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The Teacher is the Scariest Gift

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

This verse should be cause for pause to anyone who thinks the LORD wants them to teach. I think of it frequently. It causes me to walk carefully, knowing full well that the enemy of my soul would love nothing more than to plant a thought in my mind that may take root and cause me to say something in a teaching that might lead others astray. Teaching is a scary gift. With it, a man or woman wields influence. That influence is typically congruent with their skill. I can’t think of a single influential teacher who didn’t sharpen and refine their gift into a very sharp tool.

In some sense, everyone teaches. Parents teach their children from the beginning. They teach speech, they teach behavior, basically, they teach us the most foundational, rudimentary things that the rest of our lives are built upon. With few exceptions, the way a child acts in school is their recreation of what they have learned from their parents. Then as these students grow, and acquire friends, the children begin teaching the children. Your child, who gradually picks up behaviors that you never taught them or modeled for them, is learning from their peers. Peer groups are perhaps the most powerful teachers. It’s precisely the reason God’s word says:

Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” – 1 Corinthians 15:33

Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future. In a very broad sense, all of us will stand before the LORD and give an account for how we taught others. Whatever influence you may have, every ounce of it will be judged by fire. How did you use your influence? Did you use it to move your peers toward Jesus, or someone else?

However, James had a narrower focus when he wrote that not many of us should become teachers. Teachers are a gift that Jesus gives to His church. Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter four that when Jesus ascended He gave five gifts to the church. One of those gifts is teachers.

And 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

Teachers in the body of Christ work for the purpose of equipping and building up the church for the work of ministry. Teachers minister by equipping everyone else to be ministers. How, precisely? Teachers explain God’s Word in ways that make it accessible to everyone. They help the church rightly understand God’s Word. Some equate this with the role of a pastor, but Paul made a distinction between shepherd and teacher.  Shepherds are more skilled at tending to people. They work to unify, comfort, encourage, and lead the church toward devotion to Christ. Teachers explain the Word, Shepherds model the Word, and yes, many times the people who pastor our churches possess a combination of these two gifts, but typically one is more dominant than the other. In practice, there is definitely overlap in these gifts. But James singled out teachers for stricter judgment.

Why? Why teachers and not shepherds? Why teachers and not evangelists or prophets? Why not apostles?

Teachers of the Word influence every aspect of church life. They affect the way we understand God’s Word. And if God’s Word is our authority for all matters, then all matters are affected by teachers. Even our understanding of the roles of shepherd, evangelist, prophet, and apostle is influenced by teachers. The last gift on the list seems to have the broadest impact, and therefore, a stricter judgment. If you’re a teacher, develop a healthy fear of the LORD, a deep respect for His Word, and an earnest desire to teach it rightly.

I’ve been teaching in varying capacities in the church since 1997. Yes. I began young at the age of twenty-one. At twenty-one, I was building Bible studies for college students and teaching them in small groups. The very first Bible study I ever put together from scratch was a study through the book of James. I promoted it with a Monopoly theme and called it St. James Place. The content was simple, the applications were basic, and my understanding of the text of James didn’t go much deeper than a surface reading. Would I teach it the same way today? Absolutely not! In fact, I’m thankful there’s no recording of those teachings because I would be embarrassed at my handling of the texts.

Is that pride? Maybe a little, but mostly it’s just that my teaching of James in 1997 lacked maturity, so I don’t want those teachings to resurface. The question, then, is what criteria will the LORD use to judge me over that study? At that time, it was my honest best effort to teach. As far as I could tell, it was helpful to those who participated, and as memory serves, none of it departed from an orthodox understanding of James. As I said, it only lacked the depth that comes from maturity.

I believe the LORD will judge my teachings on three criteria. First, I’ll be judged for my motive. Why did I teach? Was I seeking to be liked? Was I looking for a platform? Did I want to influence people for my own selfish reasons? Or did I teach out of obedience to the LORD’s call on my life? If my teaching came, first, from obedience, then any subsequent motivation would’ve been driven by the primary. The LORD called me to service and gifted me to teach, so I teach. Beneath that umbrella, within reason, I do want people to like me. I do seek to have a platform that will serve the church best. I do desire to influence people for Kingdom purposes, not my own.

Second, I’ll be judged for the congruency between what I know and practice versus what I taught others. This can be tricky because, in a very real sense and to varying degrees, all teachers teach beyond what they understand and put into practice. There are aspects of God’s Word that transcend our experiences. For those things, I teach in faith and with the hope that a better understanding will come. Also, honesty concerning those matters with those whom you teach is crucial. I try to tell people when I’ve hit my ceiling of understanding and practice, and that from this moment I’m straying into faith and hope that I’m teaching accurately. But good teachers, don’t live above the stratosphere. We only make occasional runs for it, like a plane that shoots straight up until the air is too thin to keep the engines running. Then you descend back down to a flyable atmosphere. Teaching is mostly concerned with explaining what has been revealed to us, not those things that haven’t. Essentially, my understanding of what has been revealed and my practice of that will be compared to how I taught others, and judgment will be rendered.

Third, I’ll be judged for my accuracy. Did I depart from what is written? Did I teach something as truth that went beyond the bounds of the written Word? Now, I understand that within the orthodox Christian faith, there is plenty of disagreement on many things. Ranging from baptism to spiritual gifts to the LORD’s Supper among many others, we don’t possess a uniform understanding. So the issue of accuracy quickly runs into our varied understanding of debatable matters. Therefore, within the matter of accuracy is a subcategory. How gracious was I on debatable matters? Did my quest for accuracy run roughshod over people with different conclusions than mine? Did I seek to worship peacefully with those who disagree with me on debatable matters? The judgment for accuracy will concern my precision on foundational matters, and my graciousness on debatable ones.

And of course, even this blog post will endure a Divine review when it’s my turn for evaluation.

So, here’s where I’m landing this plane. If you think the LORD is calling you to teach, walk carefully, walk slowly, but also intentionally toward that calling. Get exposure to great teachers of the Word. Listen to them, read them, and learn how they communicate, then find your unique expression of the teaching gift. Sharpen it, grow in it, and let the Holy Spirit lead you. Then plaster James 3:1 to your heart. Let it guide your impulses. The teacher is the scariest gift in terms of its influence and its judgment. Don’t treat it lightly.

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Last modified: January 24, 2023