Forty-four years ago, on October 14, 1979, John Piper felt himself irretrievably called to pastoral ministry. He was on sabbatical after teaching six years at Bethel College. He was studying Romans 9. Reflecting on that season, he would say later, in 2002,
As I studied Romans 9 day after day, I began to see a God so majestic and so free and so absolutely sovereign that my analysis merged into worship, and the Lord said, in effect, “I will not simply be analyzed — I will be adored. I will not simply be pondered — I will be proclaimed. My sovereignty is not simply to be scrutinized — it is to be heralded. It is not grist for the mill of controversy — it is gospel for sinners who know that their only hope is the sovereign triumph of God’s grace over their rebellious will.”
In 2019, on the fortieth anniversary of John’s call to the pastorate, Justin Taylor published an article at Desiring God called “This Word Must Be Preached,” which quotes extensively from John’s 1800-word journal he wrote longhand that night he first felt called — and very much relates to our second session here today.
First, Justin comments, “It is remarkable how realistic [John] was that night. He knew himself well.” Then a quote from John’s journal:
I know, really know, I would despair as a pastor. I would despair that my people are not where I want them to be, I would despair at ruptured study and writing goals, I would despair at barren administrative details. [But he asked himself:] “Who shall shepherd the flock of God? People who love barrenness? People who feel no flame to study God and write it out? People who weep not over the tares and the choking wheat? Is the criterion for judging one’s fitness for the ministry that one feels no pain in the mechanics of ‘running a church’? Is the calling so managerial in our day that the Word burning to be spoken and lived and applied is no qualification?”
Second, another quote from John’s journal, contrasting himself with his father, who was a traveling evangelist: “My heart is not in one-time shots or one-week shots. I am not a gifted evangelist. My heart leans hard to regularity of feeding [that’s the work of pastor-elders]. I believe little in the injection method to health. I believe in the long, steady diet of rich food in surroundings of love.”
Third, Justin comments about John that “he had a hunger to be the direct instrument of the Word.” For John, that meant being a local-church pastor, not a seminary professor. He wanted to be “a vessel of [God’s] Word” in the church. So he left the academy for the pastorate. He became a preacher, but he emphatically did not cease to be a teacher. Because pastors are teachers.
In our second session, we turn to the two qualifications for eldership that correspond most directly with the two main tasks of the elders. The two tasks are feeding and leading. Pastors feed the flock and lead the flock. The two qualifications, then, are “able to teach” and “sober-minded.” And we’ll end with how all of us, young and old (and perhaps especially young, and those aspiring to the work), might grow in these two central qualifications.
1. Feeding the Flock (Able to Teach)
Perhaps you can imagine a scenario in which a man is being considered for eldership, and the question “Is he ‘able to teach’?” comes up. Let’s say the man is not a known teacher, but the one who is advocating for his candidacy responds, “Teaching is not his strength. He’s rarely willing to do public speaking. But if you put a gun to his head . . .”
Stop. Such a minimalistic understanding is not what Paul means by “able to teach.” Rather, what he’s after, and what we should be after, is the more maximalist assertion: “He’s the kind of man who will hardly stop teaching — even if you put a gun to his head.”
Pastors and elders, paid and unpaid, full-time and lay, are to be teachers. “Able to teach” (one word in the Greek, didaktikos) is the most central of the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 (listed eighth of the fifteen) and also the most distinctive. The single qualification that most plainly sets the pastor-elders apart from the deacons is “able to teach” — or perhaps even better, “apt or prone to teach.”
Such teaching bent and ability in pastors is not to be minimal, but maximal. We want the kind of man who will hardly stop teaching, even if you put a gun to his head. As he learns, he wants to teach. As he studies, he thinks about teaching. He breathes teaching. We might say he’s a teacher at heart. He loves to teach, with all the planning and discipline and patience and energy and exposure to criticism that good teaching requires.
A pastor who is didaktikos, “able to teach,” is not just “able to teach if necessary,” but rather “eager to teach when possible.” He’s bent to teach — not only able in terms of skill but also eager in terms of proclivity.
In English, we have the word “didactic,” built on the Greek didachē for “teaching.” But we don’t have an easy equivalent for the Greek adjective didaktikos. Maybe we need something like “didactive” or “teachative.” If “talkative” refers to someone who is “fond of or given to talking,” “teachative” would mean someone “fond of or given to teaching.”
The point is that New Testament local leaders — the pastor-elders — are teachers. Christianity is a teaching movement. Jesus was the consummate teacher. He chose and discipled his men to be teachers who discipled others also (Matthew 28:19; 2 Timothy 2:2). After his ascension, the apostles spoke on Christ’s behalf and led the early church through teaching — and when their living voices died, their writings became the church’s ongoing polestar, along with Old Testament Scripture (but surpassing it), for teaching the churches.
And so, fitting with the very nature of the Christian faith, Christ appoints men who are “teachative,” didaktikos, which entails at least three important realities we would be wise to keep in mind today: we look for men who are equipped to teach, effective at teaching, and eager to teach.
Equipped to Teach
First of all, a man may be off-the-charts teachative, and be little more than a liability if he has not been sufficiently equipped in sound doctrine. The miracle of new birth does not include instantaneous miracles of equipping for leadership. Now, we might grant a kind of miracle status to any sinner coming, in time, to have genuinely sound theology, but this would be a long-range miracle worked out through diligent training over time, not the endowment of a mere moment.
As Walter Henrichsen wrote fifty years ago (in 1974), disciples are made, not born. And so teachers. Jesus spoke about a righteous scribe being “trained for the kingdom of heaven.” He “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). “A disciple is not above his teacher,” he says, “but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
To become a Christian requires no training, just faith: “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:5). But one does not become a teacher (nor practically holy) by faith alone. Rather, grace trains us, in life, over time, “to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions” (Titus 2:12). And those whom Christ gives to his church as pastor-teachers, he sees to their “being trained in the words of the faith” (1 Timothy 4:6).
Training is necessary for maturity (Hebrews 5:14), and training requires the discipline of persisting in momentary discomfort, even pain, for the reward set before us (Hebrews 12:11). So when we emphasize in pastors the necessity of a proclivity and ability to teach, we do not overlook a critical component of Christian teachers: training. Pastors must be equipped in sound doctrine to teach sound doctrine. It doesn’t happen without work.
Effective at Teaching
Second, the pastor-elders of the church must also be effective teachers. That is, they must be skillful — able in the sense of good. It’s not enough if they want to teach, and have been trained in sound doctrine, but they’re not any good at teaching. Then the church becomes a sitting duck, or unprotected flock. If the pastors aren’t effective teachers, it’s only a matter of time until wolves carry the day and feast on the lambs.
And so Paul says, as his culminating qualification in the Titus 1 list, the pastor-elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). That is, he must know “the trustworthy word,” and be trained in it, and genuinely “hold firm” to it.
But then begins the work of teaching in its twofold sense: feeding the flock (“give instruction in sound doctrine”) and defending the flock (“rebuke those who contradict it”). And if the pastors and elders are poor or ineffective teachers, the sheep go hungry — or get eaten.
So pastors and elders, as a team, must be effective teachers — that is, effective in the context of the particular local church where they are called. They need not compete with the world’s best orators on popular podcasts or television. But they must be effective teachers of their people, in their context. When push comes to shove, the pastors-teachers must get the job done, or the wolves take the sheep.
Eager to Teach
Third, we come back to where we started and the heart of the teaching qualification — that is, the heart of a teacher. We need men who are eager to teach — not just willing to have their arm bent once in a while to fill a slot, not with a gun to their heads. But men who are teachers, the pastor-teachers.
“Remember your leaders,” says Hebrews 13:7, “those who spoke to you the word of God.” Hebrews could assume that their leaders were those who spoke God’s word to them, because their leaders were teachers.
Christianity is a word-critical, teaching-critical faith. The leaders teach. And good teachers, in time and with sufficient maturation, come to lead. The pastor-elders, then, are called not only to lead or govern, but first and foremost to labor in word and teaching. And since the work, at its heart, is the work of teaching, we want men who want to teach. They are eager to do it. (And brothers, this too can be cultivated.)
Such didactive men think like teachers, not judges. Their orientation toward the church is not mainly as those rendering verdicts but envisioning possibilities, providing fresh perspective and information, faithfully teaching the Scriptures, making persuasive arguments, patiently reviewing and restating and illustrating, and praying for God’s miraculous work in life change.
Is it not amazing that when Paul speaks into how Timothy should carry himself in the midst of the conflict with false teachers in the Ephesian church, he says, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24–25)? Look at what company “able to teach” keeps: not quarrelsome but kind, patient, gentle — not apart from correction, but gentle in “correcting his opponents.”
“Able to teach” is not minimal competence but a kind of virtue — a magnanimity — arising from the heart and proper training.
2. Leading the Sheep (Able to Govern)
Now, pastors are not only teachers. As overseers, they “watch over” the flock. As elders, they counsel and guide the people. As shepherds, they muster the collective forethought to envision where to go next for green pastures and still waters, lead the sheep in that direction, and wield the “comfort” of their rod to crack the skulls of wolves to protect the sheep.
So, not only does Christ gift his church with leaders who have such a proclivity, being teachative, but he also — strange as it may seem to us — puts these teachers in charge as the church’s lead officers. The elders feed and lead. Teaching and oversight are paired in 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and 1 Timothy 5:17, and 1 Timothy 2:12 provides that particularly memorable coupling of the elders’ teaching with their exercising authority in the local church, particularly in the gathered assembly: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” (Then, three verses later, come the qualifications for those who exercise authority through teaching: the elders.)
Amazingly, the risen Christ, in building his church on his terms, not the world’s, is so audacious as to appoint teachers to lead, which is both surprising (because teachers, as a group, can be so idealistic and inefficient) and fitting (because Christianity is a teaching movement). That Christ made teachers to be pastors (and pastors, teachers) confirms what a few sharp souls might have suspected all along: that Jesus really is more interested in the church’s effectiveness than its efficiency.
So, pastors teach. They are, at heart, teachers. The plurality of elders is, in an important sense, a team of teachers who also govern. The call to pastoral ministry is not for specialized administrators of large departments. Nor is it a call for brawlers and pugilists, more apt to quarrel than to teach (as we’ll see in the final session). Pastors teach, and are the kind of men who will graciously hardly cease — even if you put a gun to their heads.
Now, what are we to say about their governing? If “able to teach” (didaktikos), as we’ve said, is the most central and most distinctive of the elder qualifications, “sober-minded” might be the most underrated or underappreciated.
I remember on several occasions, sitting as an elder among elders, brainstorming names for future additions to the council. By God’s grace, the voicing of some names elicited words of praise. Sometimes there was largely enthusiasm, with some minor misgivings. On occasion, it seemed as if many of us intuited that “something’s not right” or “doesn’t resonate” when thinking of this man as an elder. Over time, I came to learn that often the language we were groping for was right here in the eldership qualifications: sober-minded.
It is a remarkable turn of events that Jesus appoints a team of teachers, in essence, to lead his local churches. However — this is where we come especially to “sober-minded” — Jesus does not call these pastor-teachers to teaching alone. He calls the pastor-elders, under the gathered assembly of saints, to lead the people — leadership that requires they be, both individually and collectively, sober-minded.
Levelheaded, Not Imbalanced
As I said, of the fifteen pastor-elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3, sober-mindedness might be the most underrated. Not only is teaching (with preaching) central to the pastors’ work, but also vital is “exercising oversight” (1 Peter 5:2). Pastor-elders not only “labor among you” as teachers but “are over you in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 5:12). They both feed and lead. The elder “must manage his own household well” because, as a team, the elders are charged with caring for God’s household, the church (1 Timothy 3:4–5, 15).
Not only are pastors who preach and teach well worthy of honor — and “double honor” (remuneration) when laboring at the work as a breadwinning vocation — but also as governors, that is, “the elders who rule well” (1 Timothy 5:17). The pastor-elders teach and rule — that is, lead or govern — and to do so requires a kind of spiritual acuity the New Testament calls “sober-mindedness.”
Men who are sober-minded are levelheaded and balanced. They are responsive without being reactive. They are not given to extremes, not suckers for myths and speculation and conspiracy theories, and not dragged into silly controversies. They are able to discern what emphases and preoccupations would compromise the stewardship at the heart of their work (1 Timothy 1:4), and they stay grounded in what’s most important and enduring. Keeping the gospel “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3), as their center, they are able (like increasingly few modern adults) to “keep [their] head in all situations” (2 Timothy 4:5 NIV).
Together, the team of sober-minded elders is able to navigate complicated challenges, like church-size dynamics and generational dynamics and digital-versus-analog dynamics and, perhaps above all, issues of timing in the life of the local church. Many, young and old, are able to see various problems and feel various tensions in church life, but the pastor-elders are those with the sober-mindedness, and the accompanying “superpower of patience” (as Dan Miller calls it), to know how and when to address the challenges.
Sober-minded pastor-elders, together as a group, keep the church on mission (Matthew 28:19), keep the gospel central, and demonstrate that the essence of leadership is not personal privilege and preference but self-giving, self-humbling, and self-sacrifice for the church’s good.
Such sober-mindedness, without doubt, is also critical for teaching — for determining what to teach and when and how — but such spiritual acuity especially maps on to the call to govern or lead, and the untiring vigilance it requires. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28). The pastor-elders are those who “are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:17). So they must be sober-minded (1 Timothy 3:2) — in fact, “always . . . sober-minded” (2 Timothy 4:5).
How to Get a Sober Mind
In Acts 6, we are not yet dealing with pastors and deacons, per se, but apostles and “the seven.” But we can see a kind of analog here for what was to come in local congregations. As “the seven” were appointed to “serve tables” that the apostles might not “give up preaching the word of God” (Acts 6:2), so local-church pastor-elders have a particular calling to lead and spiritually feed the flock — that is, to “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Word and prayer.
We teach and preach the word to feed the church. And sober-minded men pray to God, and take counsel with each other, to lead the church in the ups and downs on the raging seas of real life. It will not be enough to have balanced thinkers who do not pray. (Besides, prayerlessness would betray their imbalance.) Nor would it be enough to have prayerful men without sober minds. We need both prayer and prudence, even as we need both teaching and leading. And Christ appoints that his local-church leaders be such prayerful, sober-minded teachers.
All well and good, you might say, but what about the gaffs in my own sober-mindedness that I’m aware of — not to mention the many of which I do not even know? Whether already a pastor-elder, or aspiring to the office, or not, How might I become more sober-minded?
The good news is that sobering our minds is part of the work the Holy Spirit is doing on all those who are in Christ. And in particular, this is work he does over time, through the word of God. However naturally balanced and levelheaded you might be, the word of God is critical in giving us real balance in a destabilizing world and sobering us up to what really matters in God’s economy. Sober-mindedness is not a miracle God does in just a moment, but the effect of thousands of quiet early-morning miracles over his word day after day, for years.
In the days to come, as in the last two thousand years, the church needs men who keep their heads under pressure, in conflict and controversy. And in just the normal, steady-state life of the church, we need levelheaded, wise, spiritually and emotionally intelligent leaders rather than those who are impulsive, imbalanced, rash, and reactive, because pastor-elders are not just God-appointed teachers but God-appointed governors.
Such men the Spirit loves to produce through years of quiet Scripture meditation and real-life accountability in the local church. And such men, years in the making, the risen Christ then loves to give to his church to feed it through faithful, effective teaching and guide it through patient, composed, reasonable team leadership.
Which leads to our concluding focus on how a young or aspiring pastor-elder might go about pursuing growth and development in his teaching.
How to Grow as a Pastor-Teacher
With this short list, I’m assuming eagerness. Without some initial aspiration or eagerness, there would not be interest in growth. So assuming some measure of eagerness, here are six avenues to consider in seeking to develop yourself as a teacher.
1. Know the Word himself, that is, Jesus.
How? In the word itself, the gospel. How? Through the word itself, Scripture. So, know the Word (Jesus) in the word (gospel) through the word (Scripture).
Read, study, and meditate on the Bible — and all the Bible. Those who lead and aspire to lead the church would be wise to have all the biblical text pass before their eyes every calendar year. Obviously, there will be (many) passages you not only read but study and meditate on and teach on, perhaps multiple times in a year, but reading through the Bible with some plan each year at least lets each biblical text pass before you each year. As you do, you’re increasingly understanding Scripture as a whole — and most of all, knowing and enjoying Jesus in it.
2. Self-educate in the information age.
This is a step in equipping. Leverage the amazing availability of books, messages, and essays (meaty articles). Perhaps some limited social media exposure would help you to be aware of new books, essays, and articles, but I would highly caution you against any more than a pretty modest, controlled portion of social media. (Make the web serve your interests, rather than letting the algorithms harvest you for their interests.)
Beware the radicalizing effects of social media. Algorithms are no friend to the pursuit of sober-mindedness.
3. Pursue some formal program of training.
This is a distinct step in equipping that goes beyond self-educating. I’m talking about some curriculum and course of study, designed by someone other than yourself, to develop in knowledge and skill, and fill in areas you’ve never gravitated toward studying on your own.
4. Take what at bats you can and make them count.
Now we’re moving to effectiveness, which grows, over time, with the Spirit’s help and hard work. You need hundreds of at bats, not dozens. Teaching, like singing (not like athletics), is a life skill. Work to peak in your sixties (or seventies!), not twenties.
5. Always keep learning and be ready.
After Paul says to “preach the word” in 2 Timothy 4:2, the very next charge is this: “Be ready in season and out of season.” Then again in verse 5: “Always be sober-minded.”
And this is for those who continue to learn and grow. In 1 Timothy 4, after just telling Timothy to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching,” Paul says, “Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress” (1 Timothy 4:13–15). Our people ought to see our progress, our growth — in all areas, but particularly in our teaching. Which means — this should be encouraging — you grow in teaching. It is not fundamentally a gift you have or do not.
6. Rejoice more in being saved than in being a fruitful teacher.
I love the words of Jesus in Luke 10:20, and I often go back there to steady my soul in ministry: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you [as your teaching ability and effectiveness improves and matures], but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” The language is stark, but I think Jesus means to provoke, not speak absolutely, as if there is not any holy joy to be had in faithful, fruitful teaching. But we dare not let the joy of teaching the faith eclipse the joy of the faith itself.
Brothers, rejoice most that your names are written in heaven. Being a Christian is ten thousand times more important, and sweeter, than being a pastor-teacher.