Every organisation has a way of understanding itself and how the people within it operate in relation to one another – not least when it comes to leadership. In the Church of Scotland, leadership comes from the elders who together make up the Kirk Session. And within that team, the majority are termed ‘ruling elders’ while the minister is known as the ‘teaching elder.’

‘Teacher’ is of course the last of the five ‘gifted ministries’ that are listed in Ephesians 4:11. Important to our understanding, these are not listed hierarchically but as being complimentary and when taken together as being ‘all of God’s people’ being called to work together for the ‘building up the body of Christ.’’

When those from certain generations consider the word ‘teaching’ it’s likely that what comes to mind is essentially the passing on of knowledge and information. Important as that is, it’s helpful for us to think of the teacher as being one who encourages and equips others to learn for themselves. This is what we might call ‘formation.’ It’s the business of training people to ask the right questions rather than giving them what we reckon to be the right answers. That understanding of teaching usually proves to be more helpful in the long term.

But if ministers are teaching elders, what might that look like in the day-to-day reality of congregational life? Week by week preaching will, of course, be part of the picture (though we might want to discuss whether ‘preaching’ and ‘teaching’ aren’t in fact different tasks?) Preaching always has, and continues to be part of our particular tradition. Calvin viewed the ‘primacy of the pulpit to be the heart of his ministry’[1] and James Montgomery Boice wrote that ‘Calvin had no weapon but the Bible and from the very first, his emphasis had been on Bible teaching.’[2]

But is the preaching task the full picture when it comes to understanding teaching in the life of a congregation? Or should we see it as being but one method among several that the teacher might employ? And secondly, though the minister is the teaching elder, does that mean that she or he must, by definition, do all of the teaching? A quick glance at the experience of most congregations would suggest otherwise – that teaching is a shared task and that there are various arenas in which teaching takes place. Of course availability of volunteers needs to be factored in but all else being equal, it’s likely that those other than the minister will be responsible for the teaching of children and, where small groups exist, for the teaching element of these.

  • What about small groups?

It’s quite possible to argue that Jesus saw teaching as flowing out of preaching. Time and again, the gospels tell us that following his preaching, Jesus would meet with the twelve to unpack what he had said and to spell out both the meaning and the application. It would seem that He believed teaching to be more than a monologue ‘from the front’

John Wesley’s classes were of a similar order. Members were encouraged to be in the parish church on Sundays but to meet in small groups during the week. Still today, Methodists assert that ‘the supportive small group has been found to be one of the most powerful ways for people to learn and grow.’[3] (And of course small groups are ideal for the building of community and for support and accountability as well as teaching.) When others are doing the week-to-week teaching, the role of the minister – the teaching elder – is no less important. It is to create an appetite for learning, to model a commitment to learning and to resource and encourage the teachers.

  • What about the children?

It’s sad, but true nevertheless, that few congregations have enough (or any) children to justify running Sunday Club-style programmes or ministries for teens. But beyond that, where there are children, the emphasis has shifted to a model that sees adults and children learning together – as opposed to sending the children out to the hall. Many believe that the benefits of whole-community learning outweigh the issues that may arise around distractions etc.

Ultimately, the model adopted will depend on local circumstances but the desirability of congregations being environments where learning takes place is clear. In writing to the Corinthians, Paul bemoans the fact that he was still being required to feed them milk, rather than solid food – as a result, that is, of them not having grown up spiritually-speaking.[4] That’s what happens when there’s no concerted, deliberate effort towards teaching. And Lauren Mead[5] suggested that the biggest issue facing the Church in these days is the prevalence of immature Christians – again, the result of no noticeable learning taking place.

The Church needs apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds. And teachers.

Martin Fair

Pathways to Ministry Manager

[1] SBJT, Steven J. Lawson, The Biblical Preaching of John Calvin


[3] www.methodist.org.uk – small groups

[4] 1st Corinthians 3:2

[5] Loren B. Mead, Alban Institute, The Once and Future Church