In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul delineates the qualifications for elders in the church. Godly character is the unmistakable emphasis. At age 87, Wesley feared the decline of Methodism because “Our preachers, many of them, are fallen. They are not spiritual. They are not alive to God. They are soft, enervated, fearful of shame, toil, hardship.” In the words of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God,” and we would do well to test the moral strength of the men who lead our churches. But character requirements are not the only requirements. In fact, most of the expectations for elders are expectations for every Christian. Christians in general are called to be patient (1 Thess. 5:14), sober (1 Pet. 1:13), and hospitable (1 Pet. 4:9).
A key difference between elders and other Christians is that elders must be “apt to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2). Teaching ability sets elders apart.
Skillful At Instructing
The injunction in 1 Timothy 3:2 is repeated in 2 Timothy 2:24: “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient.” To be “apt to teach,” one word in the Greek (didaktikos), is to be skillful at instructing. It speaks of ability in explaining and applying the Scriptures for the edification of the body.
If a minister is confusing, hard to follow, unable to rightly divide the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15), or theologically imprecise, he is unqualified; his personal godliness or likable personality do not override 1 Timothy 3:2, 2 Timothy 2:24, or the other commands that make ability a practical necessity. One thousand pastoral calls do not make up for a deficient teaching ministry. The big thing that a pastor does is “preach the word…with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2, ESV).
One thousand pastoral calls do not make up for a deficient teaching ministry.
God has a role for every member of the body, but the ministry of the word must be carried out by men of ability. That some preachers say, “I’m not much of a teacher” or “I’m not much of a theologian” should cause alarm. If this is truly the case, they should rethink their calling. This is what R. S. Taylor insists in Preaching Holiness Today, immediately after reminding readers that “The Bible says pastors are supposed to be ‘apt to teach'”:
There is a silly notion abroad which affects to despise theology. The writer heard an ordained minister say, “Thank God, I’m not a theologian.” Then he should have surrendered his credentials. What is a theologian? He is a serious and systematic student of God and His redemption. It is the duty of every preacher to be a theologian.
Taylor rightly connects being “apt to teach” and being a proficient theologian. If we are to be skillful at instructing, we must ask, “What are we instructing about?” The answer is, of course, the truth of God’s word. Titus 1:9 makes the connection unassailable: an elder must “be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.”
Ability Must Be Tested
Insisting that ministerial candidates must be men of ability is unpopular, to say the least. But if the matter is considered biblically and honestly, we will see that it is charitable—not arrogant.
I have known sincere young men who professed a call to preach and later quit their ministry training or left the pastorate. The hasty response of other Christians was devastating: “If God called you once, he hasn’t changed his mind.” While there are still Jonahs who need such a rebuke, it is also likely (perhaps more likely) that young men of this sort never had the makings of a minister in the first place. They were never called. The church should have said so. It would have been the charitable thing to do, since their inability to speak clearly or understand theology was evidence that their “call” was merely an impression. The church’s silence set them up for failure.
The abilities that God has given to us are part of the way that we identify his call.
While young ministerial candidates must be given room to grow (I was given room to grow, for which I am thankful), their ability must be tested. Instead, we tend to ordain every good-natured man who insists that he is called. But the church plays a role in confirming the calling of ministers. In Preaching and Preachers, Martin-Lloyd Jones illustrates the issue:
I remember a young man who came to me many years ago telling me that he was quite sure that he was called to the ministry. Not only did he tell me that, but also something else which worried me much more. On the previous Sunday…[he] had gone to the visiting preacher and told him that he felt called to preach and to the ministry; and the visiting preacher, not knowing anything at all about him, had encouraged him and praised him, and urged him to go on. The actual fact was that the poor fellow lacked the mental ability necessary to the making of a preacher. It was as simple as that.
If someone prays at an altar and claims, “God called me to preach,” he should be praised for his desire to be sensitive to God’s voice. But he should not be affirmed or appointed before he understands that he must also be tested. This includes testing his ability as well as his character. Lloyd-Jones goes on:
So we have got to emphasize natural intelligence and ability. If a man is to ‘rightly divide the worth of truth’ he must have ability. The Apostle Paul says that he must be ‘apt to teach.’ As preaching means delivering the message of God in the way which we have described, involving the relationship between systematic theology and the exact meaning of the particular text, it obviously demands a certain degree of intellect and ability. So if a man lacks a basic minimum in that respect, he is clearly not called to be a preacher.
Since teaching is speaking, Lloyd-Jones also mentions that “if the candidate has not got the gift of speech, whatever else he may have, he is not going to make a preacher.” A pastor does not need to be an orator, but he must be able to communicate.
More is At Stake Than One Man
Our greatest fear should not be discouraging someone who is truly called—although we should avoid that if we can. A mark of true calling is dogged determination, and men who are at first rejected but truly called will press on until they can meet the qualifications and be ordained. The greatest danger we should fear is to appoint to pastoral ministry those who are not truly qualified, and thereby risk the health of “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).
The greatest danger we should fear is to appoint to pastoral ministry those who are not truly qualified.
We should be careful about the implications of the popular notion that “God does not call the qualified, he qualifies the called.” If this means, “To those whom God calls, God imparts the necessary spiritual gifts,” so be it. But I’m afraid it often means, “If you think you are called, but lack ability, don’t worry—God will help you along.” The pastoral epistles lead us to believe, instead, that the gifts God has given to us are part of the way that we identify he has called us in the first place.
While there are stories of ministers who, at first, seemed to lack the ability required for the ministerial task and were rejected by their church, but went on to be successful ministers, it does not mean that the church did something wrong. If the church was enforcing 1 Timothy 3:2, they did something very right. It is right to expect ministerial candidates to meet God’s qualifications. The body of Christ is at stake.
Ability Can (Sometimes) Be Learned
If a ministerial candidate lacks ability, but demonstrates room for growth, he may just need to step back and take some time to learn how to teach skillfully before being appointed to a pastoral position. While I agree with Lloyd-Jones that we must emphasize natural intelligence and ability, there is room for learned skill. Those who are called by God to teach will be given the gift of teaching, but that gift must be cultivated. In fact, this is true of all ministers. To teach well requires study. A call to teach is a call to prepare.
B. B. Warfield contended that teaching ability can be learned while striking the right balance between ability to teach as an indispensable quality and godliness as the matter of first importance:
Say what you will, do what you will, the ministry is a “learned profession”; and the man without learning, no matter with what other gifts he may be endowed, is unfit for its duties. But learning, though indispensable, is not the most indispensable thing for a minister. “Apt to teach”—yes, the ministry must be “apt to teach”; and observe that what I say—or rather what Paul says—is “apt to teach.” Not apt merely to exhort, to beseech, to appeal, to entreat; nor even merely, to testify, to bear witness; but to teach. And teaching implies knowledge: he who teaches must know. Paul, in other words, requires of you, as we are perhaps learning not very felicitously to phrase it, “instructional,” not merely “inspirational,” service. But aptness to teach alone does not make a minster; not is it his primary qualification. It is only one of a long list of requirements which Paul lays down as necessary to meet in him who aspires to this high office. And all the rest concern, not his intellectual, but his spiritual fitness. A minister must be learned, on pain of being utterly incompetent for his work. But before and above being learned, a minister must be godly.
Warfield maintained a right emphasis while being clear that we must not pursue godliness to the neglect of education leading to skillful instruction. He reports that “Sometimes we hear it said that ten minutes on your knees will give you a truer, deeper, more operative knowledge of God than ten hours over your books.” But he rightly asks, “Why should you turn from God when you turn to your books, or feel that you must turn from your books in order to turn to God?” The ability, intellect, and study of ministers should not be pitted against their prayerfulness, godliness, and integrity. The life of the mind and the life of the soul cannot be separated.
To borrow once more from Warfield, “there can be no ‘either-or’ here—either a student or a man of God. You must be both.” We must agree with Paul that “an elder must be skillful at instructing,” and draw attention to this when evaluating potential pastors.