Watching Over the Teaching 1 Timothy 1:3-7
How can elders effectively shepherd the flock of God, when the spiritual gift of teaching is encouraged at all levels involving many teachers? Between children’s ministry, small groups, Sunday preaching, women’s ministries, seminars and conferences, there are many individuals involved with different styles of teaching and preaching, and varying emphases on doctrine. What criteria should we use to ensure good spiritual teaching while avoiding suffocating strictness or uncontrolled leniency for the teachers?
Elders do have the responsibility to watch over the teaching ministry of the church: “Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood…be on guard…” (Acts 20:28b, 31a NIV). Paul gave this instruction while warning about those who will distort the truth (20:30). He expands on this in his letter to Timothy where he outlines the telltale trouble signs to look for:
As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith. The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm(1 Timothy 1:3-7).
While Timothy was to “command” others concerning these things, it is not hard to imagine him contemplating how his own teaching measured up. Based on this admonition, here are some questions that may help us first evaluate our own teaching, as well as the teaching of others.
1. Am I willing to tackle difficult issues (vs. 3)?
“I urged you … to command.” There is no point to further instructions unless we first have the courage andcommitment to do the tough job of confronting error. Most people do not like confrontation, but an elder must do it when required, communicating in unequivocal terms.
One church had a sharp controversy over the issue of God’s sovereignty versus man’s free will. Emotions were heated and words contentious. The elders, unwilling to confront the parties involved or to take a stand on the issue, opted for the weak action of simply suppressing it—they ruled that no one was to teach on eitherthe sovereignty of God or the responsibility of man! They not only missed the opportunity to clarify doctrine, they also prevented the church from having any teaching on two important subjects of God’s truth.
2. Is my teaching true to Christ?
“… not to teach false doctrines any longer.None of us believes he himself is guilty of false doctrine; we generally believe our own opinions and interpretations are right. If not, we would change our views. I don’t believe, however, Paul is referring to differences of opinions or legitimate interpretations. Literally, he warns against “other” doctrine, that is, other than what has been accepted. He later relates this specifically to the Lord, “… anyone [who] teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching…” (1 Timothy 6:3). Also, in Galatians 1:8-9 he talks about those who preach a “different gospel.” While at times it may be refreshing to communicate solid truths using a variety of terminology for a new generation, the truth never-the-less mustbe clearly stated and solidly line up with a high view of Christ. One young fellow, in his frustration with the lack of fruit in the church’s evangelism, boldly proclaimed, “We need to redefine the gospel.” Elder antenna’s went up and the man was confronted. He explained that he meant the way that we do evangelism needs to change. However, the words he used conveyed wrong doctrine. Elders’ need to be aware of such shifts of meaning to the words being taught!
3. Do I avoid hearsay?
“…nor to devote themselves to myths.” Do I quote stories or statements passed around on the internet without validating them for authenticity or credibililty. One young man teaching a youth group used an outlandish “statistic” to support his point. When questioned about his source, he referred to a national magazine whose enquiry and reporting is known more for its gossip than journalistic integrity.
4. Do I avoid minutia?
“… and endless genealogies.” Extracting minor points and expounding beyond what is warranted in the Biblical text, to the exclusion of the obvious meaning and purpose of the passage lacks credibility—not to mention that it wastes everyone’s time. Apparently there were some in NT times that majored in dissecting either the biblical genealogical records or else their own personal genealogies—all with an effort to distinguish themselves as having a certain corner on truth.
Recently, a world class ice-dance couple made their mark by being the first to execute a unique routine in competition. They reportedly said that if that is all they accomplished then that was enough for their career. Do I secretly have a similar desire to “make my mark” by coming up with a unique, obscure “truth” that no one else has discovered yet? Do I endlessly bring up my pet peeves or my own particular corner of truth? We dare not be like the Pharisees who concerned themselves with tithing mint and dill —but neglected the weightier things.
5. Does my teaching build up God’s work by faith.
“These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith.” Put simply, are people lifted up by my preaching? Or do they feel beaten down with guilt? This does not mean we should be “men-pleasers” looking for “amens” to lift ourselves up. However, it is the Holy Spirit’s job to bring conviction, not ours. I occasionally teach a homiletics (preaching) course where the students must give two 15 minute sermons to the class. Invariably, the first message a novice preacher gives is one of criticism and correction. There seems to be no vacuum when it comes to telling people they are doing something wrong. The students so often need to be taught how to speak with grace and to use their messages to exalt Jesus Christ. Even Paul in his chastisement of the Corinthians says, “… we preach Christ crucified…I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2). Then he spends the rest of the book showing them how the “Christ crucified” should make a difference. The message of Christ is not one of condemnation, but of forgiveness and grace—not a pressure to keep the Christian laws, but an urging to live free of sin by God’s grace through faith.
6. Is the goal of my teaching
“love, from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” A pure heart means I am not preaching or teaching for ulterior motives, like “getting back” at one of the listeners, or trying to sound scholarly or impressive. A good conscience means I am not misrepresenting the Biblical text, or embellishing my illustrations, or saying one thing with my words, but implying something else. A sincere faith means I really believe what I am teaching, and am incorporating it into my life.
7. Am I communicating in a way that people understand?
“Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk.” One preacher had someone say after a sermon, “That was really deep.” The preacher asked, “What specifically did you learn from it?” The listener said, “I don’t know, but it sure was deep!” To my embarrassment that preacher was me—but my preaching at that point was not deep, it had simply muddied the waters! If people cannot specifically state what they learned, then maybe I have not communicated well. In effect, it was “meaningless talk.” To be sure, sometimes the listener’s heart or mind is distracted, or sin may be blinding an individual. But, as communicators of God’s word, we must not too easily assume the problem is with the listeners; we need to take responsibility for the clarity and cogency of my message.
8. Do I know what I am talking about?
“They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about…” Teaching and preaching requires hard work and study. Studying what others have to say about a topic or passage of Scripture can be helpful in identifying blind spots in our study or perspective, but the thinking of others should never replace the work of personal study of the Word and prayer.
9. Am I humble in my teaching?
“…or what they so confidently affirm.”You have probably heard about the preacher’s writing in the margin of his sermon notes. “Weak point, pound the pulpit harder!” People are often impressed by a confident preacher, but our goal is not to impress! False teachers usually exude confidence rather than humility. However, it is consummate humility to admit a lack of understanding or knowledge when we don’t know something, or when Scripture is not clear about something. Such an attitude ultimately has more influence on others than over-confidence because humility speaks of credibility.
The above list of warnings will help us be on guard for ourselves as well as the whole flock of God (Acts 20:28a). Each of the above represents a choice we must make when we attempt to communicate God’s Word. The wrong way is far easier. The right way requires humility, grace and the hard work of studying and communicating God’s Word as His anointed messenger. These should help us evaluate our own teachings as well as the teaching of others in the flock God so passionately wants to guard.