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The Teaching Office

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The clear prescription of the New Testament is that pastors are teachers of churches. To put it more precisely, pastors are the teachers of their churches. Granted, in some sense all believers are supposed to teach, edify, and admonish one another. Nevertheless, the actual burden for the instruction of the flock rests upon pastors. The biblical norm is for pastors to instruct congregations and not the other way around.

Elders are said to rule by their labor in preaching and teaching (1 Tim. 5:17). All pastors are also teachers (Eph. 4:11). One of the requirements for bishops is that they must be skilled teachers (1 Tim. 3:2)—even deacons do not have to meet this requirement, though they must still have a serious understanding of the Scriptures (1 Tim. 3:9). Elders are responsible to feed the flock of God, a function that implies teaching (1 Pet. 5:2). They are ordained by the Holy Spirit as overseers over the flock to feed the church of God (Acts 20:28). They are also given the responsibility to protect the flock (Acts 20:28-31).

Ultimately, the congregation must define the church’s doctrinal parameters. This is exactly what happened in the local church business meeting at Jerusalem in Acts 15. In the face of a doctrinal and practical challenge, the entire congregation participated in drawing a doctrinal line (Acts 15:22-23). Nevertheless, the solution to the problem did not come from an uninstructed congregation, nor did the church’s leaders permit a simple pooling of uninformed prejudices. A right decision began with the apostles and elders, then included the congregation after the church had received teaching both from the apostle Peter (Acts 15:7-11) and the elder James (Acts 15:13-21). James, who was one of the pastors of the church, did more than to reflect upon abstruse biblical principles. He also applied those principles to the doctrinal problem in very direct ways, going so far as to state a solution for the church. All that was left was for the congregation to accept his solution.

In other words, James spoke to the issue in a way that ordinary church members did not and could not. He spoke with authority. He was not merely another voice within the church, but a teacher of the church. The congregation had a decision to make, but James had the right and duty to lead the congregation in reaching the correct decision. That is what pastoral authority looks like.

When a man becomes the pastor of a church today, the church will already have defined certain doctrinal parameters. The pastor accepts those parameters when he accepts his office, and he cannot ethically transgress them (the same is true of all other members). His teaching must always fall within the agreed-upon doctrinal position of the congregation.

Within those boundaries, however, a pastor need not poll the congregation to determine the teaching direction of the church. He need not ask permission to preach a sermon or to teach a lesson. He need not wait for congregational approval to speak the truth, whether the truth is applied as encouragement, warning, reproof, correction, or nurturing. The church recognizes his right to do these things when it calls him as its pastor.

In fact, if the pastoral office is the (i.e., the only) teaching office of the church, then all of the church’s teaching ministry must fall under pastoral authority. All of the church’s teaching ministry ought to take place under pastoral oversight. Pastors have a duty, not only to establish their own teaching agendas, but to establish the teaching agenda for the entire congregation. Every teacher and every teaching venue is under the authority of the pastor.

When he was addressing the Ephesian elders, Paul made them responsible for defending the congregation against false teaching (Acts 20:28-31). He warned that false teachers like ravening wolves would attack the flock from outside. He also intimated that perverse teachers would arise from within the church itself. Whether from without or from within, such subversive teachers presented a special threat against which pastors would need to guard the flock. This guardianship implies authority over the church’s teaching ministry.

The teaching ministry of the church is larger than the pulpit. It includes more than the church’s classrooms. It comprises every venue within the church that communicates biblical and doctrinal content, encourages spiritual practice, and shapes Christian sensibilities. Whatever communicates meaning is part of the church’s teaching ministry. Consequently, whatever communicates meaning falls under the pastor’s authority. The pastor may not (and usually does not need to) manage every such venue directly, but the church must recognize and respect the pastor’s authority when he chooses to direct any of them.

What do these ministries include? Obviously, the church’s Sunday school is a major teaching venue. So are age and gender-specific clubs and fellowships like children’s clubs and women’s fellowships. Because the church is not the building, small group fellowships and Bible studies in the homes of church members are also part of its teaching ministry. Within the church’s worship and service, the arrangement of space and the application of the decorative arts are powerful tools for communicating meaning and shaping sensibilities: they, too, are part of the church’s teaching. One of the most effective teaching venues in the church is its music ministry, where believers explicitly teach and admonish one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.

Because all of these areas are included in the church’s teaching ministry, all of them fall under a pastor’s direction. At minimum, the congregation must recognize pastoral veto power in every area. It must also recognize the pastoral prerogative to oversee any of these areas directly. Any church that refuses to permit its pastor or pastors to exercise this authority is directly attacking the pastoral office itself.

In other words, within the parameters established by the congregation, the pastor’s authority over the teaching ministry of the church is absolute. Obviously, other people besides the pastor may teach within the church, but all of them must be under his direction and all of them are accountable to him. Whether they are Sunday school teachers, workers in children’s clubs, leaders of home Bible studies, or participants in some other teaching program, the pastor has the right and duty to establish their agendas, lay down their boundaries, and even proscribe their activities.

Pastors rule or lead through their teaching. When their teaching is biblical, congregations have a duty to submit and obey. Pastoral teaching includes more than discursive instruction. It includes more than gentle suggestion. Pastors have a duty to demand that churches submit themselves to the Word of God. In order to do that, they must be able to ensure that their congregations are hearing the Word of God, accurately taught, in its right proportions, applied correctly for the occasions that the church is facing. They must also be able to protect their flocks from contradictions of the truth that arise through external or internal attacks by false teachers. In other words, pastors not only have the authority to teach, they have authority to direct the church’s teaching according to the needs of the hour.

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This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder (Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary). Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.

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Almighty One! I Bend in Dust before Thee
John Bowring (1792–1872)

Almighty One! I bend in dust before thee;
            Even so veiled cherubs bend;
In calm and still devotion I adore thee,
            All-wise, all-present Friend!
Thou to the earth its emerald robes hast given,
            Or curtained it in snow;
And the bright sun, and the soft moon in heaven,
            Before they presence bow.

Thou Power sublime! whose throne is firmly seated
            On stars and glowing suns;
O, could I praise thee,—could my soul, elated,
            Waft thee seraphic tones,—
Had I the lyres of angels,—could I bring thee
            An offering worthy thee,—
In what bright notes of glory would I sing thee,
            Blest notes of ecstasy!

Eternity! Eternity! How solemn,
            How terrible the sound!
Here, leaning on thy promises,— a column
            Of strength,—may I be found,
O, let my heart be ever thine, while beating,
            As when ‘t will cease to beat!
Be thou my portion, till that awful meting
            When I my God shall greet!

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

4 Responses to The Teaching Office

  1. Kevin, this is so far the post in this series that is hardest to take (btw, I understand this is part of a series – series navigation for this one would be great). I come from an abusive church background, so I may be a lot more sensitive than others to this post.

    First, let me reiterate the concern about making ‘the pastor’ ruler over the local assembly who is called by God directly and only accountable to (and removable by) Him. Whereas you probably don’t mean that, it certainly is a strong possibility based on what you wrote so far (and more may come, which would be good and healthy). To say that pastors “are ordained by the Holy Spirit” without qualifying that statement is dangerous – because all charismatic cult leaders will use exactly such lingo to justify their tyrannies.
    Second, you keep talking about ‘the pastor’ as if this were the norm. Obviously it is the norm in most churches today, yet I am not convinced it is a biblical standard. If pastor, elder, and bishop are interchangeable, then my understanding of the First Century Church is that they had several elders in each congregation. This would imply a balance of power and mutual accountability among elders that needs to be part of this discussion.
    Third, you give “the pastor” almost unlimited powers. Rather than leading by example, the pastor now rules by veto. I was part of a cult like that and can tell you it was no fun. Whereas I understand the solemn responsibility of a pastor to defend orthodoxy (and orthopraxy), I have come across more than one occasion where I noticed something taught by a resident or visiting pastor was incorrect. If “the normal member” who was not ordained by the Holy Spirit (however this happens in practice) notices danger, what is (s)he to do? Based on what you wrote above, the normal member has no qualifications, nor the responsibility to maintain orthodoxy. You have now created a two-class system where the ruling caste makes all the major decisions and the lower caste can only give their approval or hit the road if they disagree.

    As a matter of fact, we have a clause in our church constitution that forbids “small group fellowships and Bible studies in the homes of church members” without prior board approval. I completely disagree with this clause and hence, the extent of powers you are granting the pastor by the above:
    # You can’t even define what such meetings are. If church members come together to watch a movie, is that such fellowship and should be authorized by the pastor? If I read the Bible with my family, is that such a setting that needs pastoral oversight? What if I invite friends from another congregation to my home to study the Bible – is that still something my pastor is responsible for? The problem is, since you cannot clearly define such meetings, legalism will require that ANY spontaneous conversation about the Bible is to be avoided since it MAY fall under the pastor’s jurisdiction.
    # The other (even greater) concern of mine is, since when does the church have jurisdiction over what goes on in people’s homes? Is there really a biblical mandate for elders to control what goes on in church members’ houses? By becoming a church member, am I then renouncing all autonomy in terms of what I do in my house with respect to Bible study with any guests I may happen to have? Please can you elaborate on that.

    Now in a healthy church, I would expect that house group meetings are encouraged, even organized by the elders. And if there is something coming up in spontaneous or regular meetings that may seem doctrinally controversial, people would naturally approach the pastor(s) to seek their opinion and wisdom. Yet, all this needs balance because pastors are fallible and more often than not fail to see certain things they should really be seeing – especially if they are ordained by the Holy Spirit. We need to provide for those regular situations.

    The claim that “His teaching must always fall within the agreed-upon doctrinal position of the congregation” is also debatable – what if the pastor realizes that some doctrinal positions are actually wrong? Think about Chiniquy who realized the Catholic Church was in error, and started to teach otherwise. I’m sure there are less far-fetched examples than this. If we can get a better understanding of biblical truth at the personal level, why not at the congregational level?

    (BTW, since Kevin does not answer directly, if anyone else would chip in it would be greatly appreciated!)

  2. Martin,

    As you note, this essay is one of a series, and most of the series was devoted to challenging exactly the kind of abusive leadership to which you object. At least one future essay will be, as well. Nevertheless the danger of overreaction is real. Let me take up your concerns in order.

    It is Paul himself who tells the Ephesian elders that the Holy Spirit made them overseers over the church. I see no problem with repeating what the Bible itself says.

    Furthermore, I am unaware of any New Testament Scripture that makes plural eldership the norm (though it is certainly permissible). Every indication is that a single bishop fulfills the requirement for a fully-ordered New Testament congregation.

    Altogether, I have specified exactly one area within which the pastor actually does hold near-dictatorial powers. If he is to lead the church by his teaching, then he must be able both to teach and to direct the church’s teaching ministry. I see no biblical way around this.

    Yes, a church does have authority over its members in every area of life, just exactly to the extent that Scripture addresses that area of life. The boundary of the church is not the building or the property, but the covenant–the sworn oath that binds the members to one another. We live our lives, not as solitary individuals, but as members of a body.

    Of course, you are quite correct that in a healthy church, the pastor will be facilitating spiritual conversations at every level, including the homes of the members. And in a healthy church, the pastor will be welcome in every one of those conversations, should he choose to participate.

    Finally, when a pastor crosses the boundaries of the church’s doctrinal commitments, only one ethical alternative is open to him. He must resign. If the church then invites him to explain the new position to which he has come, he has every liberty to do so. But to use his position to quietly (or noisily!) subvert the church’s doctrine is simply immoral. I’ll be addressing this in a future essay.

    Oh, and as a Romanist, Chiniquy was not part of a church. He was a false priest in a society of heretics. Once he understood the gospel, he had a duty to abandon the Roman institution.

    You wanted a response, and I’m happy to provide one. It’s not likely that I’ll have time to debate the issues with you, however.

  3. Thanks for taking the time, Kevin – much appreciated. Am looking forward to the remaining parts of the series.

    There is indeed nothing wrong with repeating what the Scriptures say, yet we all know that people have been using specific verses to defend indefensible doctrines. My beef here was that we need to elaborate how the Spirit ordains (and how He then ‘un-ordains’ – for example based on the verses qualifying a bishop’s walk) because unless we do, people can claim they have been ordained although they really haven’t (or are no longer qualified).

    When you say the church has authority over the members’ lives, I am still missing the distinction between ‘authority’ in terms of responsibility to teach versus control – which is what I experienced. Surely, everyone knows the church must sometimes impose sanctions or even excommunication on wayward members. Yet, trying to control what people do at home is not something I am convinced (anymore, or yet – as may be the case) the church is called to do.

    Yeah, I know Chiniquy wasn’t exactly part of a Christian church – it was an example that came to mind but I’m sure there is many a pastor who comes to a point where he has to change his views. I agree that in many instances, this may mean having to resign (like if you are an Anglican and come to believe children should not be baptized), yet I also wanted to point to cases where this may not be the case – some denominations have certainly changed course over time, and this change of mind must have started somewhere, possibly in the mind of a pastor.

    No need to engage further at this point; maybe you will be able to consider some of this in the remaining posts.

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