Does the qualification that pastors and elders be “able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2) mean skilled in teaching or something more akin to willing and able when necessary?
In the New Testament, “pastor,” “elder,” and “overseer” are three names for the same teaching office (Acts 20:28; Titus 1:5–7; 1 Peter 5:1–2). Pastors are elders are overseers. And the pastors are the chief teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Pastoral authority, in the New Testament, is always tied to teaching. Faithful leaders exercise oversight centrally through teaching, and teaching is their main instrument of exercising authority. Ongoing teaching is centrally important in the Christian church, and is the central work of her lead officers.
But how central? The qualification is “able to teach,” but able is an ambiguous word in our English. Is “able to teach” a high bar or a low one? Is this a minimal standard or maximal? Does able point to elders being skilled teachers or simply willing to teach if needed?
More to the point, are elders the kind of men who can teach if a gun is put to their head, or are they the kind who won’t stop teaching even at gunpoint?
Ability or Possibility?
“Able to teach” translates a single word in the original (Greek didaktikos), which appears only twice in the New Testament, in the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:2 and the qualifications of “the Lord’s servant,” who “must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24–25). Neither of those texts alone answers our question, but Titus 1:9 sheds some important light. Given the clear overlap between the elder-overseer qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we find Titus 1:9 puts more flesh on what Paul means by “able to teach”:
[An elder] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
What the eldership requires is no mere willingness, but ability and proclivity. Which is why some translations have rendered it “apt to teach” — apt meaning inclined, disposed, or given to teaching — or even “skilled in teaching.”
Teaching with Ability
Bill Mounce, in his thorough and insightful commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, makes this important observation about the civic context of the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy:
The problem in Ephesus was false teaching, and it is difficult to see Paul allowing for only the passive possession of the gift [of teaching] and not active participation. [2 Timothy 2:24 and Titus 1:9] confirm that those who could teach did teach. (174)
In other words, elders are practicing teachers. Gifted teachers become elders, and elders continue to exercise their gift for building up the church. Mounce adds, “This is one of the more significant requirements of an overseer and sets him apart from the deacons. The elders are the teachers; the deacons are more involved in the day-to-day serving.”
Philip Towner agrees that “able to teach” is not just willingness but “skill in teaching” or “ministry skill or gift.” “Church leaders,” he writes, are to be “chosen from among those who display this gift.” David Platt also agrees. Elders, he writes,
can’t just know the Word extensively; it is imperative that elders communicate the Word effectively. . . . An elder must know the Word and spread the Word throughout the church and from the church throughout the world. He must be able to persuade people with the Word, plead with people from the Word, comfort people with the Word, encourage people from the Word, instruct people in the Word, and lead the church according to the Word. This is nonnegotiable. (1 Timothy, 56)
“Able to teach” is not a minimal criterion, but a maximal one. The question is not whether elders can teach if necessary, but are they effective teachers of the people? Are they fruitful in their context as teachers? Pastor-elders are among Christ’s gifts to his church, for her good, and they are gifts first and foremost associated with teaching, not mere decision-making or oversight:
He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–12)
A literal rendering of “the shepherds and teachers” here is “the pastor-teachers.” “Shepherds” and “teachers” are not two groups, but one. And throughout the New Testament, the office of pastor-elder walks hand in hand with the gift of teaching. It’s not as if one group in the church is the “pastors” or “elders” and then some other group is the “teachers.” The pastors are teachers, and those who are skilled in teaching God’s word, while meeting the other qualifications of the office, are those who in time, and in view of the church’s need, become the pastors of the church.
What About 1 Timothy 5:17?
The often-cited text against all pastor-elders being teachers is 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Some read here a larger council of elders who “rule well,” and then, within that council, a subgroup “who labor in preaching and teaching.” Some even go so far as to name two kinds of elders: ruling elders and teaching elders. But is 1 Timothy 5:17 implying — as no other text does — two classifications of elder, those who teach and those who (typically) do not?
A key detail in the verse is how we understand the word “especially.” Platt comments,
That word “especially” might be better translated as “that is,” so that the verse might also be translated, “The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of double honor, that is, those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” In other words, good leaders in the church are those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy, 90)
Platt cites George Knight, who writes, “Paul is giving here [in 1 Timothy 5:17] a further description of those he has already mentioned” (Pastoral Epistles, 232). In other words, the “elders who rule well” are “those who labor in word and teaching.” Elders “rule well” by laboring chiefly as teachers. All elders are teachers in an important sense, not just a subgroup of a larger council. Mounce agrees: “A straightforward reading of the text would infer that all overseers were supposed to be skilled teachers” (Pastoral Epistles, 174).
Skilled in Context
But isn’t “skilled in teaching” simply too high a standard to work out in practice? Does a small, rural church stand a chance of finding “skilled teachers”? Wouldn’t such a qualification leave thousands of good churches not only without the plurality of pastor-teachers the New Testament prescribes, but even without a single pastor-teacher?
One brilliant attribute of the elder qualifications is that they are relative in the best sense. They are not simple boxes to check, but criteria for sober-minded evaluation. They are meant to be appropriately flexible and therefore apply to, and serve, local churches throughout the ages, around the world, in vastly different contexts. One way to say it is that “able to teach” is analog, not digital. It’s not meant to be either true or false of any given man’s life whatever the context. Rather, it’s a qualification to consider at a particular time relative to a particular context. A seminary degree doesn’t necessarily make a man “able to teach.” It just makes him a “seminary graduate.” Some given local church must determine for itself whether he is “able to teach” this specific flock.
Whether a man is “skilled in teaching” in a country church plant may be quite different than whether he is “skilled in teaching” in a long-established, bustling, city church. What individual churches should look for in their elders is not men who are “skilled in teaching” relative to the best preachers online, or even the church across town, but whether they are “skilled in teaching” relative to this specific congregation, whether urban or rural, fledgling or mature, long-established or newly planted.
- Will this man be able to teach our people (not any people) in a compelling way?
- Is he skilled enough to feed us regularly by teaching us God’s word?
- Will our hearts soar regularly under his teaching God’s word to us?
- Will he not just be willing but eager to rise to the occasion to persuade our people away from error?
- Is he skilled enough as a teacher to lead and engage and inspire the people of our particular church to love God and his word and fulfill the mission Christ calls us to in this community?
These are the kind of questions church leaders and congregations can ask when appointing new elders. Such questions will help us keep our standards appropriately high, guard the indispensable place of teaching, and ensure we have the right men in the right offices for the long-term health of the church.
Making sure that our elders really are “able to teach” — not just able to get by, but able to teach with skill — will not only keep our churches well-fed, but have them ready to face the challenges that are coming, and are already here, when we will need both faithfulness and effectiveness in combatting false teaching.