Marks of the Gift of Teaching

Marks of the Gift of Teaching August 31, 2012

The apostle Paul provides a rough and ready list of (some of) the gifts God’s gives to the churches. I’m simply unpersuaded Paul thought to himself “Now what are all the gifts, now here they are, there are four of them, and that’s the complete list…” but instead this is a rough-and-ready list. Anyway, this is what Paul says:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers …

Since I’ve been in college I became aware that there’s something a little odd about that last one — that some would translate it “pastor-teacher” and not pastor and teacher. So, the pastor is a teacher. Whether one prefers that hendiadystic explanation (saying one thing through two words; one definite article, two nouns) or not, one gift Christ gives to his people is teacher.

What are the marks of a teacher? What would you add to this list?

A teacher is knowledgeable about Bible and theology, life and spiritual formation, self and local context.

A teacher is skilled in the tools needed for Bible and theology, including the languages and the literature.

A teacher is more concerned about having something to say than the prestige of being on the platform.

A teacher is not on the stage to impress people with what he or she knows but to educate the church in gospel ways.

A teacher is a good communicator.

A teacher mixes information and edification, neither resorting to the lecture hall or mere story telling.

A teacher loves to study, and that means time alone to ponder and pray.

A teacher has the capacity for clarity: taking big ideas, complex thoughts, and clarifying their significance for the church.

A teacher is patient enough to listen to new ideas in order to evaluate them with insight.

A teacher is open-minded enough to shift when the evidence suggests so.

A teacher has the courage to teach what is there and not what folks want to hear.

A teacher lets texts and evidence determine what is true instead of letting someone’s authority or a sacred tradition determine what is true.

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  • RJS

    Nice list Scot. I’d add two to your list.

    A teacher guides people (students) into understanding.

    A teacher aims to make peers out of people, not to maintain distinction.

  • RJS

    The “pastor-teacher” union leads to some interesting consequences.

    I think I am gifted as a teacher, and I think this should be used “for the church.” But I am not, and never will be, a “pastor”, at least not in the sense this term is viewed in 21st century evangelicalism (with ordination and vocation implicit in the term). I certainly will never be ordained or become employed by a church.

    When this union is taught it often leads to a situation where only pastors are teachers. Any “pastor” can teach, but no lay-person can teach. All pastors are teachers and only pastors can be teachers. This isn’t always the case – but it does happen.

  • scotmcknight

    RJS, Yes, that does happen. Eph 4 connects pastor to teacher; 1 Cor 12 does not. The evidence of the NT alone would never permit saying only pastors can be teachers.

  • A teacher’s goal is to no longer be needed.

  • Dan

    A good teacher does not tell you what to see, but cleans the window and says ‘look for yourself’.

  • Loved seeing Ray Stedman. Sat under his teaching for several years during student ministry at Stanford.

  • T

    If we’re talking about the gift of teaching, I’d eliminate this at least:

    “A teacher is skilled in the tools needed for Bible and theology, including the languages and the literature.”

    Obviously, there are places and times where such is simply not an option, but it doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit does not give teachers to the church. Further, we can say that this is part of what we want our teachers to obtain/pursue, but it’s still not a mark of the gift of teaching in my view. If we want to say that these are marks of an ideal teacher, then leave it in, but I think the marks of the gift will be something less than a mature practitioner.

  • Rodney Reeves

    a teacher is a student who imitates The Teacher

  • T,
    Agreed, and that stood out to me as well. There’s the gift, and then there’s equipping to strengthen the use of the gift. Most skilled and passionate lay teachers – and a good many gifted teaching pastors, as well – haven’t formally studied biblical languages. Do we really want to say that they don’t have the gift of teaching?

  • RJS


    Excellent addition – I agree. (Or at least one who attempts to imitate The Teacher. All fail at times.)

  • Can you explain more about this one:

    “A teacher is skilled in the tools needed for Bible and theology, including the languages and the literature.”

    I ask because I know many amazing teachers who lacked the access to some of the education & tools. Yes, it is of great value, but is it always essential to being a good teacher?

  • I would suggest that a teacher entails the role of a prophet, who’s role it is (in the outstanding words of F. F. Bruce) to “proclaim the mind of God in the power of the Spirit.”
    Word Biblical Commentary, 1 Thessalonians

  • scotmcknight

    Well, I’m getting some push back on the tools and I’m reflecting my context as a seminary professor and what I hope for my students. There are life situations where someone will not acquire those tools, but our world is such that skill in those tools, if acquire-able, are profoundly important and valuable.

  • Adam

    “A teacher lets texts and evidence determine what is true instead of letting someone’s authority or a sacred tradition determine what is true.”

    I’m not sure I really agree with this one. I think submission to authority is very important in a teacher. We have far too many examples of people who “let the text…” and cause all sorts of destruction.

    The rest are good.

  • RJS

    Adam (#14)

    I think the context of “authority” here is refering to for example those who will say that the new perspective of Paul can’t be true because it will violate our tradition and confession, or that Genesis 1 is teaching YEC because we’ve always viewed it as such, or that the wandering saints in Mathew must be literal because failure to take it as such undermines our doctrine of inspiration or …

    Sure, we all know example of people who, without deep understanding, have seen all kinds of screwy things in the text – but submission to authority isn’t the way to conquer this.

  • Doug Hendricks

    I have to agree with T #7. Perhaps it is clearer to those outside the context of a seminary professor. It’s not that we don’t value and want those things, just that for a number of reasons they’re impossible to acquire.

  • Tony Springer

    On tools and languages: knowing how to use the best English concordances and Bible dictionaries will help. Also a basic book on genre (Fee & Stuart) can aid one without seminary training.

  • John W Frye

    In my opinion “tools”, i.e., some facility with the original laguages are strongly needed by those who seek to be teachers in the çhurch. Are there good teachers without those tools? Sure, but they are not the most competent in the field/discipline.

  • MatthewS

    Tony #17, true, and those who go that road really ought to read “Exegetical Fallacies” by Carson sooner rather than later. I say this as one who was raised in the Plymouth Brethren tradition, which tends to be anti-education. Those who preached in our church had little or no formal training. Later, as a seminary student taking the languages (I’m no scholar, I’ve only taken standard seminary-level courses which are a good introduction), I was surprised by how bad some of the errors were that had been taught from the pulpit but nobody knew any better so the errors went unrecognized and unchallenged. On the positive side, it opened my eyes to some things I would likely never have appreciated otherwise.

  • RJS


    Tools are important, and Matthew’s example from Plymouth Brethren is a good lesson. But does this really mean that the only teachers in a church are those vocationally prepared? What tools are important?

    I was told by a pastor quite a while back that my idea that the aim of a teacher is to make peers of people perhaps didn’t apply to churches because members of the congregation would never learn the languages, and thus would never be peers. There seems to me to be a problem with this reasoning – but perhaps you disagree with me as well? [Added later – I should note that this statement wasn’t intended to be disrespectful, and it comes across in this comment harsher than it really was. I am sorry about that, I should have worded it a little differently. The exchange did, however, point to a difference in perspective that I think is worth some consideration.]

    And by the way, while I don’t know any Hebrew to speak of – I have intentionally learned rudimentary Greek in order to be able to compare with the Greek NT. It is important to go back to the original languages. I would never say it was unimportant. But I will never be a Greek scholar, able to teach it or to make independent evaluations of translations.

  • Scot, a very fine list!

    I can only think of one thing to add: That a teacher is not embarrassed or ashamed of Jesus and the implications of His Lordship. That is, their ministry is not ‘apologetic’ in the wrong sort of way.

  • RJS

    Oh … and…

    If there is anything that has taught me the importance of consulting with and learning from experts with the appropriate tools it is the creation discussion. The absolute rot that is stated with authority by those with no background is sobering. (And this goes both ways – scientists who know little theology make at least as many unfortunate statements as pastors who know little science.)

  • T


    FWIW, I knew you were talking as a guy getting back into seminary teaching, so I took this post as reflective of your specific work. You should encourage each of these for your students, and I know you will.

    And I second both MatthewS and RJS here. We need the scholars. Absolutely. I’ll go further and say that since we are all “disciples” for our whole lives, learning is fundamental to our calling to Christ. But this comment to RJS belies something amiss: “I was told by a pastor quite a while back that my idea that the aim of a teacher to make peers of people didn’t apply to churches because members of the congregation would never learn the languages, and thus would never be peers.” There are SO many assumptions in the statement from that pastor that I would question–and hard. Too many for a comment section. I’m having urges to prep a thorough cross-examination!

    One of the reasons I interact here and even occasionally post is that I want the refining that comes through interaction with other minds, other brothers and sisters, who have different experiences, different traditions, and different training, including the kinds we are discussing here, but not limited to that. I value this interaction and feedback because I do teach in contexts where I am less likely to be challenged or questioned. If I’m going to say something that is bone-headed, I’d rather say it here first because I know there are folks (from the left and right, pastors and congregants, scholars and laypersons, even Christians and atheists) who will see things I don’t and let me know. You guys have–for years–been helping me spread fewer errors to those who are more trusting of me. (Thanks!) Maybe I will learn Greek or Hebrew some day. In the meantime, though, I’m probably going to be content to be in community with those who do, along with other folks whom I need to hear as I continue to be a disciple–not of the Bible per se–but Christ. I feel for the pastor who only sees folks who know Greek as his peers. He’d be so much richer if his peers were people who know Christ.

  • DRT

    Without reading the other comments, I would like to say something like…

    A teacher’s ability is judged by the performance of the students and not what they perform.

  • RJS


    Your last paragraph is great – and this is a great place to make bone-headed statements and learn how bone-headed they are, from people of all perspectives, many of whom have important expertise that I don’t have. I’ve refined both my understanding (changing my mind on occasion) and my arguments for the postitions that I take beyond measure over the years. There are some of my old comments (and even a few posts) I’d rather toss into the trash can than have anyone read.

  • MatthewS

    RJS, I’m not John, but at risk of sounding like I’m talking on both sides, I agree with your concern as well. I am uneasy with that line about the people not being peers.

    My concern at our present church is not that I don’t want anyone daring to teach who is not skilled in the languages, rather, my concern is it’s hard to get people to step up. Frankly, I’m thrilled when people want to step up and give it some effort! I want to hear from many different people and no way is the language issue a litmus test of ability or gifting or having something to offer to the body. I do think it’s a more useful tool that many people realize, and usually the people who say it’s not important are the ones who don’t have it.

    I am attracted to Scot’s style of thinking deeply and speak simply as much as possible. Making it accessible rather than speaking from the ivory tower. If one teacher did not have any language training but did good research and/or drew from good materials, while another teacher was extremely skilled in the languages but was unable to drive home a clear point or lesson that people could take away, I’d prefer to have the first one be teaching at our church. At the end of a sermon or a lesson, if people are impressed by your language skills but have not gained an understanding of the passage that they can go back to the passage re-discover for themselves, I don’t think you’ve accomplished the task as a Bible teacher.

    Related, some teachers and preachers wear the languages on their sleeves. I think that should be in the background, informing the work you did behind the scenes. The preacher who constantly refers to Greek grammar seems to me to be distancing the people from the text, not bringing them closer.

    Furthermore, I could take 5 years of languages and just be getting started. Ten years and I can join the club of many people who have at least 10 years. It still won’t make me a scholar of renown or one that no longer needs the other scholars. My seminary used to require six semesters of Greek (which I’ve taken), they require less now, based on the availability of electronic tools and the need to introduce other courses, in addition to the fact that so many graduates reported they did not keep up with it. In spite of whatever Greek work one can do with a basic M.Div, you still have to read the critical commentaries.

    So I think the essential component is not necessarily that one has taken x semesters of the languages or that one can sight-read their Greek NT (I cannot) but that they have a respect for the basic issues involved and are either able to read the critical commentaries or are able to consult with someone who does.

    Finally(!), having different teachers from different perspectives seems good to me. People can’t be experts at everything. I don’t know why a church can’t have a group of teachers that work together, each adding their abilities and wisdom to the group. Let those who have worked in the languages speak about those issues and let those who have experience, insight, training in other specific areas speak from their experience. Why can’t we all work together?

  • MatthewS

    wow, my comment #26 is a grammar disaster… forget Greek and Hebrew, I’m fumbling English!

  • RJS

    Matthew S,

    I think the line about peers was an overstatement that even the person who said it didn’t believe completely. So no villains here.

    But there is an important point in the church I think, and you make it quite well in the last paragraph – we need teachers from different perspectives working together. Scot’s list of traits from the perspective of a Seminary Professor are great. Some of them should be traits of every teacher in the church, but some of them are more specialized.

  • DRT

    T, yes, I find the interaction here quite invaluable. I love you guys!

  • Steve Williams

    I apologize if I’m repeating someone else’s contribution (teachers hate to be redundant 🙂 as I haven’t time now to read all the additional comments but from Scott’s list…I would add
    A teacher…has a sense of stewardship and priestly ministry under girdng his or her gift… for Christ… within his church.

  • Jamieson

    This is a good question but, it seems to me, only part of the equation. The other half is learning. Too often we focus on what the teacher does in the classroom and ignore what the learner does. In the church, we spend huge amounts of time and energy on becoming better teachers and ignore the role of the learner.

    I suppose this comes from taking classes in homiletics. Pastors would do well to be schooled in educational philosophy as well as psychology.

  • I think we are confusing things here. RJS has been given a good exhortation – Christian teachers aim to create peers. But not peers in detailed knowledge, peers in living the Jesus Creed. Scot is addressing teachers in and for the church. Our real human tool is a library of 66 books (more if you’re RC) and we need some level of competency in the languages attendant to that “tool.” RJS has taught me much from her field. I expect that she accesses primary sources available yo scientists– sources that Greek to me (pun) . Do all need years of seminary Greek and Hebrew. Yes, if at all possible; but no if not. I am saddened that a pastor would make knowing languages as a barrier to being Christ- following peers.

  • Jamieson

    Mr. Frye: “But not peers in detailed knowledge, peers in living the Jesus Creed.”

    I am assuming that you are addressing my comment.

    I doubt that you can have peers without a detailed knowledge of what we believe. Paul, for example, made use of OT historical knowledge to make arguments to his hearers. Our problem today, it seems to me, is that we throw out objective, historical knowledge of the Christ story in favor of creating some kind of experience in church. By most accounts, most of our people have no idea (or at least very little) idea of what is in the Bible. And even if they do have some knowledge, it is spotty and rarely encompasses the larger narrative.

    I doubt anyone would argue that facts alone are adequate. But we have to start there. Here’s a biblical example: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched…” What we teach is objective, historical, i.e. factual.

    I presume that Jesus would have the gift of teaching since it originates with him anyway. How many open ended questions did he ask? How many of the parables were left uninterpreted? Instead of simply telling people things, he dignified them by issuing an invitation to be thinkers, not just hearers. A strict diet of preaching does just the opposite. “You let me do the thinking and then I’ll come and tell you what to think.” In the end, we encourage lazy thinkers in our pews.

    In my experience, a knowledge of the languages sometimes gives a pastor license to exclude people from doing their own thinking. I have even seen it used as a club on occasion.

    No, I don’t think I am confused at all.

  • RJS

    First John, I don’t think that the issue was “Christ-following peers” but had a little different twist.

    Second, thanks – and what I really think is that we all need to be open to learning from each other.

    I wish I had the time to take serious Greek and Hebrew. For that matter I wish I had the time and money to pursue a more serious education, Master’s (not MDiv) or some such in theology or biblical studies. But I don’t see that happening any time soon – there are not many options close by and I have one kid in college and another who will start in a couple of years (which means the money is going to the education of others). But all education isn’t formal, and I do spend a great deal of time reading and studying.

  • Dan Arnold

    RJS’ comment that “we need teachers from different perspectives working together” sounds good, but, at least for churches that I’ve been involved with, that’s exactly what they don’t want. My experience is that churches want people that will follow the curriculum and not provide different ways to think about issues. I have studied the original languages and even taught them at the undergrad level, yet because I can’t toe the denominational line (no evolution, inerrancy, no women pastors, etc…), I’m only asked to occasionally substitute for Sunday School. I don’t want to tell people what to think; I want to give people tools to frame their questions.

    Maybe that means I shouldn’t teach in the church. I’m not sure where that fits in Scot’s list (which I largely agree with). Yet I find people who no longer want to have their existing beliefs confirmed but instead have questions that they don’t have a way to go about investigating. Can this kind of teaching be done within a church context, without being threatening to people who can’t relate to the questions that many have? What is the relationship between a teacher and local and denominational authority? How does a person deal with the situation when the “texts and evidence” do not conform to “sacred tradition?” My current experience is that when this is the case, teaching must occur outside the church context in order to run afoul of the gatekeepers. Still, that doesn’t seem right.

  • I think a teacher ought to take as seriously as possible the original languages, the Hebrew, Aramaic and Koine Greek texts. But for many that will mean knowing how to depend on good sources. I’m not at all convinced that one needs to be able to pick up the Greek or Hebrew Bible and have some competency in reading it in order to be a stellar teacher. I think at the same time they need to respect what is available to them, and do the best they can at that. But it is a ministry of the Spirit, which while not bereft of human responsibility and effort, can come from those not so well learned, even as Jesus’ disciples of old.

  • Dan Arnold

    Rats… that last sentence should read, “in order to NOT run afoul …”

  • Jamieson #33,
    I was addressing RJS’s comments. I agree with your concerns with this caveat– not all pastors wear their use of the biblical languages on their sleeves and arrogantly distance themselves from people…to me that’s sick and reveals perhaps some other issues that need to be addressed.

  • RJS


    I need to be completely clear here – I do not think that the person in question wears the use of biblical languages on their sleeve, and/or behaves arrogantly about it. But I do think it raises a question about how we view “peers” and on the essence of mature Christian life.

  • Ben Wilson

    Lots of good thoughts in the list and comments. Is the capacity to inspire learning an important component of the gift of teaching? The teachers I have learned from the most are those who have a knack for making me want to learn more about the things they are discussing, whether from the pulpit or in a classroom.

  • Norman

    I like your comment about being refined. For those of us that haven’t been through rigorous academic testing it often reveals our warts and if we are honest it should help us realize the dregs that need to be skimmed off. I know it’s a constant process for me.