Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“So You Want to Be a Teacher?”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

…and if you are sure that you yourself are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? (Romans 2.19-21)

Not everyone wants to teach.  It can be a thankless job, one that opens you up to relentless criticism.  If the students mess up, it’s easy to blame the teacher, regardless of whether the students wish to learn, or expend any effort at all in order to do so.  But it can also be extremely rewarding to teach, leading to selfish gain—there is substantial prestige awarded to some teachers, and that feeling of influence—let’s face it, of power over others—can be worth more than money, to some.  Our broad-sweeping English word, master, comes from the Latin magister, which refers to a teacher or tutor.  Outside the context of the Gospels, we think of disciples primarily as followers or adherents, but again, the word comes from the Latin discipulus, which means a student or pupil.  It’s easy to see the appeal Paul mentions in the Romans 2 passage above.  When people ask you for advice, answers, or instruction, it makes you feel accomplished and powerful.  Jesus points this out concerning the scribes and Pharisees, saying that “they love … being called rabbi by others” (Mt 23.6-7).  Rabbi, of course, literally means “my great one,” but in common use had come to mean, “my teacher.”

Perhaps this illustrates why so many people continually offer unsolicited advice, on every topic, to everyone around them.  Yet, in the context of the most important matters in the world, James gives us a stern warning:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (James 3.1)

There’s some debate over what this stricter standard means—is James talking about the same thing we noticed earlier, that teachers are unfairly criticized for the performance of their disciples?  Or, is it about the judgment of God falling more harshly on those who presume to teach?  There’s no reason both can’t be true!  When the judgment comes from men, perhaps we can write it off as comparatively unimportant; but when it’s from God, we can’t brush it aside so easily!

Why would God hold teachers to a standard any different from everyone else?  Simple!  As Paul asked, “you then who teach others, do you not teach yourself?”  We don’t expect anyone to be perfect, but teaching always involves some amount of judgment: no, that’s wrong.  Here’s the right way.  And it’s easy for us to recognize that there’s something perverse about passing judgment on others, when the self-appointed judge is guilty of the same offense.  This is what Jesus was getting at, when he said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged” (Mt 7.1-2).  Just a few verses later he follows it up: “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (v5).  It’s not always unfair to hold a teacher responsible for his pupils’ actions.  If he won’t put his own teaching into practice, or if he failed to teach them properly, and certainly if he taught them falsehood and lawlessness, should we be surprised that God is upset with him?

This teaching business seems awfully dangerous!  Although we might be enticed by the prospect of sharing our considerable wisdom, correcting everyone else’s mistakes, and receiving honor for it, we are at the same time duly warned by Paul, by James, and by Jesus himself against it!  But that’s not the whole story.  We shouldn’t swear off teaching entirely, worrying only about ourselves.  James says “Not many of you should become teachers,” but by no means does he mean “none of you”!  On the contrary, we often have a responsibility to teach!  “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ep 6.1).  Not every father is responsible for teaching everyone else’s children, but their own fathers are obligated to do so!  Additionally, Paul tells Timothy, “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2Ti 2.2).  If we wanted to get out of the responsibility, perhaps we’d point to Timothy’s position as a minister of the church, and conclude, well of course he ought to be teaching, it’s his job, and we pay him to do it so we don’t have to!  There’s an element of truth there; yet what was the stated goal in teaching these faithful men?  They are expected to teach others!  Jesus also gave an instruction like this, the great Teacher telling his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28.19). 

We live in a culture that is increasingly similar in spirit to that of the scribes and Pharisees, which encouraged extremes.  More and more, whatever is not compulsory is considered to be forbidden, and vice versa.  Although the application of that principle looks drastically different in many respects today, it’s the same principle behind much of our modern confusion.  But in many areas, the proper approach is moderation—engaging in a behavior when it is right, wise, and prudent, and otherwise avoiding it.  Too often, we’re either afraid to teach and run to the extreme of refusing to do so, or else we’re convinced we must teach everyone about everything, and run to that extreme, instead.  Instead of looking at it as a danger, a chore, or our unique gift and achievement, let’s see it for what it is—a risky responsibility—and carefully work to fulfill it.

Jeremy Nettles