Ask your questions using the contact form, on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
Being a pastor, this answer will be humbling to write. There is a great temptation among pastors and teachers in the church. If we are wrong about anything, even the most insignificant detail, our fear is that those we teach will no longer trust our teaching authority. Many fear losing their pastoral jobs. So, there is that moment. Someone publicly questions a detail vocalized by the preacher or teacher. The automatic response is that the preacher’s or teacher’s brain immediately works out a way for the preacher or teacher to defend what he or she has said so that teaching authority can be maintained.
I remember a Sunday evening Bible study at a church where I served briefly as an interim pastor. In the Bible study, we read a quote from Jesus. From the back of the room, one of the deacons (the quasi-elder type), already standing shouted, “Well, that’s not right!” The congregation proceeded to argue about whether or not God sent people to Hell. In this case, the man was arguing against what Jesus explicitly said. If people are this quick to try and point out the insufficiencies of others, preachers and teachers probably have a reason to be on edge.
It is the pride of a person that causes him or her to always look for fault in pastors or teachers. It is the pride of the pastor or teacher that immediately strives to defend his or her teaching authority. If the Gospel is by grace alone through faith alone and if we need to be saved and sanctified because we are unrighteous by nature, I wonder how the Gospel would inform our tendency to hold others to a standard of perfection? How does the truth of the Gospel inform the tendency of pastor-teachers to present themselves as infallible and holy servants of God? I will do this by observing the Biblical qualifications of our pastors (and myself).
1 Timothy 3:1-7
This saying is trustworthy: “If anyone aspires to be an overseer, he desires a noble work.” An overseer, therefore, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, self-controlled, sensible, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not an excessive drinker, not a bully but gentle, not quarrelsome, not greedy. He must manage his own household competently and have his children under control with all dignity. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a new convert, or he might become conceited and incur the same condemnation as the devil. Furthermore, he must have a good reputation among outsiders, so that he does not fall into disgrace and the devil’s trap.
Truth of the Gospel in the Elder position
The work of a pastor is a noble work. The qualifications reveal much about what pastors (elders, overseers, bishops) are to do and be. The first thing I want to notice is that there is no qualification for absolute perfection in teaching. Pastors should be able teachers, understanding the basics of genuine Christian faith and being able to communicate the Bible. A missed detail is not a disqualification. Furthermore, pastors are to have been sanctified in such a way that they are self-controlled, not quarrelsome, and not greedy.
Pastors are, quite seriously, to suffer the tendency of immature believers to point out what they perceive to be wrong details. This means that, explicitly stated in the Bible, one of the qualifications for a pastor is that he not try to appear perfect or quarrel by, in his greed, trying to protect his own teaching authority. The best thing we can do for those we pastor, if we want to be of any good to them, is model what it means to be insufficient. Conceitedness, according to this text, is the blunder of the immature or new believer.
The Gospel would bid us live by this truth. We have nothing to offer. All understanding is granted by Christ. All things are worked together by God for His glory and for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. If we model that in our ministries, then we boast not in our teaching authority or in our intelligence, but instead in our weakness and insufficiency.
The Apostle Paul held this attitude concerning a physical ailment he had:
I will boast about this person, but not about myself, except of my weaknesses. For if I want to boast, I wouldn’t be a fool, because I would be telling the truth. But I will spare you, so that no one can credit me with something beyond what he sees in me or hears from me, especially because of the extraordinary revelations. Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so that I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times that it would leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:5-10).
The very thing we fear in our unrighteousness is the very thing that makes us strong in Christ. Our brains are currently subject to the effects of the Fall and under the influence of our unrighteousness and imperfection. If it were the case that we were never wrong concerning anything, we might be able to boast in ourselves. In working out our sanctification through greater humility, God continuously shows us that His grace alone is sufficient. We boast, then, about our weaknesses. We become the example of God’s amazing grace.
What about that verse that says teachers are judged more strictly? That verse is found in James 3:1. I want to encourage you to go and read the full chapter. This is probably one of the most misquoted verses. Context is the key to reading Scripture well. The teacher is not judged more strictly according to how precise and accurate he or she is in transmitting every detail. He or she is judged more strictly specifically concerning selfish ambition, envy of others, and boasting in self. The teacher is to have such a character, according to James, that he or she is peaceable, gentle, full of mercy, and without pretense. When we simply try to defend our teaching authority, we are the ones who are judged more strictly. When we boast in our weakness and in our insufficiency, we prove that the character of a teacher in Christ is being produced within us. That is the standard. When people are being tested as elders, this is what we look for. We are imperfect and always being sanctified in our being humbled.
Those who constantly point out the insufficiencies of others or feel a need to boast, even implicitly, in their own intelligence are not qualified teachers. So, if a pastor or teacher is wrong about any detail, we know that it may be God working out his or her salvation in humility. God doesn’t make anyone infallible, though we will one day be made complete in the righteousness of Christ alone. Indeed, this is what God is doing with all of us. Those who are teachers need to be able to teach the Bible and communicate the truths of the Bible. That is the word of Christ and Christ is our only true teacher (Matthew 23:8).
Christ is preeminent. We should not fall into the trap of idolizing our pastors or teachers. We only hurt ourselves by doing so. They will be imperfect and that is a good thing. I am insufficient, and that is a good thing. We don’t cling to our pastors or teachers. We cling to Christ. Our pastors and teachers should point us to the all-sufficiency of Christ as they boast in and about their own weaknesses and insufficiencies.
We boast in our weakness and in the weakness of those God has chosen to serve His people by teaching them. If we are in a church or under a pastor who does not teach the word of God (merely teaching from it or using it every once and a while is not teaching Christ’s word), however, we probably need to find a place where we will be fed God’s word according to the grace of God and gifting of the Holy Spirit.