What must an elder be if he is “apt to teach”?
If we’re honest, every Christian would rather have a faithful preacher who occasionally mumbles words and gets lost in his notes than a shallow, captivating one.
“I just don’t think Colin should be a lead pastor . . . you know, he’s an INTJ.” I was dumbfounded. I’d known Colin for years. He was a good preacher, sound theologically, he loved people, and he had proven grit. I couldn’t imagine why my friend was expressing concern about him being a pastor, particularly on account of some pre-fabricated personality type.
I asked for clarification. My friend replied, “Well, he’s a 4 and we know 4s struggle as lead pastors. They’re more suited for administrative roles.” Seeing my confusion, my friend explained what a “4” personality meant according to the enneagram and what it might say about someone’s suitability for pastoral ministry.
I started to wonder: what initials and numbers characterized my life and fitness for ministry? I’d never taken an official personality exam, but a Facebook quiz once told me that I’m most like Charlie from The West Wing and BuzzFeed seems to think that, among Disney Princesses, Cinderella and I would likely be BFFs. I’ll let others decide how that ought to shape my ministry ambitions.
Sure, few of us would so confidently equate personality types with specific ministry roles. But at some level each of us is tempted to follow the world’s logic when it comes to identifying future pastors and elders, to look at the outward appearance rather than the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). We can value gifts, charisma, and stage-presence over godliness, clarity, and sober-mindedness. Scripture, however, checks our worldly outlook, reminding us that God wants his church in careful hands, not necessarily charismatic ones. Each qualification for pastoral ministry in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 focuses on character, not gifts.
Except for one.
Paul tells Timothy that elders must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). He tells Titus that elders “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).
The only particular gifting pastors must demonstrate is the ability to teach. But what exactly does this mean? Must pastors be able to captivate an audience? Must they have a good stage-presence? Are pastors just faithful Christians . . . with a few extra doses of charm and charisma? What does “able to teach” mean?
Not about Rhetorical Ability
It’s easy to assume “able to teach” must have something to do with preaching. Simply put, if you want to be an elder, you have to be able to preach. But equating able to teach with preaching is an over -reading of this qualification. After all, Paul doesn’t mention preaching in this passage and neither he nor any other New Testament writer assumes that preaching is the only context in which teaching occurs. In fact, elsewhere in his writings Paul clearly refers to “teaching” that occurs in the church outside the preaching ministry (Rom. 15:14; Titus 2:3). Further, Paul also recognizes that, even though every elder should be able to teach, only certain elders within the church will have any significant, consistent public teaching ministries (1 Tim. 5:17).
So if “able to teach” doesn’t necessarily mean “preaches great sermons,” then what does it mean?
Looking at the same qualification in Titus 1, we find Paul further explaining that being “able to teach” looks like “holding firm the trustworthy word,” instructing in “sound doctrine,” and rebuking unbiblical ideas (Tit. 1:9). This focus on sound doctrine continues throughout the pastoral epistles. The elder must not teach “different doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:3) but should model and teach doctrine with the power to save his hearers (1 Tim. 4:16). He must rightly handle the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15), avoiding “irreverent babble” that “will lead people into more and more ungodliness” (2 Tim 2:16). His teaching should produce in his listeners “repentance” and “a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 2:25).
In sum, Paul focuses more on the content and result of teaching than with its execution. “Able to teach” isn’t simply the “gift of gab.” You may be able to captivate a crowd, but if your teaching isn’t true or isn’t producing holiness, you’re not “able to teach.”
Paul’s own ministry models these commitments. He never boasted in his eloquence. To the contrary, he pursued soundness over style, clarity over charisma: “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17).
Is Rhetorical Ability Important?
“Able to teach” is mainly about doctrinal integrity, not rhetorical ability—but it is a little bit about rhetorical ability. After all, you have to communicate sound doctrine to teach it. Paul wants pastors who not only rightly divide the word but can explain it in a way that produces godliness (1 Tim. 4:16; 2 Tim. 2:25).
Thus, being able to teach means you can communicate sound doctrine in ways that profit the church. There is nothing in the context of the passage that suggests Paul has a particular teaching format in mind. The point is, whether in the pulpit, a Sunday School class, a small group, or even in one-on-one discipling, pastors and elders need to be able to use words to clarify, not cloud, the meaning of Scripture.
So, what does “able to teach” mean? Here’s my one-sentence summary: “able to teach” means a person is able to faithfully explain and apply the Bible so that listeners grow in their knowledge of Scripture and sound doctrine in a way that produces love for God and neighbor.
In light of the above, here are a few suggestions for how this unique pastoral qualification should shape both our ministry philosophy and our efforts to train pastors and elders.
First, Paul emphasizes godliness in leadership—we should do the same.
As already mentioned, “able to teach” is a unique pastoral qualification—it’s the only one that focuses on gifting rather than character. Better an average preacher with impeccable character than a “gifted” preacher with questionable character. Pastors must be godly. After all, ordinary, unspectacular preaching won’t ruin a ministry, but moral failure will.
If you’re a church looking for a pastor or a pastor looking for more elders, don’t assume the best candidate is the best preacher. Some men who look impressive in the pulpit act like pagans at home. Look beyond outward appearance to matters of the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Identify men who love their wives, serve their family, cultivate church unity, share the gospel, practice hospitality, and disciple others. Somewhere in that cohort of brothers, you’ll find men who are also able to teach.
Second, Paul demands that pastors and elders be “able to teach,” and pastors should expect nothing less of themselves or their fellow elders.
“Able to teach” may be the only “gifting” qualification for pastoral ministry, but that doesn’t mean it’s negotiable. Pastors, consider how you can cultivate this gift among the godly, mature men in your church. Hold a regular service/sermon review. Buy doctrinally sound books for your people. Give feedback on others’ teaching and preaching. And be willing to give away teaching opportunities so others can grow and develop as teachers.
Whatever you choose to do in your context, find ways to encourage others to develop their gifts. Some in your congregation will be more naturally gifted than others, but you can, in fact, teach others how to teach. After all, John Piper got a C- in his preaching class, but he seems to have turned out fine.
Third, the fact that “able to teach” focuses more on doctrinal integrity than rhetorical ability should remind us that the pastor’s job is to shepherd sheep, not attract a crowd.
That’s it. That’s the reflection.
Finally, pastors, take heart if you’re an average (even below average!) preacher. God doesn’t require eloquence, but boldness and faithfulness.
Preaching and teaching is discouraging. It’s spiritual warfare. I know more than one pastor who types out a fresh resignation letter each Monday, overwhelmed by his rhetorical inadequacies in the pulpit.
But if we’re honest, every Christian would rather have a faithful preacher who occasionally mumbles words and gets lost in his notes than a shallow, captivating one. My friend Matt Smethurst often reminds me that sermons are like meals; we don’t remember most of them but we’re only alive because we’ve consumed them. If the food supply chain collapsed, would you rather someone give you a hot dog on a paper plate every day or gourmet meal on fine China once a month? A man who is “able to teach” knows how to deliver nutritious meals to his people, even if not all of them taste great.
Remember pastor, God requires clarity, not cleverness; doctrinal fidelity, not rhetorical flourish. As others have said, others may be able to preach the gospel better, but they cannot preach a better gospel. You may not be eloquent or effective by the world’s standards, but God may still consider you “able to teach.”
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at 9Marks.