What's a Teacher (and how's that different from a Pastor)?

The office of the Teacher (or, as it used to be called in older English, Doctor of the Church) doesn't get talked about all that much. Pastors and Evangelists are (hopefully) quite visible, so we have some sort of idea of who they are and what they do. Apostles and Prophets might sound a bit more exotic (in some parts of the church at least), so people keep writing books about them. But lots of people get confused when I say I'm a Teacher (and even more confused when they realise I don't mean school teacher!). So what actually is an ordained Teacher? 

Well, first, we need to recognise that all Elders must be ‘able to teach’ (1 Tim. 3:2). So Teachers aren't simply ministers who are able to teach, because all ministers need to be able to do that. But, if a Pastor needs to be able to teach, and teaching is actually quite an important part of a Pastor's ministry, then what makes a Teacher different?

The Bible doesn't actually give us a job-description of each of the ministry gifts. Although some people would prefer to read Ephesians 4:11 in a way that would combine Pastors and Teachers into one office, there's plenty of evidence elsewhere in the New Testament for the office of the Teacher. In Acts 13:1, the ‘prophets and teachers’ in Antioch met to pray and fast. In 1 Corinthians 12:28, Paul writes that ‘God has placed in the church ... third teachers’ (after apostles and prophets). Not only does he highlight teachers as a distinct ministry here, but he also associates them with two ministries which are not strictly local (as he does again in the following verse). Writing to Timothy, Paul reveals that he was himself as Teacher, as well as an Apostle (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). (This would suggest that Paul was one of the Teachers at the prayer meeting in Antioch in Acts 13.) Again here, Paul gives us an indication that the ministry of the Teacher is not a purely local ministry, for in both these instances in the letters to Timothy he calls himself ‘a Teacher of the Gentiles.’ Finally, James warns, ‘let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.’ (Jas 3:1).  Great care should be exercised over all teaching in the church, and especially over calling someone to the office of Teacher. 

What can we take away from those Scriptures? Firstly, that there is an office of Teacher in the church. Second, that the office of Teacher is associated with the Apostles and Prophets rather than with the local ministries of Elders and Deacons, suggesting that the ministry of Teacher is given not just for the benefit of one local assembly, but for the church more widely (without neglecting the importance of the teaching ministry in the local church). 

One more thing: the name of the office itself tells us something. Our modern English Bibles call it a Teacher, and older writers tended to call it the Doctor. Both those English words help give us an idea of the nature of this ministry. A Teacher is one who is set apart to teach. But what the Teacher is set apart to teach has a specific scope: the Doctor conveys Doctrine — the Teacher teaches the Teaching of the Faith. (So the word Doctor is still quite a helpful word as it reminds us of what type of teaching the Teacher is called to teach.)

So, how does that compare to a Pastor? First, we seem to have sufficient biblical evidence for a distinction between the office of Teacher and the office of Pastor. Second, the Teacher seems to be associated with the wider governing offices in the church, and not only with the local life of a single congregation. Third, the Teacher might not have other gifts necessary for a Pastor: the Teacher is called to teach, not necessarily to do some of the other tasks that a pastor needs to do in order to shepherd. (Now, in reality, many Teachers will also be Pastors, and all will need to be qualified Elders, so there will be some pastoral insight/heart in a Teacher's teaching. I'd probably argue that that's one of the things that distinguishes a Doctor of the Church from a (purely) academic doctor. Not all Teachers are theologians, but also, not all theologians are Teachers.)

The Second Scottish Book of Discipline of 1578 explained how Teachers differ from Pastors like this:

‘He is different from the pastor, not only in name, but in diversity of gifts. For the doctor is given the word of knowledge, to open up, by simple teaching, the mysteries of faith; to the pastor, the gift of wisdom, to apply the same, by exhortation to the manners of the flock, as occasion craves.’ (Chapter 5, Of Doctors and Their Office)

Now, what does my second point above about the association with wider governance roles in the church mean? A couple of things are particularly relevant here: First, future Pastors and Elders need to be taught in order to become ‘able to teach,’ and the ministry of some Teachers will be in doing that sort of teaching, as they equip other ministers for the work of the ministry. The early Protestants recognised this as one of the roles of some of the Doctors of the Church after the Reformation too: ‘A Teacher or Doctor is of most excellent use in Schools, and Universities, as of old in the Schools of the Prophets, and at Jerusalem, where Gamaliel and others taught as Doctors.’ (Westminster Presbyterial Form of Church Government, 1644).

Second, as controversies and false teachings buffet the church, it helps to have some gifted and capable people set apart to look into and respond to these things, and to help local pastors and elders work through the issues they face. This was part of the office of Doctor after the Reformation too: ‘And whenever any difficulty in Doctrinal Points does occur they [the Doctors/Teachers] shall be called forth ... to assist at its decision.’ (French National Synod at Nismes, 1572). If all the churches are facing the same issues, it helps to work together in responding to them!

So, Teachers teach. But Teachers also equip others to teach as well. And above all, as the Synod of Dort put it, Teachers are called to ‘expound the Holy Scriptures and to uphold sound doctrine against heresies and errors.’