don’t fall for this false teaching, but I don’t have to tell you that because you already know.” That does not read as a blanket rejection of teaching to me, unless we narrowly quote a verse without reference to the wider passage.

    That said, I quite agree that there is a great deal of richness in the various books of the Bible and the ways they are in dialogue with each other is one of its great beauties. I’m just not convinced, in this case, we have two “schools” about the office of teaching in the NT.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      You know, I had misgivings about those two headers, “The Teacher-Rejection School” and “The Teacher-Acceptance School” when I added them to the text. I suppose I should’ve listened to my gut and thought that through a bit better.

      A proper treatment of “call no man Rabbi” certainly requires a look at the whole of Matthew 23, where Jesus describes the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, the exalted social status they enjoy, and their total uselessness as spiritual guides despite the office they hold.

      Jesus says to the crowds, “Because they sit in the Seat of Moses, do as they teach, but don’t follow their example.” I.e. Give respect to those whose status merits respect, but don’t emulate their lives. Again he says to the crowds, “Don’t call anyone Father, Rabbi, or Teacher.”

      This is very closely related to the correction that Paul voiced to the Corinthian church against being fans of Paul, Cephas, Apollos, or even Christ, and relates again to our adherence to men like Luther, Calvin, or Henry VIII. Such loyalties are divisive to the Body of Christ.

      Regarding the I John passage, it seems pretty straightforward to me. “As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” I don’t detect any hyperbole, metonymy, or metaphor here.

      The Holy Spirit lives in you, and his presence teaches you everything you need, and he doesn’t lie. The Holy Spirit abides in you, so abide in the Holy Spirit, and remember: you don’t need other teachers.

      It is possible that John didn’t have a copy of Matthew available, and was unable to qualify his statements to take the Great Commission into account. I suppose he also may not have had access to Paul’s letters, and taken Paul’s understanding into account as well.

      Or maybe he did, and this was his reply.

      I agree, there’s a great richness in the scriptures.


  2. John Meunier says:

    or even Christ, and relates again to our adherence to men like Luther, Calvin, or Henry VIII

    Polite of you to leave Wesley off your list.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      Wesley’s fierce determination to remain in communion with the Church of England is the exact opposite of divisiveness. The comparative lukewarmness of the CoE must have appalled Wesley, yet he resisted the Baptist principal of organizational separation in the name of holiness. And there were certainly dissenting congregations that would have accepted Wesley as pastor.

      I hope that those who embrace the “spirit of Wesley” will embrace his determination to remain in formal connection with lukewarm clergy, in communion with a hierarchy that was actively hostile to Wesley’s adherents.

      Unlike John Wesley, reformers Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Henry VIII were far too comfortable with their influence in political government. Luther vigorously supported the brutal repression of the Peasant’s Rebellion in 1524-1525, when roughly 100,000 peasants were killed. Calvin was quite comfortable with burning Spanish scientist and theologian Michel Servetus at the stake in 1553. And Henry VIII, of course, is in a class by himself.

      John Wesley, unlike leaders who enjoyed access to the levers of political power, avoided such un-Christlike blunders. He was content (?) to focus on his calling, and as a result had, quite possibly, a greater impact on English society and politics than any other cleric of his age.

      His refusal to become embroiled in politics was a temporary setback for Methodism during and after the American Revolution, so we see the cost that sometimes accompanies a refusal to support division.

      Ultimately, Wesley’s ministry was not impaired by remaining in communion with clergy who shared so little of his warm evangelical zeal. We would all do well to emulate him in this.


  3. John Meunier says:

    Now I feel even better about my Wesley fandom, Ron.


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