Joe McKeever: A Minister Should Be Able to Teach

Joe McKeever

I am a teacher.

When I was a senior in high school, a classmate gave me one of those unforgettable moments that lives in one’s mind forever. Principal Andy Davis had summoned me to his office to help Jerry Crittenden with a math problem. Now, Jerry was a big football player, lovable and kindhearted, and a joy to be around. But in math, the guy was lost. Toward the end of our session, Jerry said, “Joe, you should be a teacher. I can understand it the way you explain it.”

Eighteen months later, following a frustrating freshman year of college that taught me one huge thing—I do not want to major in physics—I realized that God wanted me to be a teacher. He had gifted me with a love for history as well as a delight in learning, and He had surrounded me with some excellent teachers as role models.

At the time, I thought the idea was to become a history teacher in high school and later, after getting the necessary education, in college. Then, as a senior in college, God called me to preach. I think members of my churches over these years would say, however, that Joe never quit teaching. And that’s good.

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“Able to teach.” What a strange thing the apostle Paul did. In the middle of calling his preachers to hold down the noise, to quiet the arguments and to still the controversies, he wants them gentle and patient and kind—and able to teach. Pastor search committees would do well to put this skill high on their list of requirements when checking out preachers.

It’s one thing to preach well and something entirely different to teach. We must not confuse the two. In 2 Timothy 1:11, Paul tells us he was appointed by the Lord as “a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher.”

I recall a day in seminary when we spent the entire class period discussing the difference in preaching and teaching. Eventually, we decided that there is no definitive difference. But I think we were wrong, and Paul is making this point. In the passage where he identifies himself as preacher, apostle and teacher, he clearly sees them as separate and distinct assignments.

This is not original with me by any means, but it seems clear that the distinction goes like this:

  • preacher (or herald) is one who proclaims the message of Christ to the masses, to anyone and everyone, in church and in the streets.
  • The apostle is an ambassador for Christ (in the sense of 2 Corinthians 5:20 and beyond). He may be a missionary or a pastor, but God gives him great influence with many pastors and large numbers of churches.
  • The teacher instructs those who have become followers of Jesus. This is a more restricted ministry than preaching.

Paul says God called some to be “pastors and teachers” (Eph. 4:11). We who lead the Lord’s flocks are shepherds and instructors.

Now, the question remains: What does it mean to be “able to teach”?

1. One who is able to teach knows and loves his subject thoroughly. I do not want to sit in a class where the Bible is taught by someone who does not love the Lord.

2. One able to teach understands the larger scope and the specific details, the big and the small picture. Some sermons and/or lessons are microscopic in nature and some telescopic. One of the best-received lessons I ever taught to college students many years ago was an entire history of the Old Testament in one period. Putting people and events in their proper order and showing the geographical movements of God’s people all at one time was eye-opening for many. Pastors who love to spend a year on one chapter of the Bible, take note.

3. One able to teach knows and cares for his students. He or she is not teaching history, but teaching people. Big difference.

George W. Truett used to say a pastor spends his week in the homes of his people, diagnosing their situations so he can stand in the pulpit on Sunday and prescribe remedies. The pastor who neglects personal ministry so he can spend all his time in his study will quickly find his messages becoming irrelevant.

4. One able to teach speaks the language of his students. This almost goes without saying, but not quite. Even if everyone in the room speaks English, the teacher will be careful not to use unintelligible terms and unfathomable quotations, but to put everything on a reachable level.

5. One able to teach is himself teachable. No one knows it all, so teachers must be constantly learning also. The person who shuts down the learning mechanism, certain that they now know it all, is painful to endure. A major aspect of the childlike trait of which Jesus makes so much (Mark 10:15) is being teachable.

6. One able to teach encourages further growth and development in the students. We stand in awe at Barnabas, “Mr. Encourager.” He took the newly called apostle Saul under his wing and nurtured him in the Lord’s work as they went on the initial missionary journey. As they departed, it was Barnabas and Saul (Acts 13:2, 7). But they’d not been working long when the roles reversed and we read of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:13, 43).

7. One able to teach benefits as much from the experience as the students themselves do. I’m indebted to classmate Bill Lowe for teaching me this. We were in our first year of seminary and taking Hebrew under Dr. George Harrison. Now, I was 24, just two years out of college, but Bill was 37 and college was a distant memory for him. After class one day, he said, “Joe, could you help me with this? Hebrew is killing me.”

Since we lived a half-block from each other, getting together several times a week was no problem. And that’s when I made a discovery. In helping Bill to understand a concept, I was helping myself see it more clearly.

The background to that, the reason the lesson meant so much, is that in college, I had lived off-campus and studied in isolation. My four terms of French were a delight in some respects, but nothing like what they would have been had I studied with a classmate. No language can be learned by oneself. (For this and other reasons, over these years I have urged students—my own children and grandchildren among them—to find classmates with whom to study. In helping each other, they will illustrate the truth of Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, the passage that begins “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.”).

Preaching is good. Preach the Word, preach the gospel, yes. But once they have responded, then get them into a class where they can learn and grow. Teach the disciples.

This would be a good place for a plug for Sunday School, wouldn’t it?

Dr. Joe McKeever writes from the vantage point of more than 60 years as a disciple of Jesus, more than 50 years preaching His gospel and more than 40 years of cartooning for every imaginable Christian publication.

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