Does an Elder Have to be “Able to Teach?” (1 Timothy 3:2)

Yes. An elder has to be “able to teach.” It is one of the qualifications for becoming an elder. However, “able to teach” in 1 Timothy 3:2 may not mean what you think it means. My guess is that when most people see the words “able to teach” as a qualification for an overseer (or elder or pastor—they are all the same office[1]), they assume that it means that an elder has to be a good teacher. And by good teacher, they usually picture someone who speaks confidently in front of a room, holds people’s attention, communicates lucidly, and motivates people to respond.

But this is probably not the correct way to think about “able to teach.” There are three primary reasons (and one supportive reason) why this word does not necessitate skillful communication, much less require an elder to speak from the front of a room.

1. The first reason is that this word appears in the middle of a list of character qualities. There are no other skill requirements on the list found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. Lists, after all, are normally comprised of items that belong together. Look at the other qualifications:

The notion of “skill” (such as NASB 2020’s “skillful in teaching”) does not fit well with this list of character-qualities.

2. The parallel list of qualifications in Titus 1:5-9, which clearly and obviously parallels 1 Timothy 3:1-7, does not use the word didaktikos at all. Rather, Titus 1:9 appears to explain what Paul intended with the word didaktikos in 1 Timothy 3:2. A qualified elder in Titus 1:9 is one who is “…holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” In other words, an overseer/elder must be one who knows doctrine, and, for that reason, is one who is able to instruct in what is right and wrong doctrine. The requirement is not about communication skills.

3. Furthermore, the only other time that didaktikos (“able to teach”) is used in the New Testament is in 2 Timothy 2:24, which, like Titus 1:9 focuses on correcting those who err in what they believe: “The Lord’s servant must not be argumentative, but be kind to all, able to teach…with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth…” 

Consequently, didaktikos in 1 Timothy 3:2 most likely means that an overseer/elder needs to be someone who knows Christian doctrine well enough to generally promote it, recognize false doctrine, and correct false doctrine.

This interpretation receives additional support when viewed against the backdrop of the overall argument of 1 Timothy, which has as a crucial component the correction of those who teach false doctrine (1:3; 4:3; 6:4; 6:20; cf. 2 Tim 4:3-4), the calling out of “teachers of the law” even though they don’t know what they are talking about (1:7), and warnings against any who might disseminate “doctrines of demons” (4:1).

Nor does the “teaching” have to be done from the front of a room. Such a requirement is neither stated nor implied. Granted, an elder has to be competent, at least on the personal level, to articulate sound doctrine and correct aberrant teaching, but his ableness-to-teach can occur one-on-one or in small groups; it does not have to be instruction in front of a crowd.

Consequently, a candidate for elder is not disqualified if he fails to be an interesting up-front speaker! If he knows the Word of God well enough to correct those who need correction, he has met the qualification that he be “able to teach.”

Furthermore, elders who feel insecure because they are not strong up-front speakers need not worry that this somehow disqualifies them from serving in church leadership. Granted, some elders (overseers, pastors) do more teaching and preaching than others (1 Timothy 5:17)—and rightly so—but that fact does not disqualify an elder who primarily leads and serves in other ways.

So, does an elder have to be “able to teach”? Yes, but that phrase doesn’t mean what most people think it means.

———-

The ideas for this post started in my book, What Are Spiritual Gifts: Rethinking the Conventional View, pages 90-91.


[1] We should probably think of the office of pastor (lit. a shepherd), overseer, and elder as being one-and-the-same office in the first-century church. Note particularly Acts 20:28, “…among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God” and 1 Peter 5:1-2, “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as a co-elder…shepherd the flock of God which is among you, exercising oversight.” Note also that 1 Timothy 3:1-2 refers to these leaders as overseers, whereas Titus 1:5 refers to them as elders.

6 thoughts on “Does an Elder Have to be “Able to Teach?” (1 Timothy 3:2)

  1. This is an extremely helpful insight, Ken!

    In conversations with others, I’ve come across a particular take on how to explain some of the differences between 1 Tim and Titus with regards to elder qualifications. 1 Tim is written to a longer-established church situation in Ephesus (elders had long been appointed, and it had been in existence for several years), while Titus was written in a “brand new” church situation (in Crete, where elders had not yet been appointed). This is a possible explanation for why 1 Tim, for example, requires elders not to be a “recent convert,” whereas Titus does not include that requirement (since they were all recent converts, and pioneer church situations ). The idea is that the Titus qualifications may be more relevant to the initial planting of the church, whereas the 1 Tim qualifications may be more relevant to churches after they’ve been established for a while.

    I’d be curious to know your thoughts on this take, and whether or not you think it is a possible explanation for the difference in the way the two letters express the “able to teach” qualification.

    Thanks again for this helpful blogpost.

    Blessings,

    Scott

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    1. Scott, thanks for your helpful comments.
      I agree that Ephesus had been established as a church for quite a few years (eight or nine?) by the time 1 Timothy was written to Timothy in Ephesus, and, furthermore, that Titus was charged by Paul to appoint elders in a more pioneer church setting on the large island of Crete. I think that knowing that background might prove to be helpful in explaining some of the differences between the lists, but I would be cautious about taking this too far (…as though the list in 1 Timothy has lasting relevance for our day, but the list in Titus doesn’t since Titus was in a dynamic and changeable situation). I didn’t hear you saying anything of the sort in your comments, but anticipate that someone might try to take it that direction. On the particular qualification I wrote about in this post, I think it more likely that Titus is simply spelling out using more words what the elders in Ephesus would have already known was meant by the single-word requirement that a teacher be didaktikos. But since 20 centuries later, we don’t have access to previous conversations with Paul the way the elders in Ephesus would have, we can use the longer description in Titus to help us infer what was probably intended by the word when Paul used it in 1 Timothy 3. I hope this was helpful.

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  2. Kenneth, I’m afraid you’re twisting the text a bit too much to make a point where one doesn’t need to be made. If you are going to conclude that teachers are not required to teach in front of the room (like a teacher does and has for millennia) then you need to show how a first-century audience would have thought of the term. The rest of your argument just kind of falls away with the question–“so what?”

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Matthew. In my reading of first-century texts, it appears to me that one common form of “teaching,” both in Palestine and in the Greco-Roman world was one teacher who had a cadre of students attached to that teacher. Those students went around with him, did life with him, and received teaching from him throughout the day. Kinda’ like what Jesus did with his disciples. Some teaching in first-century societies took place in the front of a room or the front of an outside crowd, but some took place one-on-one, one-on-three, or one-on-twelve (etc.). I appreciate you reading and commenting.

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      1. Well, no. I certainly understand your approach. You are seeing the unique relationship between Jesus and the Twelve and superimposing that on the entirety of the office of pastor/teacher. A closer reading of those first-century texts will show that most of the preaching/teaching took place in a synagogue or church which usually accommodated between 50-100 people. In actuality, your last comment should probably be flipped around. Most of the teaching took place in front of people. Only a smaller portion of it was one-on-whatever. You certainly won’t find this in a study of the life of Paul. Most of his sermons are preached to groups. Most of the times he’s teaching is in front of groups of people. There is very little of the “life-on-life” idea in the epistles that is not within the context of a local church. The New Testament call is for the pastor to “feed the flock of God.” It seems incongruous to use some kind of reductionism to arrive at a conclusion that somehow this feeding (teaching/preaching) is not what Paul means by didaktikos.

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      2. Thanks again for responding, Matthew. I’m afraid that you have described me incorrectly. I am not superimposing a “unique” relationship of Jesus and the Twelve upon pastor-teachers. There really were a variety of ancient educational settings, including formal schools for training philosophers, all the way down to one-on-one tutors. Educational locations ranged from established schools to workshops to homeschooling tutoring. Here is a convenient summary of some of the Greco-Roman educational settings and methods: https://factsanddetails.com/world/cat56/sub406/entry-6232.html. Blessings.

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