Five Problems with Dividing Training and Teaching

Missionaries routinely distinguish training from teaching. This is a problem.

Credit: Wikimedia CC 3.0

Typically, separating “training” and “teaching” goes something like this: teaching passes along information or head knowledge. Training, so it’s said, is practical, focused on application and skills.

The contrast naturally leads to the idea that we should emphasize training above teaching. (This sort of thinking is found most frequently among those who prioritize rapidity in church planting.)

This way of framing words is a rhetorical device that subtly misleads us. (I’ve discussed this before here.) Here are 5 inter-related problems with the teaching-training dichotomy.

1. It has no basis in Scripture

First, the Bible makes no distinction between training and teaching. Not only do biblical writers not use such words; they do not distinguish the two ideas conceptually. In fact, in both ancient and traditional Eastern thought, the idea that knowledge exists apart from wise application is foreign. The separation is made possible by Western habits of theorizing.

The standard word for “teaching” in Greek is διδάσκω. Jesus uses this word in Matt 28:19–20,

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Lest one presume διδάσκω means “train” (in the sense noted above), 1 Tim 1:3 is a sufficient counter-example:

“As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine,”

Obviously, teaching a doctrine centers on information, even if it has practical implications. In short, “teaching”, in the Bible, describes anything from exchanging information to passing on skills to shaping character.

2. It misunderstands “application”

People who espouse the training-teaching distinction misunderstand a biblical view of “application.” When we seek a text’s “application,” we are simply asking, “How does this passage apply to our lives?” In other words, how should it affect or shape us? What is our response?

Many people assume a narrow view of application, as though it only refers to actions. Rather, a right response to God’s word might concern our head and/or heart. Right actions follow from right thinking and desiring (or feeling).

Consider 1 Peter 3:14–15,

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,

The first four commands concern the head and heart; only then can one act with gentleness and respect.

The so-called “greatest commandment” could hardly be clearer. In effect, it says, “Love the Lord your God with all your head, heart, and hands.” (Mark 12:30; Matt 22:37; Luke 10:27)

3. It stunts growth

This training-teaching distinction undermines growth. First, we prevent disciples from growing in a healthy way if we selectively emphasize those things we can “train” at the expense of the head and heart. We cannot empirically measure every command. Try doing it with the fruits of the Spirit.

credit: flickr/wwarby
credit: flickr/wwarby

So, disciplers often focus on a few measurable tasks, e.g., the number of people evangelized or churches started. They determine maturity based on extremely narrow criteria. They overlook countless other areas of growth (such as character, family relationships, etc.).

Before long, this approach can create hypocrites who privilege one set of commands against others. This sort of selectivity is one mark of many cults!

People who push training over teaching have good desires. They want to foster genuine discipleship and increase the number of believers. Ironically, the imbalance and narrow focus creates systemic dishealth. Consequently, genuine numerical growth is stifled.

4. It undermines biblical authority

We cannot immediately apply via action every text we read. Reading Daniel 11, for example, does not naturally lead to any specific set of actions. Some people fear that we don’t heed God’s authority if we don’t obey in some practical way. Distinguishing “training” from “teaching” is not really about trying to be practical. This is the point made above.

Acknowledging God’s authority in the Bible begins by recognizing that all of Scripture is from God. We must not privilege texts that seem practical at the expense of the rest of God’s word. Much of the Bible aims to shape our perspective and therefore our values.

Nothing is more practical than perspective.

Advocates of the training-teaching dichotomy are prone to minimizing theology as “theoretical” head knowledge. Our theology is simply our understanding of the Bible. We all teach theology. The Bible implicitly teaches various theologies (e.g., theology of X, Y, Z).

A high priority in discipleship is shaping a theological perspective.

We undermine biblical authority when we underestimate the importance of theological thinking. Practically, we only treat certain parts of Scripture as important. This view has systemic effects.

5. It divides the church

It’s easy to see how the training-teaching divide causes havoc in the church, including mission organizations, teams, etc. People do not split over strategies and techniques. Rather, this verbal distinction gives a false impression about core values.

Accordingly, the training-first people think teaching-people undervalue practical obedience. Conversely, so-called “teaching-people” think training-first advocates are pragmatists who minimize biblical teaching. Consequently, suspicions mount. Each side mentally marginalizes the other. Cooperation is kept to a minimum.

The distinction between “training” and “teaching” concerns more than semantics; it affects our ministries at a systemic level.

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