What Does it Mean for an Elder to be “Able to Teach”? A Proposal
Like most Baptists, I would argue the biblical terms translated as overseer, bishop, elder, and pastor are synonyms used to describe a man who has been set apart for the primary teaching, leading, and shepherding office in a local congregation. For that reason, in this post I’ll use the terms pastor and elder interchangeably.
One of the most frequently cited passages related to pastoral qualifications is 1 Timothy 3:1–7:
1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 2 Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil (ESV, emphasis added).
Have you ever noticed these qualifications include, for the most part, a group of expectations that ought to characterize any growing Christian man? Should any brother lack self-control and be known as a skirt-chaser? Should any believer, male or female, be a drunkard? Should any Christ-follower be known as a conceited, violent-tempered money-lover? It seems to me the bulk of these expectations simply indicate a pastor should be a man whose is an exemplary Christian role model with a good reputation, both within the church and in the wider community.
The one qualification for eldership that stands out from the rest is the ability to teach. And herein lies the debate—what does it mean for an elder be “able to teach”? Well, it depends upon whom you ask.
I know some who argue teaching should be equated with preaching, so the ability to teach means the ability to preach a sermon. This view is common among those who prefer a “single-elder” model of pastoral leadership. It is also common among some who affirm a plurality of elders, but equate that group with the church’s salaried staff. I hear these views frequently espoused among my fellow Southern Baptists.
I readily grant that in many churches, especially smaller ones, the only man who is biblically qualified to be an elder is the solo pastor. I also resonate with the idea that in larger churches, at least a majority of the paid ministerial staff needs to meet the biblical qualifications of elder. After all, who wants a youth minister who’s a bad role model and can’t teach the Scriptures to teenagers?
And yet, I cannot help but think these two views artificially limit the eldership to paid pastors who are able to preach sermons from behind a pulpit during a Sunday worship service. Though the New Testament is clear that elders are worthy of compensation (1 Tim. 5:17–18), there is no mandate that all pastors must be paid. There is also no indication in the New Testament that standing up and preaching a sermon is the only way to teach the Scriptures to God’s people.
Others opt for the other end of the spectrum, arguing teaching is simply the ability to explain the Scriptures to another believer. In this model, being able to teach more or less means being able to disciple someone else. It isn’t necessary that an elder be able to preach a sermon or even that he be able to teach a class of some sort (think Sunday School).
Hopefully, every pastor is making disciples through Bible-saturated mentoring. And yet, this seems to me to place the teaching bar too low. Don’t we want to equip all men (and women!) in the church to make disciples? Virtually any believer except very recent converts ought to be able to do this type of teaching on some level or other, especially with their children.
I have one additional concern about this second option. As a Baptist, I’m worried this view brings us too close to the distinction our Presbyterian friends make between “ruling” elders and “teaching” elders, a division I believe is biblically unwarranted. Though Baptists may debate the number of elders a church should have, we typically agree all elders are to both lead and teach.
I want to offer a proposal I believe strikes a balance between the two aforementioned polarities. I would argue being able to teach means being able to publicly explain and apply the Scriptures to the entire congregation. This doesn’t necessarily mean all elders must possess the ability to preach a sermon. But neither is teaching defined so broadly that any transmission of biblical truth qualifies. All elders should be able to stand before the congregation and expound the Bible, even if some elders are uncomfortable preaching in a corporate worship gathering.
My friend Kyle recently led his Southern Baptist church to adopt an elder-led congregational polity. Currently, the church has three pastors. In their church’s by-laws, it states that all elders, whether paid or unpaid, must teach the entire congregation at least once a year. Because Kyle is the full-time lead pastor, this means he preaches forty or so weeks out of the year. But for other elders, it could mean simply occasionally leading a congregational Bible study on a Wednesday or Sunday evening. They don’t understand one form of Bible teaching to be superior to the other.
I like this approach. All of the pastors (and many other church members) are teaching the Scriptures one-on-one to those whom they are discipling. But each of the elders is also expected to at least occasionally teach the whole body. All of the elders exercise their ability to teach the Bible, though how this is done looks different for each elder. As an added benefit, each of the elders is at least occasionally put before the entire church—there are no anonymous elders. We follow this model at my own church, First Baptist Church of Durham. We currently have nine elders. Three of our elders are paid pastors who serve on our church’s staff. Six of our elders are non-staff pastors who serve without pay; I serve as one of the non-staff elders. Several of us are comfortable preaching, but all of our pastors at least occasionally expound the Scriptures to the gathered congregation in some venue. Nobody doubts that each of our elders are apt to teach, even though only some of us would probably be considered “preachers” by our church’s members.
I would encourage Baptist churches that embrace a plurality of elders to institute this sort of system in their churches. Even among those churches that chose to equate the elders with the staff, I would urge requiring staff members besides the primary preaching pastor to periodically teach the entire congregation. Youth ministers, worship pastors, and collegiate ministers should be expected to occasionally bless the entire church through the ministry of the Word. This will both help to grow the body and develop all elders into the Bible teachers the Lord and his church has called them to be. It will also help provide one benchmark for assessing prospective elders— who are godly men with a heart for shepherding who are gifted to preach and/or teach the Scriptures to the congregation?