Teaching is Transformative
If teaching is spiritual, it must also be transformative, for the Spirit is the sanctifying Spirit. According to Paul, the purpose of the church’s teaching ministry is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that you may no longer be children” (Eph. 4.12-14).
The purpose of the church’s teaching ministry is that we attain the maturity of full adulthood and no longer be children.[i] The word Paul uses for mature is teleios, a word used to describe something that has reached its intended end (telos) and so has been perfected. The ministry of teaching in the church is the ministry of equipping and building up believers, until we all reach our intended end – “to the full measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (an end which we will not finally reach until the day of Christ’s return, when we will be resurrected in glory).
From Infancy to Maturity
Paul goes on to explain this transformation from infancy to maturity in Christ by contrasting the non-believer’s way of life with that of the believer (Eph. 4.17-32). Whereas the non-believer lacks understanding due to ignorance and hardness of heart, which leads to moral depravity, the believer has “learned Christ” (4.20) and so has put off the old way of life and put on “the new self, created after the likeness of God in true holiness and righteousness” (4.24). Paul’s language here picks up on one of the great themes of Scripture: the creation of human beings in the image of the God and the distortion of that image by unbelief and idolatry. Human beings reflect what they worship (see Ps 115.1-9), so that those who worship idols eventually become like them: deaf, dumb, blind, lame, mindless, and hard-hearted.
Healing from the Disease of Idolatry
As Paul sees it, the ministry of Gospel teaching is a ministry of healing from the disease of idolatry. Learning Christ is a healing of heart and mind, a renewal of our true humanity, a restoration of the image of God. Paul tells us that the defining characteristics of that image are holiness and righteousness, which he then illustrates in the closing verses of Ephesians 4. Holiness and righteousness are exemplified in honest speech that builds up and is gracious to those who hear it and honest work that enables us to share with those in need. We are holy and righteous when we are kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving with one another (Eph. 4.25-32).
The Purpose of Teaching and Learning
As someone with a Ph.D. in theology, I’m all for studying and teaching the Bible and church doctrine; however, the purpose of the church’s teaching ministry is not expertise in theological discourse. Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “we proclaim Christ, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature (teleios) in Christ” (Col. 1.28). The teaching ministry of the church is for the equipping and building up of the church, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. The goal is not simply intellectual comprehension of biblical doctrine. The goal is to “become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed” (Rom. 6.17), and thus to be transformed after the likeness of God in true holiness and righteousness. This is not to say, however, that there are any shortcuts by which we can by-pass teaching the full counsel of God (cf. Acts 20.27). How can we expect to reach full maturity in Christ and to put on the new self after the likeness of God without a robust and complete doctrine of God? To teach water-downed theology is to leave room for idolatry and to abandon Christians in their infancy.
Conclusion: The Agony of Pastoral Teaching
I return now to the pastoral frame of reference in which I’ve been considering Paul’s view of teaching in the church. Paul teaches as a pastor, for whom the teaching ministry is an agonizing ministry. In his letter to the Colossians, after stating the purpose of the teaching ministry, “that we may present everyone mature in Christ,” he writes, “for this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you” (Col 1.29-2.1). This is a somber note on which to conclude this article, but I sound this note in order to encourage pastors and teachers. Paul does not minimize the agony of teaching; however, he will not allow us to give in to despair, for we struggle “with all [God’s] energy that he powerfully works within us” (Col. 1.29). Such agony is an affirmation of our calling as teachers, because it is evidence of God’s energy powerfully working in us. Again, it is by the appointment and gifting of the Holy Spirit that we teach, and it is the Spirit who energizes our teaching and makes it effective. Teaching and learning Christ is a painful process of transformation;[ii] however, that very agony assures us that God’s Spirit is at work, and “he who began a good work in you will bring to completion at the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1.6).
Finally, I end with Paul’s exhortation to those who are served by the church’s teaching ministry: “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6.6). Teaching is an agonizing ministry. Remember to encourage and bless your pastors and teachers.
[i] Paul uses the term “man” (anēr) rather than “human being” (anthrōpos), not because he as a gender bias, but in order to contrast anēr (a full grown man) with children (nēpioi), who are human beings but not yet full grown.
[ii] Cf. C.S. Lewis’ description of this transformation when Eustace becomes a dragon in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader