Mailbag #47: Applying Paul’s “Able to Teach” Qualification; Confidentiality between Pastors and Members?


How gifted does someone have to be in order to be considered “able to teach”? »
Can church members appeal to a kind of pastor-member confidentiality? »

Dear 9Marks,

How gifted does someone have to be in order to be considered “able to teach”? We’re currently considering a faithful brother for eldership. He possesses the moral qualifications, but is not a very effective teacher. He has been leading a Sunday School class for several years, but those who attend seem to do so out of relational commitments. And the class is not growing. His thoughts are often scattered when he teaches, so he tries to say the right things, but cannot convey himself effectively. Positively, he is involved in one on one discipleship with a couple, which seems to be going well. He is also taking classes at a Bible college, and there is some progress but not a huge difference. Is there a threshold and how do you assess it?

—Andrew, Kentucky

Dear Andrew,

Ask five pastors this question and you may well get five different answers. Yet what if we asked Paul what he means by “able to teach”? What would he say?

I think he tells us. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul says that an elder must not teach different doctrines, especially those that promote empty speculation (1 Tim. 1:3–4). The goal of his instruction must be love, a good conscience, and sincere faith (1:4). His teaching should also match his life, since by his life and teaching he will save himself and his hearers (4:16). He must teach what you teach, and if he teaches other doctrine that does not agree with the sound teaching of Christ, he is conceited and understands nothing (6:3–4).

Paul’s second letter to Timothy also fills out what he means by “able to teach.” An elder must hold onto the pattern of sound teaching that can be learned from the Scriptures (2 Tim. 1:13). He will be diligent in correctly teaching the word of truth (2:15). He will avoid empty speech that deviates from the truth (2:16, 18). He will only teach and instruct what God would have him teach, knowing that repentance will lead to a knowledge of the truth (2:24–25). He won’t look to his own wisdom, but to Scripture, which is profitable for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. And he will persist in such teaching, correcting, rebuking, and encouraging with great patience (4:2).

Finally, Paul’s letter to Titus gives us a few hints about what it means to be “able to teach.” Such an elder will hold firmly to the trustworthy word as has been taught, and will rebuke and instruct with sound doctrine those who contradict it (1:9). He must not be an insubordinate, empty talker who teaches for shameful gain (1:10–11). Instead, he must be sound in the faith and one who turns away from false myths and commands (1:13–14). His words will always accord with sound teaching, and he will show himself to be a model of good works (2:1, 7). Finally, his teaching must show integrity and dignity so that his message can be characterized as sound and cannot be condemned (2:8).

Admittedly, I’m not answering the question precisely the way you want it answered. You’re asking about the requisite skill or competence of a teacher as a pedagogical matter. It’s a necessary question. But I also want to make sure that we emphasize what Paul emphasizes, which means reframing how we think about the words “able to teach” in 1 Timothy 3:2. Basically, an able teacher is someone who holds fast to sound doctrine and can faithfully communicate that doctrine to others. He rightly teaches the Bible. If you can trust a man will be reliable here, then my concerns about his pedagogical competence go way down. In such a case I can almost say, appoint him or not, I don’t care.

Now, I won’t quite say that. Being able to faithfully communicate sound doctrine presumes you can faithfully communicate it. So, is this man sufficiently clear that people can understand him?

I don’t think an elder needs to be able to hold the Sunday morning pulpit. I don’t think he even needs to be able to sustain a growing Sunday School class. I do think he needs to be able to open the Bible and reliably explain what it says so that people rightly understand. Maybe a member approaches the man with a question. Maybe the man is doing one-on-one counseling. Either way, this man can rightly explain the Bible. And the sheep trust him to rightly explain the Bible and to lead them toward right understanding, both by his words and his deeds.

So my baseline question for you is this: does this man rightly explain the Bible—consistently? The most concerning thing you said was that “he tries to say the right things, but cannot convey himself effectively.” If that characterizes him every time he talks about God’s Word, yeah, he’s probably not elder material. If that description characterizes him for ten minutes every fourth Sunday, well, he’s probably just fine.

I hope this was helpful, and that God would give your congregation the gift of many men who are “able to teach.”

Dear 9Marks,

A man in our church is pursuing an unbiblical divorce. When we told him about the possibility of church discipline, he appealed to “Pastoral Confidentiality and Clergy-Penitent Privileges” to argue that all of our conversations in counseling “should not be disclosed to other members/leaders of the church” including “confidential legal documents the church has received pertaining to ongoing court cases.” In other words, it would be illegal for us to talk about the marriage problems and the divorce proceedings and to exercise church discipline. What counsel would you give as we consider our response?

—Earl, California

Dear Earl,

First of all, let me say that I’m not lawyer. What follows is not “legal counsel,” but a layman’s understanding. Furthermore, you should know the particular laws of your state, and perhaps consult with a lawyer who does. A lawyer’s job is to tell you what’s legally safe, not what’s biblically faithful. Still, you want to know what legal fights you might be picking before you pick them.

With all that said, my layman’s understanding of general legal principles is that this man doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Clergy-penitent privileges have nothing to do with what a church does. They apply to what happens in a courtroom and pertain to the admissibility of evidence. So if a pastor is subpoenaed and an attorney tries to compel him to disclose something a member said privately in the pastor’s office, clergy-penitent privileges ensure that many such out-of-court statements are inadmissible.

In other words, clergy-penitent privileges are not some sort of super secrecy law that says a pastor can never repeat what a member told him. Rather, they protect a pastor from being forced to testify against a member in court. They apply to court proceedings, not to what a church does.

Now, that’s not to say this man cannot make legal trouble for you. He might decide to sue you for breach of privacy or defamation. That would especially be the case if you promised or the church’s counseling documentation promises any kind of absolute privacy. (I trust you know better than to ever promise this.) Gratefully, many courts remain loathe to involve themselves in church discipline matters since this goes to the heart of a church’s ability to be an institution distinct from the state. If the courts can decide our discipline matters, you no longer have separation of church and state.

Still, the goal is not to get sued and win, but to not get sued. To that end, you want any lawyer who is considering whether or not to pick up this case to quickly and easily see that your church, far from promising total confidentiality in a case of unrepentant sin, positively sets forth a consistent, established process for dealing with it. That would mean your constitution adequately describes the processes of membership admission and exclusion. Your membership classes do the same. And your church would have clear and consistent discipline processes for which you have precedent.

At the same time—in case this whole thing goes south—you should make sure your church’s insurance coverage covers you and (at least) any other elders and counseling staff for this sort of thing. And make sure your policy is paid up and current. Such policies work to protect your church’s budget and your members’ tithe dollars.

Finally, divorce proceedings typically are a matter of public record (unless part or all of the case file is sealed by the court). So I have a harder time seeing how such documents could be considered “confidential” for purposes of church use.

Bottom line: if you think you have clear and indisputable grounds for church discipline, you should proceed (and, again, I say that not knowing the laws of California). But I pray God gives you wisdom, and that this man would repent of abandoning his wife.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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