Teacher Standards, Church Discipline, and Accountability Partners

Many people should not automatically assume they have the gift of teaching without discerning the Lord’s calling for them specifically. Many young Christian men and women in the church want to get into something they aren’t called to do. Their enthusiasm leads them to believe they should do something they don’t have the gifting to carry out, which is why James 3:1 says that not many should become teachers or presume to be because the task is arduous and the standards high. Teaching takes a lot of hard work and commitment. Of course, there is a “division of labor” among them all because there is no one size fits all approach and method to teaching. So the degree of work and preparation will vary among individuals.

Undoubtedly, many believers aspire to teach because they view it as more glorious than other spiritual gifts, but that is not the case. Instead, all gifts carry the same amount of importance, just with differing levels of standards and difficulty. Teachers are role models to those they teach that others look up to, so it is no surprise that many younger people want to pursue that type of service. However, James 3:1 makes it clear that it is not about desire but whether one has the gift from God. The Lord is the One who grants us our spiritual gifts and determines the results of our ministries. But so many within the church misunderstand this issue. Teaching is no joke, and it is far from easy. James isn’t saying those who have the gift shouldn’t submit to the Lord and teach, but rather, everyone should not assume things by running to false conclusions out of wishful thinking. Many don’t have the gift and yet believe they do, explaining why they end up getting into something they shouldn’t have.

Although God holds teachers to higher standards, no believer, not even the greatest to ever live, came close to perfection. Psalm 130:3-4 states, “If you Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” So it would be unwise for anyone to state something like, “Teachers need to be darn near perfect” because that is not something anyone can come close to attaining. The phrase is a good one but lacks clarity because, on the one hand, it rightly encourages teachers to hold themselves to higher standards than other believers through greater discipline and self-control (they need to be after all). But, on the other hand, wording it this way makes it sound like a believer can come close to perfection, a complete impossibility if we were honest with ourselves.

The problem is that some may attempt to define what “close to perfection” means so that they begin to put false standards and burdens on themselves that they can’t bear or ever attain. This behavior may encourage some to develop an “all or nothing approach.” They may think that if they don’t reach such and such a level, they are failing and doing a poor job. Next thing you know, they begin to despair and give in to fear, doubt, condemnation, and compromise even when their lifestyle has been acceptable. That mentality is a recipe for disaster!

Overall, telling teachers they need to be close to perfect isn’t the best way to word things because this will never happen (nor has) with anybody. The passage we just referenced in Psalms certainly doesn’t seem to suggest close to “perfectionism.” Yes, our Lord commanded all believers to be holy because He is holy (1 Peter 5:16). But God knows that we are flesh and all fall short of His glory (Romans 3:23). The phrase above in no way suggests that believers don’t sin but gives a vibe that humans can come almost as close to perfect as Jesus was (because He was perfect), an untenable impossibility. Plus, as just stated, this may cause many believers to fall into despair because they rightfully know this will never happen. The fact that everyone sins every day confirms this fact. The statement does create a good incentive for them to put in all their effort through God’s strength, but could be better worded as “Teachers need to be especially self-controlled and disciplined because they are role models to those they teach.” The Lord asks and expects them to do more, which is why He holds them to higher standards resulting in a stricter degree of judgment. “To whom more has been given, much is expected.”

Yes, continuous spiritual growth, progress, and production will lead to a higher level of holiness throughout an individual’s lifetime. Therefore, we must all strive for perfection by giving our very best. But I believe it is false and unrealistic to believe this will result in someone getting close to Jesus’s perfection. For this very reason, we have grace (2 Corinthians 12:9) because we humans are but flesh.

The above does not excuse sin in any way, of course. But it does challenge us to give our very best efforts. A good comparison we can use is Moses and our Lord. We reference Moses because he spent forty days on Mount Sinai in prayer and contemplation. In contrast, our Lord spent forty days in the wilderness where He was tested and tempted, unlike any other person in all of history. If we were to compare the two honestly, do we think Moses would have come close to our Lord’s handling of His circumstances in the wilderness? He would have done better than most or all, but still a far cry from Jesus.

However, Moses was the most righteous of his generation and one of the greatest believers of all time who will most likely sit next to the Lord’s throne in eternity. But even he was nowhere close to perfect unless we want to assume he never sinned every day, week, month, and so forth. There have been great believers in Scripture that have failed far less than others, no doubt about that. But the Bible does not record every single sin committed by the greatest heroes of the faith for obvious reasons. We see some of their biggest failures, such as when Moses struck the rock in anger and unbelief and when David murdered and committed adultery. And then there was King Solomon who fell into idolatry for a time.

With the above said, we will examine 1 Timothy 3:1-7 as qualifications for teachers.

1 Timothy 3:1-7

Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. 2 Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

1 Timothy 3:1

Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task

I believe that elders, bishops, and pastors are the same thing. Only deacons are a distinct office. Therefore, an overseer in the passage above would refer to a teacher. Also, pastors and teachers are the same because teachers “pasture” the flock of Christ through instructing them in God’s Word. They are not separate gifts. The principle applies to teaching and preaching because those are also the same. A teacher primarily teaches but can do a little bit of preaching (exhortation) by encouraging his listeners to apply the truth he has just taught them from Scripture. A pastor is both a teacher (primarily) and a preacher. A person who preaches but can’t teach is no pastor because he lacks the proper knowledge of the Word. A good pastor focuses primarily on explaining the meaning of the text while being flexible enough to enhance it’s importance through further explanation.

Our verse above does not suggest that those in leadership positions have more noble ministries than others. At the very least, this doesn’t mean one is better than the other, but one carries a greater responsibility that will undergo greater scrutiny at the bema seat.

1 Timothy 3:2

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach

We have already stressed that teachers need to live more disciplined lives because of their “role model” status, meaning their level of spiritual maturity needs to be exceptionally high due to the nature of their work. And, of course, we have already mentioned that teachers need to be adequately prepared and gifted to carry out their ministry.

Anger, unkindness, and disrespect do not present a good testimony but demonstrate a person who refuses to practice what he preaches. The simple reason for this is a disobedient attitude that selfishly chooses to do things one’s own way instead of God’s through the power of His spirit (Galatians 5:13-26). No believer can produce spiritual fruit when they aren’t walking in God’s power.

Galatians 5:16-26 (NIV)

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

No one is perfect, and what matters is that the individual in question continues to make efforts to improve and continues to see results. But if there is no desire to overcome one’s habitual struggles, then that is a clear sign that a man is not ready to teach because he cannot set a good example through the life he lives. He must not live a double life speaking one thing while consistently doing the opposite without any concern.

1 Timothy 5:19-22 states, “19 Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 20 But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. 21 I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.”

This passage above in no way suggests that laypeople cannot correct or rebuke their teachers when they are in error, but it is how they do it that matters (2-3 witnesses are needed). And if the pastor refuses to repent after his conduct has been exposed before all (so others may learn and take warning from his poor example), then he must be expelled. That is not to say he won’t repent later on (he is to be brought back in if he does).

On the other hand, if a pastor is struggling badly with sin (a temporary deviation), that sin will naturally affect his production and how well he can teach others. It is the Lord’s decision (not the congregation’s) whether he should take a break from his main teaching to deal with his own issues. However, this does not imply that a teacher (or any struggling believer in general) stops ministering altogether. Ministry is always something we should continue to do regardless of how badly we may be struggling with something. But should a pastor teacher take a break from his congregation and have someone temporarily replace him? That is the Lord’s decision, not the individuals’ or the church’s. The point is that we need to let God decide how we proceed in our ministries when sin has become more of a problem than it should be.

To continue, church discipline (whoever may be involved) should not turn into a “busybody” activity where members begin unnecessarily sticking their noses into other people’s business. No believer (whether pastor or layperson) is required to confess their sins to other people but only to God. Expelling people for unrepentant behavior is what the Bible commands for us to do in cases when that is necessary (assuming everyone finds out about what the person(s) is doing). But there is nothing in Scripture that indicates that we should “discipline” struggling believers. Prayer is exhorted (1 John 5:16-17) but anything that goes past that is legalism. There is a difference between struggling with sin (such as a pastor who has temporarily lapsed into sin) and committing it high handedly without worry or care.

Additionally, “accountability partners” are not a good and proper way to go about this. This approach isn’t supported anywhere in Scripture and is a bad idea because we don’t confess our sins to men but God because we are accountable to Him alone. Requiring accountability partners as some sort of “discipleship” approach is legalism. It is not right for others to see what another person views on the internet or where they go and what they do etc. (that is cultism). Nor is it the case that anyone should ever have to report to another for every single sin they know they committed in a single day. None of this is what James 5:16 is saying. This passage is simply telling us that all members of the body should (to some degree) open up about their struggles (tell their pastor teacher) in order to receive prayer. However, this should only be the case if the person is involved in serious habitual sin. This is why the two verses right before verse sixteen say, “14 Is anyone among you sick (a possible result of divine discipline)? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned (they have done something very, very wrong or have been sinning as a constant pattern but repent), they will be forgiven..” So James is telling us that some situations will require believers to open up about their sins to some extent. How can we pray for those who have lapsed into sin unless (in some cases) they don’t tell us? We are supposed to pray for struggling believers, and there are some cases we cannot know (since not all sinful behavior is going to be open and flagrant) until the person in question actually speaks up and shares their issues.

No believer is required to share the everyday sins they commit (this is something no one should be doing) or what bad things they tend to be more predisposed toward. Now, can believers share (not the same thing as confess) their general struggles with each other (someone they trust but who isn’t a pastor teacher) for the sake of receiving encouragement and exhortation (it is just something the person really wants to do)? Yes (it may be a good idea for some and certain individuals may be led to it), but that is an area of application that needs to be done with caution and care so that those listening (whoever and how many they may be) will not stumble (this is where biblical counselors may play a role). It is best to focus on the solution and not the problem. However, James 5:16 deals with a very specific and less common extreme case of sin resulting in a more severe case of divine discipline. In a particular case like that, notifying the pastor and leaders of the church is something that needs to be done.

Needless to say, there is a strong sense of accountability all believers have for each other. Make no mistake, Christians are accountable to each other in that we need to strengthen, encourage, sharpen, help, pray for, and minister to one another. All members are parts of the body and need every individual part.

1 Timothy 3:3

Not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money

Since only those mature and prepared enough may teach, it is pretty obvious why those who habitually practice the things above are disqualified. And there are already plenty of people out there that teach the health and wealth gospel, a trap any pastor can fall into. 1 Timothy 6:10 states, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” Of course, a good pastor deserves his flock’s support (both financially and spiritually) (1 Timothy 5:18). However, he must not take advantage of this or make that his primary concern because doing so will cause compromise. A good spiritual leader knows that life is all about Jesus Christ and that to serve Him is to carry out one’s duty faithfully, not under compulsion (1 Peter 5:2).

1 Timothy 3:4-5

He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)

There is a common misunderstanding about this passage above. For one thing, Proverbs 22:6 does say to “train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” So if a father isn’t rearing his children as he should, he has no business managing a church since he cannot bring up his own kids. For him, this would be hypocritical since pastor-teachers must be “above reproach.” So the parents need to put in the effort in a godly way.

On the other hand, some pastors have done all they could to raise their children in a godly manner. Despite this, people still have the free will to rebel and turn away from the truth in a dramatic fashion. Does this mean that if a pastor has rebellious adult children (assuming they’ve moved out and on with their lives), he should step down? The answer is an obvious no because he did his job as he should have. Our Proverbs passage doesn’t guarantee that all children properly trained will keep to their proper “abode” into their adult years. That all has to do with free will, something no parent can control, especially once their children have grown into adulthood, where they begin to make their own decisions. Many youngsters may start well but then take a nose-dive after striking out independently (people are free to change their minds).

He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

Newer believers can begin ministering to others through prayer and giving. But to become a teacher, those with this gift need time to undergo the proper training they will need to execute their duties proficiently. The time, preparations, and spiritual progress it takes for all prospective teachers to begin the mature and primary ministry God has for them varies from person to person. Any “up and coming” pastor can teach to some degree. What matters is that what they speak to others is within their range of knowledge. But no one should ever teach anything they don’t yet understand or believe. And whatever they do, all teachers in training need to ensure that what they say is true and not false. It is one thing to mess up in front of close brothers and sisters with a high maturity level since they are more likely to handle it well. But getting things wrong around unbelievers may only hinder them from coming to Christ because of a poor testimony. What we teach others can make or break them, depending on what we say. Misinterpretation causes enough damage already, a trend presently widespread within the church.

Newer converts have yet to undergo the intense spiritual tests that come the way of all those who have come into their own ministries through painstaking progress. The truth is that they aren’t battle-tested enough to help others properly, as the Lord desires them to do when they are ready. You can’t help others when you need help yourself. Believers still in the infant stage need to grow under a primary teacher before they are prepared to strike out on their own and take their studies and preparations to another level.

Many newer believers don’t know what to expect (even if they counted the cost) because they have yet to experience the many difficulties of the Christian life. “Hands on” experience is the best teacher; a hazardous stage because these people are at a very vulnerable time of just beginning to learn the “ropes” of spiritual combat. It won’t take long until they have to face the more challenging hardships that come with spiritual advancement, a fact the evil one knows all too well because he attempts to take advantage of these situations. If he can get them to turn around as quickly as possible, he doesn’t need to worry about them posing any more of a threat to his agenda. More seasoned brothers and sisters have learned the lesson of humility through suffering and discipline to approach their ministries with clarity of thought. But newer believers have yet to learn these lessons through experience. So if they attempt to jump into something they aren’t ready for, they are more likely to approach the task with improper motives stemming from pride. So there is a great danger for a newer convert who begins to think he knows more than what he does. The problem will then grow worse when he refuses to listen to those over him, leading him to form all kinds of dangerous ideas and beliefs that give birth to unscriptural conclusions.

Many ill-prepared pastors are roaming among the ranks of Laodicea, eager to gain a large following through deception, charisma and popularity. But these inexperienced leaders still have yet to learn the lesson that the greatest are those who serve by humbling themselves (Matthew 23:12). Sadly, many have turned this truth upside down to mean that leadership is all about self-glory. And this is an unmistakable sign that these wishful thinkers are unqualified. But, of course, just because someone isn’t suitable to be in the position they are, doesn’t mean they don’t have the gift of teaching. Many certainly don’t, but some have the gift but aren’t adequately prepared.

Finally, in our Timothy passage, outsiders may refer to those outside Christ’s body and those within it as part of another congregation. However, it most likely refers to unbelievers. Suppose a Christian man doesn’t behave well with those who don’t share the same spiritual relationship. How can he expect to thrive within his own spiritual family when his behavior is insincere? In all reality, he would be a hypocrite who deceptively performs a dance and a song in front of his brothers and sisters because he puts on a false show of godliness that goes only as deep as the skin on his body. So again, teachers cannot live double lives because they must walk as role models to those under their charge.