Is sound teaching primary today, or are teachers merely scratching the itching ears of their hearers? It depends where you look. In some reformed or mainline denominational churches teaching is likely primary. The problem with most of them is that they are overfed. (I speak as a reformed theologian and pastor.)
They remind me of fat sheep that keep eating more and more and need to be poked to let air out before they die of eating too much. To quote my predecessor at Westminster Chapel, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, they are "perfectly orthodox and perfectly useless."
But if you look to charismatic and Pentecostal churches--those who fancy themselves "Spirit-filled"--you will find the opposite. Teaching is not primary. Worship, signs and wonders, and an obsession with the benefits of giving and receiving are the cornerstones of what passes for solid teaching.
Instead of an emphasis upon the real reason Jesus died--the cross, the resurrection, knowing Christ--teaching has become largely concerned with answering the question, "What will this do for me?" This is the very reason "revival tarries," to use the late Leonard Ravenhill's phrase.
Is the place of teaching in our churches given the same profile as in the New Testament?
Not in the least. The writings of the apostle Paul comprise two-thirds of the New Testament--almost entirely teaching. Consider the four Gospels, which are composed of the parables and the sermons of Jesus. They are all teaching. Look at the book of Acts: the key issues were the reason Jesus died and rose from the dead, the relationship of circumcision to salvation, the offense of the cross--all interlaced with persecution in the early church over teaching.
One of the forgotten observations of Luke is the way he initially described the early church immediately after recording the event of Pentecost: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching ... " (Acts 2:42, NIV). Teaching came first in the New Testament, and it should come first today.
Instead, it would seem that much that passes for preaching and teaching nowadays is done with meticulous care so that the deep-pocket givers will not be offended. Teachers are more concerned with filtering the content through the minds of hearers rather than confronting the lost who are going to hell.
By the way, when is the last time you actually heard an authentic, heartfelt sermon devoted entirely to the teaching of eternal punishment?
Is there a hint of the appetite of the church today if one judges this by the preaching on Christian television these days?
While some Christians might crave healthier fare, you'd never know it to watch the average "teaching" program. Instead of solid, sound teaching that reflects the God of the Bible, we hear of the preacher's desire to make people write in (with a generous contribution) at the end of the program.
But when contributions are needed to keep these preachers on the air, one wonders if they end up "playing to the gallery" and "ringing certain bells" to keep the money flowing in.
If I am asked what some of the false teachings are that have invaded the church today, I would answer:
The dilution of the New Testament teaching on eternal punishment.
An absence of emphasis on the Holy Spirit's role in convicting of sin, righteousness and judgment before people can be saved.
Ignorance of the primary reason Jesus died and rose from the dead--for our salvation, not for our healing and prosperity.
An overemphasis on what appeals to one's personal comfort to motivate to obedience rather than being motivated by the glory of God alone.
These and other issues should be addressed by the teachers God has given the church. But it would appear that the gift of teaching has fallen on hard times in the body of Christ today.
ISN'T THE HOLY SPIRIT ENOUGH?
The office of the teacher is the last on the list of those offices, or special anointings, given in Ephesians 4:11. It is the least controversial, but possibly the most neglected and needed of the five.
The Greek word for "teacher" (didaskalos) is found in the New Testament 58 times. It was a common way the 12 addressed Jesus--"Master" in the King James Version--which appears in the four Gospels alone at least 45 times. The Greek word didasko ("to teach") is found 95 times in the New Testament and didakee ("teaching") appears 30 times in the New Testament.
In the ancient Hellenistic world these words taken together referred to instruction and were used to denote the insight of the one to be instructed and the knowledge presupposed in the teacher. The example, not merely the instruction, of the teacher formed a bridge to the knowledge and the ability of the pupil. Teaching referred to the inspiration of practical and theoretical knowledge.
There was a deep connection between the content of instruction and the example of the teacher, since the teacher would often be imitated by the pupil. One thus recalls Paul's final word to Timothy, "You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance" (2 Tim. 3:10). Doctrine and manner of life were intimately related.
Is it true that if people are soundly converted they will progress in their walks with Christ simply because they have the Holy Spirit to guide and teach them? Most of Paul's letters--two-thirds of the New Testament--plus, Hebrews, all underline the premise that the Holy Spirit is not enough! If the Holy Spirit were enough, then one would just learn from Him and drink at the fountain of His peace--and never need to open the Bible.
But God gave us the Bible--the Holy Spirit's greatest product--that we might know the Spirit's mind. We need to be filled with the Spirit again and again and again. What happened at Pentecost in Acts 2 was virtually repeated in Acts 4:31 and following, and this must happen to us.
It is then that we will grasp the teaching of the New Testament at a level rarely experienced. Never forget: the Holy Spirit wrote the Bible and if we are to understand it we must be on good terms with Him.
In fact, the role of the Holy Spirit is to bring to our minds what has been previously taught. If sound teaching is not in our minds in the first place, there is nothing for the Holy Spirit to remind us of (see John 14:26).
TEACHING AND THE FIVEFOLD MINISTRIES
The fivefold ministries depicted in Ephesians 4:11 show not only the "givenness" and diversity of leadership in the earliest church but also the order in which the ministry functioned and generally unfolded:
First came the apostles who had authority to lay both doctrinal foundations and validate that authority partly through signs and wonders.
The prophetic ministry gave immediate direction and guidance for Christians, especially at a time when there was no New Testament to consult. This does not negate the need for the prophetic today, but one cannot help but wonder if people are more interested in the prophetic word than the written or preached word--even though we have the Bible at our fingertips.
Evangelists, the bearers of good news, could describe the role of virtually every Christian in ancient times although there emerged a special gifting in this area. All Christians have the gift of spreading the gospel within them, and this is a gold mine that is largely unexplored in the church at the present time.
The role of the pastor quickly surfaced, since all God's sheep need leadership, loving care and sometimes discipline.
The teacher can possibly be said to describe the apostle and pastor but refers mainly to the ongoing upholding of apostolic doctrine so that all the body of Christ could be aptly instructed and well-informed as to what they should believe.
Some pastors are not strong teachers or preachers, and some teachers and preachers are not good pastors. But sound teaching is needed in the body of Christ. This way a believer's faith will be strong and their discernment sharp when it is necessary to detect false teaching.
There is a distinction between the teacher and the preacher. Preaching refers to the message as well as method but largely embraces exhortation and evangelism. In a sense, preaching can be done by any believer, whereas the teacher is gifted with knowledge and the ability to impart knowledge.
Paul, John and Jude, in particular, had to deal with false teaching that crept into the church toward the end of the first century--largely Gnosticism and the teaching of the Judaizers (Jews who made professions of faith but who probably were never truly converted by the Holy Spirit).
CONTENDING FOR THE FAITH
The little epistle of Jude indicates that the writer had hoped to write a soteriological treatise but, due to the onslaught of false doctrine which came from counterfeit ministers, he warned that we must earnestly contend for the faith "once for all" entrusted to the saints (see Jude 3).
The "once for all" refers to a body of doctrine that needed to be understood and upheld. This shows that we are not to teach just anything we like; we are duty-bound to uphold Holy Scripture and that faith "once for all" delivered to the church. This is one of the reasons we still need the office of the teacher.
I believe that every Christian is called to be a theologian. Most believers today could not tell you what they believe or why. How many do you know can explain the doctrine of justification by faith--which turned the world upside down in the 16th century? But Paul said that Jesus was raised for our justification (see Rom. 4:25).
Worse still, how many Christians could be prepared in 10 seconds to lead a lost person to a saving knowledge of Christ? It takes not only a good experience but also--sooner or later--good theology to do this. The role of the teacher is therefore not merely an option; it is urgently needed--now more than ever.
R.T. Kendall was the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London for exactly 25 years. Educated at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Oxford University, Kendall is the author of more than 30 books, including the best seller Total Forgiveness. He lives with his wife, Louise, in Key Largo, Florida.