THE ROLE OF HUMAN TEACHERS IN THE CHURCH
by Bob Wheeler
There is no question that modern American Evangelicalism is in theological disarray. As the surrounding culture becomes increasingly secularized and materialistic, leaders within the professing church have been driven to increasingly desperate measures to attract numbers. In recent decades we have the rise of the Prosperity Gospel, Young Evangelicals, the Church Growth Movement, and the Emerging Church, not to mention Contemporary Christian Music. Standard formulations of doctrine are being increasingly questioned. These developments have left some in the pews wondering if there are any biblically sound churches left at all. Has the whole church gone apostate? Have all of our pastors and theologians become false teachers?
There is a sense in which the answer is “yes,” or nearly yes. What has happened in American Evangelicalism is that we have come to rely too heavily on human institutions. In particular, the advent of seminaries and Bible colleges have dramatically altered the quality of the spiritual life within the churches. Young men decide on their own to pursue ministry as a career. They enroll in an academic institution where they receive classroom instruction from professional theologians (not the way Christ trained His disciples!). They pass the exams and receive their diplomas. The churches then assume that the candidates are qualified for the ministry. Once hired the pastor functions like the CEO of a company, or the master of ceremonies at the social club. His performance is then measured by such metrics as church attendance and the size of the budget.
What is missing from this whole scenario is God Himself. Throughout the whole process no one asks the fundamental question, has this person been called by God? Does he have the necessary spiritual maturity and gifts? And what typically happens, in the best of cases, is that the pastor may have a fairly good theoretical knowledge of the truth, but lacks a grasp of the practical reality of it – what the older writers called “experimental divinity,” the understanding of how God works in the lives of individuals. As a result the pastor’s sermons are typically marked by poor exegesis, a flat delivery, and little or no practical application. Is it any wonder that so many church members choose to stay home on Sunday evenings?
Furthermore, given the longstanding differences of opinion over theological issues one is tempted to wonder if the theologians themselves know what they are talking about. Obviously at least some of them have to be wrong. If they are all following what the Bible says, why don’t they agree with each other?
Moreover as we read through church history it become apparent that the great leaders of the past were often flawed characters. They were limited in their understanding and influenced by their times and circumstances. The divisions and failures of the present are often the result of bad decisions made in the past.
This, then, raises a pertinent question: why follow human teachers at all? If the Bible is our only authority, why not simply read our Bibles and ignore the opinions of men? Who needs human teachers if they are fallible?
The Bible itself, however, makes it clear that the church is a God-ordained institution, and that Christ, who is the Head of the church, has given it “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11; NKJV). And why has he given these gifts to the church? They are “. . . for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (v. 12). For better or for worse, God has chosen to use fallible human beings, namely us, to accomplish His work here on earth.
Does that mean that we should blindly follow every self-appointed teacher who comes down the pike? By no means! But how do we tell the imposters apart from the real thing?
First of all, a man truly called of God will meet the biblical qualifications for the eldership as outlined in passages such as I Tim. 3:1-7 and Tit. 1:5-9. “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop must be . . .” (I Tim. 3:1,2).
Second of all, what he teaches must be in accord with Scripture. The preacher is not at liberty to share his own thoughts about current events, much less to make up his own theology and peddle it as the Word of God. He is to preach God’s Word, not man’s. Paul could tell Timothy, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me” (II Tim. 1:13). And the only way that we can know what “the pattern of sound words” which came from the apostles is, is through their writings which we have in the New Testament. That means that the preacher’s primary task is to expound Scripture, and most sermons should be expository. Moreover a sermon should be edifying. Teachers are not to “give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which cause disputes rather than godly edification which is in faith” (I Tim. 1:4). Paul then goes on to explain: “Now the purpose of this commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith . . .” (v.5). The aim is to challenge the lost to be saved, and children of God to grow in their walk with the Lord.
When the preacher enters the pulpit he should have two primary aims: 1) explain to the congregation what the text means, and 2) show how it applies to them. And if the sermon was successful the congregation should leave the building different from what is was when it entered. They should feel that they had been in the very presence of God Himself. (J.I. Packer once said in an interview that when Martyn Lloyd-Jones preached he brought God into the pulpit with him! Dr. Lloyd-Jones, it should be noted, never attended seminary. His degree was in medicine.)
We must follow no man blindly. Ultimately we are all accountable to God for what He has revealed to us in His Word. And yet we must recognize and honor those whom God has sent to teach us. “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine” (I Tim. 5:17). Our only aim, then, is to come to a better understanding of God’s Word. The great theologians of the past are worth reading provided that they genuinely know God themselves, were competent in their respective fields of study, and made it their conscious aim to unfold the meaning of Scripture. John Calvin put it like this: “Now, in order that true religion may shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture” (Institutes, I.vi.2 – McNeill ed., p. 72). The question is not, is the preacher / teacher perfect in every way? No one is, and to require that would be to disqualify the entire ministry. The question is, does he lead a godly life? Is he a man of prayer? Is he free from the love of money and worldly ambition? Is he consciously trying to follow what the Bible says? As A.W. Tozer put it, “Listen to the man who listens to God.”
It might be added that the modern church is so degenerate that, as a general rule, the better writers are the older ones – the Reformers, the Puritans, the Old Princeton theologians. Read the Puritans to get your heart warmed!
For the J.I. Packer interview click here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpDYqVZhzI8