On Teaching

In this essay I formulate a personal model for leadership focused on the role and practice of teaching in which I continue to be engaged. Rather than discussing methods and contexts—the how, when and where of teaching—I draw primarily on Colossians and the Pastoral Epistles to present some fundamental principles and concerns that I hope will guide and shape myself and my teaching practice. In doing so I will note how these features of teaching engage with, address or relate to certain prominent features of contemporary Western society and culture which present a challenge to teaching in my context.

The Goal of Teaching – Maturity in Christ

Teaching is an integral aspect of the life of the Church which I have come to be involved in and value greatly. It is of vital importance that its goals are rightly understood, for from those follow both form and content. What then are the principle goals of teaching?

In his letter to the Colossians, we find an answer to this question in relation Paul’s self-understanding of his ministry and that of his co-workers. Writing of his commission to make known the mystery of the gospel—here expressed as “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27)—Paul states:

“It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (1:28)

The activities of proclamation, warning, and teaching serve the goal (ἵνα) of presenting everyone “mature in Christ.”[i] It is to this end that he labors and strives by God’s power (1:29). The term “mature” (τέλειος) has the sense of perfection or completion,[ii] and recalls the thought of 1:21-22 where the goal of God’s work of reconciliation is to present the reconciled as “holy and blameless and irreproachable before him.”[iii] The maturity that is the goal of teaching therefore relates to the fulfilment of God’s will in the life of the believer,[iv] with a strong ethical component focused on the values, character, priorities, and relationships of those in Christ (Col. 3:5-4:6). Despite the attention given to knowledge and wisdom in the letter,[v] the objective of teaching is not the transference of information. Rather the teaching of such knowledge is to engage the heart and mind in order that lives may be transformed (3:10), a three-fold concern comes to expression in the prayer report of 1:9-11, where mind, emotion, and action are all represented.[vi]

In Colossians 1:28 this goal is expressed with emphasis upon the individual. The phrase “every man” (singular) indicates the care and time taken for individuals.[vii] Their teaching included time given to individuals in their learning, not only groups. While found in a mere two words, I believe this conveys an important aspect of their practice of teaching which I wish to take forward. The vast majority of teaching whether in the context of a church or a tertiary institution occurs in group settings. Those learning often have questions to ask, matters upon which to seek clarification, and implications to explore. In my experience follow up interactions of this a personal sort is where a great deal of learning takes place. How this is carried out will depend on context and the individual, and therefore requires the sort of wisdom referred to in 1:28.[viii]

Such attempts to teach people how they ought to live their lives and relate to one another come under great suspicion within New Zealand society.[ix] The distrust of claims to truth as assertions of personal power and self-interest is a central thread of our post-modern intellectual and moral climate.[x]

This is active not only in the distrust of authorities and institutions, but of individuals and groups who claim to teach the truth and shape people’s lives. The moral corollary is that value is placed in authenticity and integrity, and people have a sharp eye for inauthenticity or the “fake”. It is vital one walks one’s own talk.[xi] Hypocrisy is far worse than believing something another believes to be false, if it is believed such a matter can be determined at all.

Within this context my own integrity as a teacher is paramount and this is exactly what Scripture calls for. Timothy is instructed to “pay close attention” to himself and his teaching alike (1 Tim 4:16), to “set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). Titus is instructed to show himself “in all respects a model of good works” and so that his teaching has “integrity” (ἀφθορία) and is “beyond reproach” (ἀκατάγνωστος), with opponents having nothing to accuse him of (Tit 2:7-8).[xii]

The Center of Teaching – The Gospel

The goal of “maturity in Christ” means that a large component of teaching should concern character and conduct. But the task is not exhausted by this. If we were to ask Paul where God’s will is to be known his answer is resolutely in Christ (Col 2:2-3). There is a crucial and irrevocable connection between the indicative (the gospel) and the imperative (ethics),[xiii] which comes to expression not only in the structure of Colossians,[xiv] but in the logic expressed within it.

While the verb “teaching” (διδάσκω) in Col 1:28 has a non-specific reference and in principle includes “whatever is necessary to strengthen faith,”[xv] it is certainly focused upon Christ. The knowledge that leads to maturity is of “Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2-3). Knowledge of God’s will is found in Christ for he is “the image of the invisible God” (1:15) in whose image believers are being renewed (3:10). It is the story of Christ which informs us of the will of God. The use of the term “maturity” (τέλειος) itself suggests that completeness is found “in Christ” and therefore by implication there is no need to look elsewhere.[xvi]

This connection between ethics and theology comes to expression in the Pastoral Epistles as well. In 1 Tim 1:9-11 “sound teaching” is “according to” (κατά) the Gospel.[xvii] While this is primarily to do with conduct and the shaping of relationships rather than a fixed theological orthodoxy,[xviii] the Gospel and its moral implications are inseparable.

The goal of teaching, then, is maturity through growth in the knowledge of God and God’s will found in Christ (1:9-10; 1:28), and therefore teaching should concern both Christ himself—his past and ongoing story (1:13-28; 2:2-3, 6-7, 8-15; 1 Tim 1:5, 10)[xix]—and the transformation of relationships which flow from this (3:5-4:1. Esp. 3:10).[xx]

This gospel focus does not imply that every sermon, lecture, study, publication, etc., must communicate the core gospel message (however this is conceived). There is a balance to be struck between teaching the Gospel wherein all wisdom and understanding of God and God’s will is to be found, and addressing contemporary questions and issues generated by our intellectual and moral engagement with an ever-changing world, and the distinctive complexes of each of our lives within it. What it does indicate is that such work must always be approached through the lenses of the Gospel story.

It also suggests a certain restraint when it comes to speculative or biblically ambiguous matters which should have little if any bearing on our discipleship. At worst such matters have historically become issues of contention and division, at best they are needless distractions which can take our focus off of Jesus.[xxi] In the Pastoral Epistles Paul makes it clear that Timothy and Titus are to avoid debates and controversies over the law and matters which “breed quarrels” (2 Tim 2:23) and upset the faith of some (2 Tim 2:18). Such matters distract from sound teaching and do not serve the building up of the church which is the proper goal of teaching (1 Tim 1:4-7; 2 Tim 2:14, 16, 23; Tit 3:9). The fact that Paul instructs Timothy and Titus to put a stop to some instances of this activity lends further weight to the harmful effects of teaching which does not proceed from the Gospel (1 Tim 1:4, 6-7; 2 Tim 2:14; Tit 1:10-13; 3:9-11).

Defending the Faith and Engaging theological deviance

A final feature of the ministry of teaching involves engaging with theological deviance and intellectual challenges to the faith. The importance of “sound” or “healthy” teaching is a particular concern of the Pastoral Epistles[xxii] within which Paul addresses situations where false teaching had become a significant problem.[xxiii] The term “healthy” (ὑγιαίνω) is used metaphorically to contrast the beneficial effects of the gospel with detrimental effects of false teaching. The gospel leads to the moral life, whereas false teaching leads to immorality (1 Tim 6:3-10; 2 Tim 3:1-9; Tit 1:10-16).[xxiv]

The emergence of false beliefs among believers and the activity of those who seek to propagate these, means that the teacher needs to be both willing and able to combat this threat to the health of those in Christ. In several passages Paul instructs Timothy and Titus to take certain measures directly with those who are spreading false teaching or engaging in controversies. This can take the form of instruction, rebuke, exhortation, reinforcing sound doctrine, silencing false teachers, and even some form of expulsion (2 Tim 2:14; 4:2; 1 Tim 1:3, 19-20; Tit 1:13-14; 2:1-15; 3:8-11).[xxv] Above all Timothy and Titus must demonstrate persistence (2 Tim 4:2), patience (2 Tim 2:24) and correct opponents “with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:25).

We now live in what has been described as the information age, where the dissemination of information through multiple forms of media puts more “knowledge” in peoples hand than ever before. Outside of the congregation, well publicised books which take aim at the historical claims of the gospel or which seek to present Christianity in the worst possible light are published almost every year.[xxvi] Then there is the prolific publication of ‘popular’ Christian titles which present all manner of innovative or progressive theologies (although very few are genuinely original). The internet is filled with “amateur theologians” who hold large audiences of followers through their blogs.[xxvii] The result of all this is that believers needn’t wait for an itinerant “false’’ teacher to have their faith endangered, they have ready access to material both helpful and harmful to their faith, and most lack the resources to distinguish the two. Such a context demands that the teacher be both aware and ready to engage with these perspectives when and where it is required for the health of his/her Christian community. For the teacher has the resources and skills which others should not be expected to have. The ability to help believers negotiate the present sea of theological and ethical claims is vital.



deSliva, David A. An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarstiy Press, 2004.

Dunn, James D. G. The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon. NIGTC. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996.

Furnish, Victor P. Theology and Ethics in Paul. Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 2009.

Gingerich, Bart. “Theologizers and the Anti-Seminary.” No Pages. Cited 10 November 2014. Online: http://juicyecumenism.com/2014/05/21/theologizers-and-the-anti-seminary.

Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996.

Harris, Murray J. Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament: Colossians and Philemon. Nashville, Tennessee: B & H Academic, 2010.

Malherbe, Abraham J. Paul and the Popular Philosophers. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.

Marshall, I. Howard. ‘Congregation and Ministry in the Pastoral Epistles.’ Pages 105-125 in Community Formation in the Early Church and in the Church Today. Edited by Richard N. Longenecker. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002. [1]

O’Brien, Peter T. Colossians, Philemon. WBC 44. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1982.

Reza, Aslan. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Random House, 2014.

Sumney, Jerry L. Colossians: A Commentary. NTL. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

Thiselton, Anthony C. Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995.

Tidball, Derek. Ministry by the Book: New Testament patterns for pastoral leadership. Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2008.

Towner, Philip H. The Letters to Timothy and Titus. NICNT. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006.

Trebilco, Paul. The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius. WUNT 166. Tǜrbingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2004.

Wegenast, K. “Teach.” Pages 759-781 in vol. 3 of The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology. Edited by Colin Brown. 4 vols. Exeter, Devon: Paternoster Press, 1975.

Young, Frances. The Theology of the Pastoral Letters. Cambridge: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 1994.


[1] Marshall, I. Howard, ‘Congregation and Ministry in the Pastoral Epistles,’ in Community Formation in the Early Church and in the Church Today (ed. Richard N. Longenecker. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), ??.

[i] “Teaching” and “warning” here can be understood to indicate either the means by which the proclamation of Christ is carried out or activities which accompanied this proclamation. Murray J. Harris, Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament: Colossians and Philemon (Nashville, Tennessee: B & H Academic, 2010), 65.

[ii] Louw-Nida, “τέλειος,” GELNT 88.36. It is used in reference to the condition of a sacrifice as without blemish, of moral character and conduct, and the mastery of a subject/craft. See Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 125-6.

[iii] O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon (WBC 44. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1982), 89. Both passages are eschatological in orientation. James D. G. Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (NIGTC. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996), 124-5, 6.

[iv] In 1:9-10 Paul reports of his (their) prayers for the Colossians that their growth in “knowledge of God’s will” would lead them to “bear fruit in every good work”, and later in the report of Epaphras’ prayer for them where the adjective “mature” (τέλειος) is directly related with God’s will (4:12). Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 89.

[v] 1:9-10, 15; 2:2-3, 8, 23.

[vi] This same thought comes to expression in Romans 12:1-2 where the renewing of the mind leads to transformation (μεταμορφόω) where the believer can carry out the “will of God”. Again the term “perfect” (τέλειος) is used to describe this.

[vii] “The singular was used to show that each person individually (ἄνθρωπος is generic) was the object of the apostle’s care.” O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 88-89. Cf. 1 Thess 2:11-12. Contra Dunn (The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 125) who understands this to express the hope that at the end every person will be found in Christ.

[viii] The phrase “in all wisdom” (1:28), expresses the flexibility and tailoring of their ministry to those to whom they are ministering. It is the manner rather than the content of their admonishing/teaching which is intended. Jerry L. Sumney, Colossians: A Commentary (NTL. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 108.

[ix] This is owed largely to postmodern currents which are reshaping many aspects of Western culture and society in general.

[x] “The postmodern self follows Nietzsche and Freud in viewing claims to truth largely as devices which serve to legitimate power-interests. Disguise covers everything. Hence a culture of distrust and suspicion emerges.” Anthony C. Thiselton, Interpreting God and the Postmodern Self: On Meaning, Manipulation and Promise (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 12. On the connection drawn between knowledge and power see Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1996), 6-7, 92-93.

[xi] Interestingly, this perspective is not sustained when it comes to radical breaches of one’s own ethical standards by another. The barbaric actions of the Islamic State, for example, are denounced even though they are perhaps being ‘true’ to their convictions.

[xii] “Unlike the deviant teachers described in this letter, whose message is soiled by their bad conduct, the genuine leader must adorn his or her teaching with a lifestyle in conformity with that teaching.” David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarstiy Press, 2004), 752. It is such integrity which will grant Timothy the credibility and authority to lead (752-3).

[xiii] On the interplay between indicative and imperative in Paul ethics see Victor P. Furnish, Theology and Ethics in Paul (Lousiville, Kentucky: Westminster John Know Press, 2009), 224-7.

[xiv] Note the largely theological and Christological concerns of 1:1-2:6, the theological critique of practices in 2:7-3:4, and the ethical concerns of 3:5-4:6.

[xv] Sumney, Colossians: A Commentary, 108.

[xvi] Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, 126.

[xvii] Paul Trebilco, The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (WUNT 166. Tǜrbingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 469. The gospel remains in the Pastorals the story of Christ. See 2 Tim 2:8; also 1 Tim 3:16.

[xviii] See Frances Young, The Theology of the Pastoral Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge Universtiy Press, 1994), 95.

[xix] Derek Tidball, Ministry by the Book: New Testament patterns for pastoral leadership (Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2008), 133-4. “Paul never really does anything more than unfold the Gospel itself.” (134)

[xx] It is as such that attainment of the goal of God’s reconciling work for one’s life depends (εἴ γε) upon continuing “securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel” (1:23).

[xxi] The case made by Paul against the false teachings directly addressed in 2:8-23 is partly that such teachings are simply not necessary and if anything are distracting because they take ones focus off of Christ (2:18-19, 3:1-2).

[xxii] Note the relative abundance of the word “teaching” (διδασκαλία) which occurs 15 times in the Pastorals compared to 6 in the rest of the NT. Young, The Theology of the Pastoral Letters, 74. See 76-79. In the Pastoral letters “sound teaching” occurs 4 times (1 Tim 1:10; 2 Tim 4:3; Tit 1:9; 2:1), “sound words” 3 times (1 Tim 6:3; 2 Tim 1:13; Tit 2:8), and “sound in faith” twice (Tit 1:13; 2:2).

[xxiii] “The problems occasioning these letters relate to teaching. The response to the situation produces an emphasis on teaching that which is approved.” Young, The Theology of the Pastoral Letters, 75-6. 1 Tim 1:3-11, 18-20; 4:1-7; 6:3-5, 20-21; 2 Tim 2:14-18, 22-26; 3:1-9; 4:3-5; Tit 1:10-16; 3:8-11. For critical discussion of these situations, see Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus (NICNT. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2006), 41-50; Trebilco, The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius, 209-235; Young, The Theology of the Pastoral Letters, 5-20.

[xxiv] Abraham J. Malherbe, Paul and the Popular Philosophers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 121. Trebilco, The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius, 471. Abraham Malherbe has demonstrated that ὑγιαίνω as well as many other medical terms throughout the letters should be understood in relation to the moral exhortation of the Cynic philosophers who employed such imagery in regard to virtues and vices and their own role as “physicians of the soul”. See Paul and the Popular Philosophers, 121-136.

[xxv] See the summary in deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament, 754.

[xxvi] For example, 2014 has seen the publication of Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2014).

[xxvii] With regard to such blogs, Bart Gingerich comments that “Everyone has been given just enough knowledge and literacy to get them into trouble and yet none of the patience or discipline to get them out of it. Everyone with a blog or Twitter account can shoot out lots of small ideas that lack depth, grounding, and merit. Thus, American Christians are confronted with more and more theological ideas that have less and less worth.” Bart Gingerich, “Theologizers and the Anti-Seminary,” n.p. [cited 10 November 2014]. Online: http://juicyecumenism.com/2014/05/21/theologizers-and-the-anti-seminary.