“With great power comes great responsibility.” Many movie-goers will recognize this line from the Spiderman movies, but the idea behind it can be traced back much further. Jesus said something similar: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). Of course, the whole idea is common sense. If you are given the opportunity to impact many lives, then you have a great responsibility and should proceed with caution.
Although he was more specific in his application, the Apostle James wrote something similar in his short letter. “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). As someone who has served as a pastor, associate pastor, and teacher in Christian schools, I have often contemplated this verse to remind myself of the tremendous responsibility I have been given.
While this type of warning applies to anyone in a position of authority, it is even more important for those who are blessed with the privilege of teaching the Bible. We have been given the charge to explain God’s very words to people and we dare not take it lightly. This is why Paul exhorted Timothy to “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
So how can one possibly be prepared enough to teach something so significant? Can you ever learn enough about the Bible to be ready to teach it? The answers to these questions are trickier than many would like to think. Obviously, God has called some people to teach, so He has gifted them in that area and expects them to fulfill their calling. Many of these folks have faithfully studied for years in preparation for this calling and still feel as though they aren’t ready. Others teach while they are training and some even jump right in without any special training at all. So which one is the right approach? Or is there a better way?
I believe the real key to the whole issue is having a deep respect for the text of Scripture and a proper understanding of our own limitations and shortcomings. This means that we need to constantly remind ourselves to humbly approach God’s Word. It’s far too easy to let our pride enter in and think, “I’ve studied this enough to know that I’m right and anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong.” I’ve been there. I still do it. And there’s many times that I’m tempted to do it but refuse to give into that pride.
We live in an age where anyone with a computer and Internet access can pass themselves off as an expert on something. Get yourself a blog and start writing in an authoritative manner and suddenly, you’re an expert on whatever it is that you fancy. Just about anyone can self-publish a book, and there always seems to be a willing audience for nearly every subject. While there are great benefits to having the ability to disseminate one’s teachings, there are grave dangers if what one teaches is false.
There’s another danger too. The Apostle Paul issued a warning against placing inexperienced believers in a position of authority. While discussing the requirements of a bishop (or elder) he said that the man must “not be a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6). Yet so often in the church we readily place unqualified people into authoritative teaching positions. How many times has the popular man in church been named as an elder even though he isn’t remotely qualified? How many young Christian musicians are thrust into teaching roles because they are gifted in the area of music, but are hardly qualified to teach? How many times do we need to elevate the star athlete who recently converted to Christ? So many lives have been destroyed because we fail to heed the warnings in Scripture about the authoritative role of the teacher.
So is anyone qualified to teach? Yes. As I said before, since God calls people to teach, then He expects them to take that role seriously in a spirit of humility. Sadly, too many people take their position lightly and are full of pride. I’m sure I’ve been there too. So what makes me think that I’m qualified to teach others, whether through my writing or speaking? I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, let me give a couple of examples that illustrate the danger in ignoring the biblical warnings against unqualified teachers.
I recently had a conversation with an older man who held to a popular, but demonstrably false doctrinal position. He started by saying that he hasn’t really studied the issue much, but he knows that he’s right and I’m wrong. Rather than giving any support for his view, he proceeded to attack the other position. For the record, he was very civil. I explained my position and then showed him from Scripture where he was mistaken about his claims, and that his charges amounted to nothing more than straw man arguments or flat out falsehoods. He said something like, “Well, like I said, I haven’t really studied it much.” And then he walked away. Instead of opening the Bible and supporting his belief, he walked away. That’s actually more courteous than many believers I’ve come across.
I’ve been called just about every name in the book (sadly, by professing believers). I’ve been slandered, lied about, and had people try to get me fired from several positions (again, sadly, by professing believers). I’ve been accused of slicing and dicing Scripture, and have been called a liberal, a humanist, and a compromiser. And all of these things would make me wonder if I have been in the wrong if the people making these charges would take the time to explain from Scripture why they are making such claims. Sadly, that has almost never happened.
So why do I think I am qualified to teach the Bible? Is it because I’ve earned a Bachelors degree, a Master of Arts, a Master of Divinity, and a Master of Theology degree and done doctoral work in the areas of biblical studies, theology, apologetics, and church history? Is it because I’ve written countless papers on a wide range of theological subjects and have been published in books, journals, and magazines? Is it because I’ve taken graduate level courses in apologetics, apologetic methodology, systematic theology, church history, biblical theology, hermeneutics, Genesis, Daniel, John, Pastoral Epistles, Hebrew, Greek, and many more? Is it because I’ve already taught courses on apologetics, logic, creationism, hermeneutics, New Testament survey, survey of doctrine, worldviews, and more? Is it because I’ve read the Bible all the way through nearly every year since 1999?
All of those things can sound impressive, and they certainly can be helpful in preparing me to teach on a variety of biblical and theological issues. The above paragraph probably comes across as though I’m bragging, but I didn’t write it for that reason. I wrote it to say that all of those things are meaningless if I do not humbly submit to the Word of God. If I don’t approach Scripture in humility and live obediently to its teachings then I am not qualified to teach it. I’m not just talking about saying that I believe it or claiming that I believe it is authoritative. If I am more interested in defending my own theological positions than the text of Scripture, then I’m not qualified. If I am more interested in defending the views I was taught as a child (or rebelling against them) than searching the Scriptures, then I am not qualified. If I am unwilling to listen to those who have studied more than me on a given subject because “I’ve already studied enough” then I have a pride problem, and as Paul warned Timothy, a person in an authoritative role must not give into pride.
Near the end of 2 Corinthians, Paul listed many of his qualifications as an apostle and teacher. Although he did cite some impressive details of his resume (e.g., signs of an apostle and a heavenly vision), he focused primarily on what many of us would consider to be negatives, such as the persecutions and trials he endured. He could have elaborated on his exhaustive training, but instead he centered on his own weaknesses. Why did he do this? 2 Corinthians 12:10 gives us the answer. “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
So what am I really getting at? It’s so easy for us to think that “we’ve arrived” as Christians. After all, we love the Lord, we read His Word, and some of us even study it. We reach certain conclusions about the text, whether based on the text itself or what we’ve heard others say about it. And it’s only natural for us to believe we have rightly interpreted the text. If we didn’t think we were right, why would we still hold the views we hold? But if we don’t humbly approach the text, living obediently, and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we disqualify ourselves as teachers.
May all of us who have been blessed with the opportunity to teach God’s Word take this responsibility seriously, treat Scripture with the utmost respect, love our fellow believers, and glorify the Savior who saved us from our sin.