Content adapted from Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons by Thabiti Anyabwile
Paul’s criterion “able to teach” in 1 Timothy 3:2 refers to the ability to communicate and apply the truth of Scripture with clarity, coherence, and fruitfulness. This ability is not limited to public teaching from the pulpit. Some men are not exceptional public speakers, but they are teaching and counseling the people around them from the Scriptures all the time. Such men should not be disqualified from the office of elder.
Teaching ability is the unique gift associated with the office of elder, and aspiring men must possess it. We must not overlook this qualification when assessing a candidate for pastoral leadership: Can he teach?
QUESTIONS AND OBSERVATIONS
1. Pastors must look for ways to provide men in the church opportunities to teach in order to assess giftedness and ability.
Men who have an interest in teaching and who meet biblical qualifications for the office of elder should be given opportunities to teach in appropriate settings, such as Sunday evening services, Sunday school, mid-week Bible studies, or training and workshop experiences. Whatever the local situation, pastors and churches should create opportunity to observe and affirm the teaching gifts of men in the congregation.
2. Assuming a man has had a number of opportunities to teach, how capable is he?
Pastors should probably grant a man several opportunities to grow and learn as a teacher. His ability need not be judged on a maiden voyage. But over time, it needs to be asked whether the man demonstrates skill in interpreting a text, outlining a sermon, communicating biblical ideas clearly, applying the Scripture appropriately, and anticipating objections and pastoral needs in the body. Cultivating and assessing this gift requires clear, honest, and patient appraisal.
3. Does the man show pastoral sensibility in his teaching?
Congregations should look for men who know the body and are able to apply God’s Word to God’s people. Does the prospective elder show discernment in this regard? Is he able to speak to hurts, pains, joys, needs, history, and hopes in the congregation? Does he tend to beat the sheep or feed the sheep? If he knows the people, it should show up in how he nurtures them in the teaching (1 Thess. 2:11–12).
4. Is the prospective elder committed to exposition (or the church’s preaching philosophy)?
Does he agree with the current elder(s) on what preaching is and should be? Widely divergent views about this essential task may cause serious strain on the eldership and on the main preaching pastor as he endeavors to discharge his duty faithfully. Divergent opinions may also affect the sheep as teachers employ fundamentally different strategies in the pulpit. The elders set the character and the tone of the teaching ministry, so unity in teaching philosophy is necessary.
5. Are others edified by his teaching?
Will the congregation, if asked, affirm that this man has teaching ability and that they spiritually benefit from his teaching? Ask around to see how others receive and use a prospective elder’s teaching.
6. Does the man disciple others?
Since not all (or even most) teaching is public, we should look to those smaller, less public areas as well. Does the prospective elder help others grow in Christ in more private settings such as small groups or one-on-one discipleship? Is he faithful to help others work through difficulties or questions? Do others come to him for advice and counsel? And is his counsel consistently and thoroughly biblical? A man may do a great deal of pastoral work in the hallways or in the parking lot after church or over a cup of coffee during the week. Who are those men who teach in this way?
7. Is the man theologically mature and supportive of the church’s theological distinctives?
A man may have a gift, but the gift must be informed by appropriate content. Many are skilled at emotionally rousing the crowd but cannot explain the basic doctrines of the faith. So leaders and churches must assess a man’s theological maturity and knowledge. For the unity of the church, a man with teaching authority should be able to fully champion the church’s distinctives.
8. Can the prospective elder defend the faith?
The ability to defend the truth is another aspect of sound teaching ability (Titus 1:9). Pastors and churches should consider whether the potential elder demonstrates an ability to correct error and preserve the truth, without being argumentative and unkind, but patiently and gently.
9. Is the man himself teachable?
Will the elder candidate be a model to the congregation as someone who humbly and joyfully receives the Word with profit? Being teachable is itself teaching; it models humility before others. If a pastor is not given to learning and submitting to the teaching of his fellow elders, he creates tension inside the eldership and may model hardness of heart before the sheep. Or worse, he may be less the teacher and more the dictator in interacting with the sheep.
As pastors and churches, we must find reliable men and entrust to them the things we have learned from faithful men. In order for the transmission of the truth to happen well, the men we appoint to leadership must be able to teach in various settings and ways. Calling a man who cannot teach, to serve as an elder, is like channeling the pure, wholesome milk of the gospel through rusty, corroded pipes. The Word continues to be milk, but for how long? And who wants to drink milk from a rusty pipe?