The Sermon Begins in *Your* Study: Why ‘Apt to Teach’ Means More Than ‘Apt to Speak’

alexander-michl-g8PFVtzzkYA-unsplashFor Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord,
and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.
— Ezra 7:10 —

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife,
sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, . . .
— 1 Timothy 3:2 —

Earlier this week, I sat in a room full of pastors talking about preaching, plagiarism, and what it means to be “apt to teach,” the qualification for elders in 1 Timothy 3:2. And I made the point that being “apt to teach” and “apt to speak” are not the same thing. And I made the point because it seems as though there is a great confusion about what it takes to be a pastor today.

Can someone be a pastor if they are a good communicator? Or should someone be a pastor because they are biblically qualified? And what do the biblical qualifications entail, anyways? 

In some circles, being a good communicator seems to be the sine qua non of the pastoral office. If someone can communicate well, then they have what it takes to be a preacher. Never mind their other weaknesses, if they can communicate in a way that really connects, then they are a great cornerstone to building a vibrant church. (Please compare Ephesians 2:20 and note the irony!)

By contrast, Scripture gives a different and more complete picture. For instance, when defending his apostolic ministry, Paul testifies to his weakness in preaching. Addressing the super-apostles, whose speaking may have exceeded his own, Paul says of his critics, “For they say [of Paul], ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account’ (2 Cor. 10:10). Aware of his weakness(es), Paul defended his qualifications not by his charisma, but by his faithfulness to the truth and his suffering for that truth.

Today, such a perspective is under threat. For since the news broke concerning J.D. Greear and Ed Litton, I have heard much anecdotal testimony from various pastors that many large church leaders see themselves as communicators of the truth, more than shepherds of the flock or students of the Book. That’s my way of phrasing it, and it certainly doesn’t fit everyone. But with the popularity of groups like the Docent Research Group and Ministry Pass, as well as LifeWay’s large selection of manuscripts free for the taking, it seems that one reason why so little concern has been raised by Ed Litton’s use of J.D. Greear’s sermons is that pastors preaching the work of others is something of an evangelical cottage industry. (If I’m wrong, please show me).

For me, I’m not interested in doing the investigative reporting on this subject. I’ll leave that up to the Julie Roys and Warren Throckmorton’s of the evangelical world. What I am interested in is asking is this: Is it ever appropriate for a pastor to preach someone else’s sermon? Or, biblically speaking, is it a requisite qualification  to preach what one has learned from the personal study of his Word. Such a personal study of the Word,  where the minister of the Word encounters the God of the Word, is my personal conviction, and it was the conviction of all the pastors with whom I spoke this week.

But what does Scripture say? What does it mean to be “apt to teach”? And does teaching necessarily require the personal study of the Bible? Thankfully, Scripture is not silent about these questions, and by returning to the Pastoral Epistles we can find a solid answers to these questions.

Apt to Teach Means More Than Apt to Speak

To give my answer up front, I don’t believe “apt to teach” means “apt to speak.” Good speaking skills are not sufficient for a man to be pastor in a church, nor for a woman to preach to the congregation. [1] While it is true that the skill of teaching requires the ability to communicate, more important than his speaking is the Word spoken, which includes an adherence to the standards of the one speaking (see 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). As the Pastoral Epistles makes plain—the role of the pastor-teacher in the church has definite content. And that content focuses on the character of the one preaching, but it also includes (1) studying the word, (2) holding fast to the truth, and (3) showing progress before the congregation in how he handles the Word and himself.

Let’s consider each of these three aspects of the pastor’s vocation and how ability to teach includes a willingness and ability to study the Scriptures and to preach sermons that start in that study.

First, the office of the pastor is an office dedicated to studying the Scriptures. 

In Acts 6, when administrative duties were rising in Jerusalem and the Hellenistic widows were suffering as a result, the apostles took action to protect their role as spiritual leaders in the church. As Luke records, the leading apostles said to the fledgling church: “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (vv. 3–4). Such is the posture of every servant of the Word. Above all, pastors are intercessors and expositors. And churches who long for the Word to prosper in their midst, as it did in Jerusalem, will both make space for their pastors to study the Word and will expect him to do so.

Paul, too, sees the study of God’s Word as a necessary role of the pastor. In addition to defining pastors as teachers (Eph. 4:11) and calling Timothy to find reliable men who can teach others (2 Tim. 2:2), he says in 2 Timothy 2:15 that such men must be able to rightly handle the word of truth. A few verses later he addresses such men again, saying the “Lord’s servant must . . . be able to teach” (2 Tim. 2:24). And previously, in 2 Timothy 2:1–7, he uses three illustrations that define the teacher’s office. He must be single-minded like a soldier, honest in competition like an athlete, and hard-working like a farmer. Put these together, and you have the picture of a pastor as soldier who doesn’t find a proxy for his service, a pastor as athlete who doesn’t deceive his Judge (or the Judge’s children), and a pastor as farmer who works hard in sowing and reaping (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6–9). And what is the seed that the farmer uses? It is the Word of God (and the God of the Word) that he has beheld in his study. Whether he is studying the works of God in his office (see Ps. 111:2) or reading the parchments in prison (see 2 Tim. 4:13), the pastor is a slave of God’s Word. This is how Paul identified himself, and it is how churches identify pastors today too.

To boil it down to basics, the pastoral office as Paul defines it is a studious office. As Robert Yarbrough (The Letters to Timothy and Titus, 197) comments on 1 Timothy 3:2,

It is self-evident that a movement founded by a consummate teacher, whose followers were tasked with spreading his legacy by teaching others what he had taught them (Matt 28:18-20), would need skilled teachers at the helm. Paul had been teaching at least since Barnabas had discovered him and brought him to Antioch (Acts 11:25-26), if not indeed from the very time of his conversion (Acts 9:20). Timothy was expected to do likewise (2 Tim 2:2).

Clearly, teaching stands at the center of the church’s mission, just as it did in Jesus’s Great Commission. Jesus commanded his disciples “to make disciples of all nations . . . teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you”” (Matt. 28:19). As it has been often noted, disciples are not converts; they are learners, students, or apprentices, who give themselves to their master’s teaching (cf. Matt. 13:52). That’s the explicit teaching of Jesus, but the implicit assumption of our Lord is that teaching requires study. We know this by Jesus’s own life and the background of the Old Testament.

As evidenced by his discussion with scribes in the temple (Luke 2:46) and his use of the Old Testament in his teaching, Jesus grew up studying the Scriptures. He also expected his audiences to know the Scriptures (“have you not read,” Matt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 22:31; etc.). Similarly, the disciples knowledge of the Law came by their learning from Jesus (Acts 4:13). And all of this stands on the shoulders of the OT prophetic tradition, which made studying the Word of God the baseline for all faithful teaching (cf. Lev. 10:11; Ezra 7:10). For all these reasons and more, the pastoral office is a studious vocation. And those who cannot, or will not study the Scriptures, should not stand in the congregation proclaiming the Word, nor hold the office of pastor.

Second, elders are created and maintained by holding fast to God’s Word.

A number of years ago I preached a sermon on Titus 1:9, answering the question: Where do elders come from? And my answer was that elders are created by holding fast to the Word of God. As verse 9 declares, “[The overseer] 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.” In sum, the overseer must be able to teach truth and to refute error. But such an ability to declare and defend the faith means he has studied the Word of God.

Encouragingly, this means that erudition, economic class, and eloquence are not requirements for a pastor. Seminary may be helpful, but Scripture does not require pastors to have letters after their names. Jesus found his disciples in the fishing boats of Galilee, not in the schools of Jerusalem. This teaches us that schooling is not the requirement, but a conversion-long adherence to God’s Word is. In that sermon, I made the point that the key qualification for an elder and his teaching is that this man must “hold fast” to God’s Word such that it reforms his life and renews his mind.

And actually, in Paul’s letters, this idea of holding fast abounds. In 1 Timothy 1:19, we find that those who hold fast to the truth can serve the Lord and his church. Conversely, when men let go of God’s Word they will shipwreck their faith (vv. 19–20). Could it be that many prominent pastors have wrecked their ministries because they have failed to hold fast to the personal study of Scripture and in its place have permitted others to give them their sermon scripts? I can’t speak definitely, but the connection seems more than plausible. And if we now find a slew of pastors borrowing the work of others, it won’t be long before some of them let go of the Word itself. Maybe some already have. That’s how serious this is!

Back to Paul and the need to hold fast to the Word: pastors must be able to know the difference between myths and truth (1 Tim. 4:7), and they can only do that as they train themselves for godliness (v. 8). A few verses later (4:15), Paul encourages Timothy to immerse himself in the Word. And finally, in 1 Timothy 6:11–12, 20–21, Paul uses words like “pursue,” “fight,” “take hold,” and “guard” to stress the importance of the work and the strength needed to endure. In short, elders must not just believe the truth, they must hold fast to it like a man clings to a life-preserver in a raging sea. And the only way that an elder can do that is “to study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly, and frequently,” that he may find himself growing “in the knowledge of the same” (Jonathan Edwards, Resolution #28).

Woe to the pastor who studies the Scriptures to get the punch card to ministry (i.e., a seminary degree) and then adopts the habit of letting others study the Scriptures for him in ministry. A faithful husband wouldn’t let another man study his wife, so that the busy husband can give her a love letter with the adorations of a cuckold. And neither will a true shepherd permit another man do the work of studying the Scripture for the sheep he is called to pastor. This doesn’t mean we don’t learn from others, quote others, or depend on the work of others. But it does mean that there is a genuine communion with God in the study that translates to the pulpit. (For more on the ins-and-outs on using the materials of others in the pulpit, listen to this helpful podcast between Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman).

Third, pastors should have a such a close relationship with their congregations that the flock can see the progress of their shepherd in both doctrine and life.

This last point is a bit wordy, but it comes directly from the mind of Paul and his admonition to Timothy. In 1 Timothy 4:11–16, the apostle calls Timothy to uphold the Scriptures and to model the faith before the eyes of the church in Ephesus. He writes,

11 Command and teach these things. 12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

In this imperative-rich paragraph, Paul orients Timothy to the ministry of the Word that should both shape his life and his ministry. In particular, his instructions create a tight relationship between Timothy, the pastor (or apostolic delegate), and the congregation. Indeed, while too many pastors have experienced an adversarial relationship with their churches, the biblical ideal is one of fellowship and shared communion over the Word. As a result, pastors are not preparing a general Bible lesson for people they don’t know; they are preaching God’s Word to a people they do know. Such personal knowledge can never be provided by a Docent Research Group. It can only be cultivated and kept by a pastor who knows his people. (Yes, this personal knowledge gets at the issue of congregation size, but I’ll leave that for another day).

For now, we can clearly see that Paul calls Timothy to serve as a personal model for a particular people. In other words, the church at Ephesus must really know Timothy, what his life is like, and how his ministry of the Word does or does not impact his life. Simultaneously, the church needs to see that this man of God is “progressing” in his handling of the Word. As I have heard multiple times from David Helm in his preaching seminars, “Your people need to see your progress.” But this assumes that the pastor is actually doing the work of studying the Scripture—both for his life, his doctrine, and his regular ministry of preaching.

While Paul’s letters are directed to the work of the minister, these same letters offer insight into the relationship that must be cultivated between shepherd and sheep. This is not only because shepherds are also sheep, but because pastors are not unattached communicators of the Bible. Shepherds are assigned to local churches, and local churches are responsible for knowing and evaluating the life and ministry of their shepherds. Why else would Paul give his lists of elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus?

Practically, the best way to see fruit in an overseer is not through a yearly evaluation, but in a life that is immersed in the Word and that is leading others to make progress in God’s Word. Yet, such progress can only happen as a pastor gives himself to the Word of God and to a local congregation. When that happens, the church grows in the Word of God with the man of God (and a plurality of elders). But when that relationship is not bridged by the Word of God, the communication of the Word simply becomes an impersonal download of biblical information—figuratively and literally.

I realize that many churches are designed for such impersonal communicators of the gospel, that congregants have grown accustomed to not knowing their pastors, and that mega-churches are enticed to promote men who are apt to speak. But when we look at the biblical qualifications for pastors, “apt to teach” does not mean the same thing as “apt to speak.” Rather, apt to teach means someone who is gifted as a teacher, but such gifting includes a desire and ability to study the Word of God before he communicates it. Such a commitment to biblical study is being lost today. But that doesn’t mean reformation cannot come. It just means there is a need for repentance—repentance that begins with those who have made a habit of preaching the work of other men and repentance in churches for permitting such practices to go on.

In God’s Providence in the Plagiarism

Perhaps, in this whole debacle about using the words and the work of others, God’s shepherds and God’s flocks will get back to the basics of biblical ministry. I am hopeful that in God’s providence, the exposure of plagiarism in some of the SBC’s most prominent leaders will serve as a warning to all of us.

For as is all too evident today that pragmatism reigns in the church. And yet, God makes no promise to bless our all-wise efforts. He promises to bless the faithful teaching of his Word. And so with that in mind, may we who are called pastors return to our calling—to devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. And as Scripture directs, may our ministry of the Word be more than just speaking sermons, may it include the necessary study to produce such sermons. 

Apt to teach is not the same thing as apt to speak. And by God’s grace, may our Christ, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, grant the Church a fraternity of teachers who faithfully study the Word and preach the Word they study. 

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Alexander Michl on Unsplash


[1] One of the reasons why many women are entering pulpits and preaching to congregations on Sundays is because they are good communicators. And, of course they are. God has gifted his church with biblically-sound women who are gifted to teach. But such gifting does not determine the use of their gifts, God’s Word does. And hence, for reasons clearly articulated in 1 Timothy 2–3 and Titus 2, women are to teach women and are not permitted to teach the whole household of God. Yet, such a posture requires an unfailing commitment to the whole counsel of Scripture and the wise dictates that God prescribes for his church.

By contrast, when charismatic gifts determine the methods of ministry, all sorts of experiments can occur in church. And while unsuspecting Christians might not be able to tell the difference; those with a Bible in their hands can discover that God has something to say about the order of his church. And one of the things it says is biblically-qualified men—not just men, but those recognized by the congregation as qualified by God—are the ones who can teach the whole congregation.