Paul and the Ministry of Teaching
Paul's example of pastoral teaching is evangelical and spiritual.
Paul as Pastoral Teacher
I remember a time in my early twenties when I didn’t care much for the apostle Paul. He seemed to me a hard-headed, arrogant, theoretician of Christianity, who taught an abstract Christ of faith. I missed, for example, the intention of his fools’ boast in 2 Corinthians 11-12, a passage that now impresses me for its subversive irony and for the model of cruciform discipleship it provides. My opinion of Paul at that time was symptomatic of the sophomoric attitude that characterizes many young theology students. As it turns out, it was me who was arrogant and hard-headed. I’ve since repented and so been reconciled to Paul, whom I now read with great delight and appreciation.
Paul taught as a pastor and it is from a pastoral frame of reference that I wish to consider the ministry of teaching in the life of the church. I characterize Paul’s approach to teaching with three adjectives: 1) evangelical, 2) spiritual, and 3) transformative. The first two of these are addressed in this entry, the third in Part 2. Teaching is evangelical because it is Gospel centred, which means its content is centred on the biblical testimony about Christ. Teaching is spiritual because it is inextricably joined to the work of the Spirit.
Teaching is Evangelical
The basic content of the church’s teaching is the Gospel. Paul summarizes the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15.3-5. The bedrock of the Gospel is Christ’s death for our sins and his resurrection on the third day; however, Paul adds “in accordance with the Scriptures.” While Gospel teaching is centred on Christ and his death and resurrection, Paul has the whole canon of Scripture in view.[i]
Teaching the whole of Scripture
Our knowledge of the Gospel is the fruit of our learning the Scriptures. To teach the Gospel is to teach Scripture. Consider how many times Paul explicitly cites or alludes to the Old Testament in his exposition of the Gospel in Romans. He tells us near the end of that great letter, “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15.4). He then summarizes the Gospel, which he’s been expounding in the previous 14 chapters: “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show the truth of God, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Rom 15.8-9). The Gospel is the demonstration of the truth of God and the confirmation of his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
For Paul, then, to teach Christ is to teach Scripture. We are reminded here of Jesus’ own teaching about himself, “and beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24.27, niv). We are also reminded of Paul’s tearful farewell to the church in Ephesus, when he avowed to them, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20.27). Such is the scope of the church’s teaching ministry. The knowledge of Christ is the fruit of teaching and learning Scripture.
Teaching is Spiritual
The word “spiritual” is one of the vaguest, floppiest words in English parlance today, so much so that its function as an adjective is almost completely useless. Nevertheless, I use the adjective here because it’s Paul’s adjective and the sense in which he applies it needs to be recovered in the church today. Unfortunately, given our cultural climate, Paul’s use of the adjective “spiritual” (pneumatikos) is often misunderstood by readers of the New Testament.[ii] According the standard Greek lexicon of the New Testament, the adjective pneumatikos is used “in the great majority of cases with reference to the divine Pneuma (Spirit); having to do with the divine Spirit, caused by or filled with the divine Spirit, pertaining or corresponding to the divine Spirit.”[iii] The one instance where most readers are not misled by the adjective “spiritual” is in the case of spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are the gifts of the Spirit. “Spiritual” has the same connotation in almost every other usage in the New Testament (Ephesians 6.12 is the only exception).
The Role of the Holy Spirit
The previous paragraph has cleared the ground for what Paul has to say about the Holy Spirit and the ministry of teaching in the church. I describe Paul’s approach to teaching as spiritual because it is inextricably joined to the work of the Spirit. He declares in 1 Corinthians that the Gospel of the cross of Christ is the wisdom of God which
God has revealed to us through the Spirit. The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God … Now, we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit. (1 Cor. 2.10-13)
For Paul, Gospel teaching is a spiritual ministry. The biblical content of the church’s Gospel teaching is revealed by the Spirit, who enables both the teacher’s instruction and the learner’s understanding. Thus, when Paul prays that the Colossians “be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” (Col 1.9), he is praying that they be filled with knowledge in all the wisdom and understanding that comes from the Holy Spirit. Knowledge, wisdom, and understanding are given by the Spirit. With this in mind, we should also remember that the Spirit has appointed and gifted certain people within the church to be teachers (Rom 12.7; 1 Cor. 12.28-29; Eph. 4.11). Spiritual teaching is primarily exercised through the teaching and preaching offices of the church and is essential for the spiritual formation of believers. For Paul, there is no true spirituality outside the church.
[i] Paul’s reference here is to the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament; however, the New Testament is also in view here. Paul says that he delivered (paradidōmai) what he had received. This is the language of tradition (paradosis), handing over what has been received. Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “stand firm and hold to the traditions (paradoseis) that you were taught by us [the apostles]” (2 Thess 2.15). The New Testament is the scriptural record of apostolic tradition, which has been handed on to us.
[ii] See Gordon D. Fee, “On Getting the Spirit Back into Spirituality” in Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective, edited by Jeffrey P. Greenman and George Kalantzis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 36-44.
[iii] William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature : a translation and adaptation of the fourth revised and augmented edition of Walter Bauer's Griechisch-deutsches Wörterbuch zu den Schriften des Neuen Testaments und der übrigen urchristlichen Literatur, 4 ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), 685.