Types of Teaching

There are undoubtedly many forms and contexts of teaching that should take place within a healthy church. A pastor preaches a 45 minute sermon on a Sunday. In the same meeting, a woman brings a spontaneous contribution that consists of reading a Bible verse and a brief application of its message. A mother teaches her children the Lord’s prayer. A doctor gives a seminar on Christians in the medical profession at a church training day. A teenager leads the Bible study in the youth group. One friend gives Biblical advice to another as they walk in the woods together.

In a fascinating article on What You Think Matters, Andrew Wilson manages to divide all these forms of teaching into two categories, which he calls “Teaching” and “teaching”. The distinction boils down to whether an elder delivers it or not. This appears to be motivated at least in part by the question of what sort of “teaching” a woman is prohibited from exercising in 1 Tim 2:12 (he links to another article he has written on this verse). If we assume Paul doesn’t intend to prohibit every form of teaching in this verse, then we need to distinguish in some way between the type he prohibits and the type he permits.

I agree there is an important distinction to be made between teaching by elders and teaching by non-elders. But I think another obvious and perhaps more natural division is between formal and informal teaching. Sermons, youth group talks and house group Bible studies are formal. They occur at meetings where the whole or subgroups within the church are gathered for the purpose of receiving teaching. The person giving the teaching is either an elder or has been approved by the elders to fulfil that role (sometimes there might be another level of sub-delegation). By contrast, informal teaching happens when you are chatting with friends in your home about spiritual matters, or when someone spontaneously brings a “word of instruction” that has not been pre-planned or pre-approved.

As an illustration of this distinction, you can formally or informally teach someone to play the guitar. Formally would mean you meet a designated teacher at a set place and time and follow a pre-prepared agenda.  Learning informally happens as you are playing together with a friend and they spontaneously offer you some hints about better technique or new chord fingerings.

Within the category of “formal” teaching, it becomes clear that some teaching is more obviously elder-approved than others. On a Sunday morning either the elders are preaching, or they have selected to someone they clearly have a high degree of trust in. Whereas you might go to small group meeting in which the person leading the Bible study comes out with some rather dubious ideas they heard on Christian television. Since the elders are not present, it is fairly clear that this teaching is not necessarily approved by them.

So that leaves me with three categories of teaching: formal teaching by the elders, formal teaching by non-elders, and informal teaching by anyone. This leaves me needing a middle case t for which I’ll use the Greek letter Tau.

Capital T “Teaching” is performed by the elders, and carries their authority as those who safeguard the doctrinal and ethical purity of the church. As in Titus 2:15, they have the right and responsibility to issue rebukes from time to time when serious error emerges in the church. Their “Teaching” most often takes place in the public gathering of the whole church, although naturally an elder will often get involved in teaching in smaller contexts too.

“Middle case” τeaching occurs in many formal gatherings of the church such as youth groups and small groups, but not normally with the whole church gathered. These τeachers have been given delegated authority by the elders to lead and teach within a particular small group context. They are trusted, and so elders do not feel the need to be always present checking up on what is taught. Nonetheless, the church understand that they may not necessarily be getting the “official line” on these occasions.

Finally, “lower case” teaching is informal and carried out by anyone in the church, even those young in the faith and is often done outside of the context of a formal meeting. This means that occasionally things are taught that are in need of some kind of balance or correction to be brought. Nevertheless this type of teaching is invaluable in bringing the whole church to maturity.

Does this threefold categorization help us out with 1 Tim 2:12? We could see it as prohibiting Capital T teaching only, or extend it (as some churches do) to most instances of middle case τeaching too. But we still find ourselves with confusing questions. Is the Sunday morning sermon addressed to the entire gathered church an instance of Teaching or τeaching? Maybe we need even more categories.

Of course, making a distinction between two types of “teaching” might help us out with 1 Tim 2:12, but it still leaves us with the puzzle of 1 Cor 14:34. Here the word is speak (λαλέω) rather than teach (διδάσκω), and again it would seem that it only prohibits some form of speaking, but not all (since women could at least pray and prophesy for example – see 1 Cor 11:5). So can we say Paul allows a woman to “speak” but not “Speak”? And what about σpeaking?

In summary, whilst distinguishing between two types of teaching might help us to progress on 1 Tim 2:12, it strikes me that the line could legitimately be drawn in a number of different places, with very little solid exegetical evidence available to choose between them.

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