This post was first published in January, 2015. —ed.
Churches suffer when pastoral search committees are informed more by the corporate world than by the Word of God. Preferences concerning style, personality, appearance, speaking ability, management skills, and sense of humor often factor too heavily in the decision-making process, obscuring clear instructions from God’s Word about the qualifications for church leaders. The tragic result is often that the church can’t tell the difference between unqualified hirelings and true shepherds.
But it doesn’t need to be that way. Christians have the advantage of knowing in simple terms what God wants them to look for in a shepherd. In 1 Timothy 3:2-3, Paul spells out God’s standards for shepherds, summed up by the phrase “above reproach.” That passage clearly shows out that God is primarily concerned with a pastor’s moral character rather than his abilities. Nonetheless, He does include one crucial skill—the ability to teach.
Some may wonder why Paul features this qualification in a list of moral qualities. He does so because effective teaching is woven into the moral character of the teacher. What a man is cannot be divorced from what he says. “He that means as he speaks,” writes Richard Baxter, “will surely do as he speaks.”
An elder must be a skilled and effective teacher, who works hard in his studies and proclamation (cf. 1 Timothy 5:17). That is the one qualification that sets him apart from a deacon. Since the primary duty of the overseer is to preach and teach the Word of God, being gifted for that is crucial.
To preach and teach God’s Word is the primary task of elders (1 Timothy 4:6–16; 2 Timothy 2:15). It was for that purpose that they were given to the church (Ephesians 4:11–12). While all believers are responsible to pass on the truths they have learned in God’s Word, not all have gifts for preaching and teaching (1 Corinthians 12:29). Those who aspire to pastoral duty, however, must be so gifted.
What criteria identify a man as a skilled teacher?
First, as noted above, a skilled teacher must have the gift of teaching. It is not merely natural ability that makes one a good teacher; the biblical gift of teaching is the Spirit-given enablement to teach effectively the truths of God’s Word (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6).
Second, a skilled teacher must have a deep understanding of doctrine. Paul instructed Timothy that, “A good servant of Christ Jesus, [is] constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:6). Richard Baxter put it this way,
He must not be himself a babe in knowledge, that will teach men all those mysterious things which must be known in order to salvation. O what qualifications are necessary for a man who hath such a charge upon him.
The deeper the reservoir of doctrinal knowledge a man has, the more skilled and applicable will be his teaching.
Third, a skilled teacher must have an attitude of humility. To teach the truth with an arrogant attitude would only serve to undermine the very truths being taught. The pulpit is not a platform for pastors to play pope. The abundant media coverage of pastors behaving like dictators only serves to reinforce the need for humility in our pulpits. Those who are properly skilled in handling God’s Word will be properly humbled by it.
Paul reminded Timothy that,
The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Timothy 2:24–25)
Fourth, a skilled teacher is marked by a life of holiness. Paul tells Timothy that “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7), and to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11). He must be credible and live what he teaches. Paul exhorted Timothy to “in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:12). The teacher must be the prototype of what he asks his people to be.
Fifth, a skilled teacher must be a diligent student of Scripture. In the familiar passage in 2 Timothy 2:15, Paul writes, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”
Sixth, a skilled teacher must avoid error. It is tragic when men seeking preparation for the ministry attend schools that don’t honor God’s Word. The pressure to abandon biblical convictions is often overwhelming and many get swept away in the academic tide of liberal apostasy. Paul repeatedly warned Timothy to avoid false doctrine (1 Timothy 4:7; 1 Timothy 6:20; 2 Timothy 2:16). It’s wise counsel for us as well.
Finally, a skilled teacher must have strong courage and consistent convictions. He must not abandon the truth and shipwreck his faith (cf. 1 Timothy 1:18–19). At the close of his ministry, he should be able to say with Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).
In summary, the man who is an able teacher of God’s Word must be spiritually gifted to do so, have a deep understanding of biblical doctrines, teach in a spirit of genuine humility, model holy living, diligently study Scripture, avoid false doctrine, and be a man of strong courage and consistent convictions.
The pulpit is not an outlet for egotistical visionaries who are the heroes of their own illustrations. God is the central character of His own revelation and qualified preachers are only those who rightly expound what God is saying to us in His Word.
The call to teach God’s Word is a high calling demanding rare expertise in handling God’s written revelation to man. It should always be met with trepidation because those who teach stand under God’s stricter judgment (James 3:1).
(Adapted from The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Timothy.)