What does it mean to say that teaching is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit? In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul lists teachers as the third order of leaders appointed by the Spirit after apostles and prophets. Teaching also appears as a form of Spirit-directed service in Romans 12:7, this time after ministry (diakonia in Greek) and exhortation.
While biblical scholars are uncertain how Paul defined the content of what was taught, Robert Jewett suggests a threefold significance: general information and doctrine about Christ (1 Corinthians 4:17; Colossians 1:28; 2:6-7; 3:16), theological instruction derived from early church tradition, and exposition of Scripture (Romans, “Hermeneia” (Fortress Press, 2007), p. 750).
In the PC(USA) today, teaching specifically refers to “teaching the faith and equipping the saints for the work of ministry” so that members are shaped by the pattern of the Gospel and strengthened for witness and service (G-2.0501; see Ephesians 4:12). In the Book of Order, the title “teaching minister” is designated as one of the three ordained positions in our church, along with ruling elder and deacon. The use of this title is somewhat confusing, however, since not all “teaching elders” directly serve as teachers. They can also be pastors (G-0504) or be involved in various other forms of ministry as evangelists, administrators, chaplains, etc. — jobs that may or may not involve giving formal instruction (G-2.0501; 3.0306). And it goes without saying that elders and deacons function as teachers (as can other church members), even though the constitution does not give them that specific title.
By assigning the title “teacher” to various leaders in the church today, we not only utilize the designations of Paul but try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. In the earliest Gospel, Jesus is repeatedly called teacher (didaskalos in Greek; see Mark 4:38; 5:35; 9:17, 38: 10:17; 12:14, 19, 32; 13:1; 14:14). He is said to teach uniquely, not like his opponents, but with real authority (Mark 1:21), and his disciples are called learners (matheetai in Greek.) The early church carefully modeled its instruction after his life and teaching because there were bad preachers who weakened the Gospel and others who deliberately distorted it (1 Timothy 1:10, 18-20; 4:1-2 , 7-9; 5:17; 6:5; 2 Timothy 3:10ff; 4:3,16; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 6-8.)
In light of these warnings, church members today might wonder how they can discern whether or not they truly have the gift of teaching. Here are a few guidelines that may help answer this important question.
- Are you called to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, acknowledge him as your savior and mentor, and try to follow his life and teaching? (Ephesians 4:21-24).
- Do you believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the basis of what you are called to teach, not your own ideas or merely something you read?
- Do you have a love of learning yourself (see 2 Timothy 2:15)? Do you enjoy studying and sharing what you learn?
- Do you enjoy watching others discover and learn? Can you encourage their questions, their doubts, their hopes and fears? Do you relish the search with them for understanding and truth?
- Can you get excited about finding new ways to teach, introducing innovative methods to pass along discoveries about the Bible and the Christian faith? Do you like to experiment with new educational technologies?
Those of us who are teachers are called to one of the most rewarding vocations in church service. As Ephesians 4: 15-16 reminds us, our ultimate goal is not for our own pleasure or edification but to speak the truth in love and build up the body of Christ.
EARL S. JOHNSON JR. is a retired pastor living in Johnstown, N.Y., and an adjunct professor of religious studies at Siena College.