During a recent discussion with some fellow Christians the topic of the teacher came up. A leader quoted Jesus’s statement in the Bible in Mat 23:8-10 to say that teachers are not required. Here is the relevant passage: “But you, do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for one is your teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. 9 Do not call anyone on earth your father; for one is your Father, he who is in heaven. 10 And do not be called teachers; for one is your teacher, the Christ.” How should I respond to this? I know Ephesians, James and Corinthians mention teachers, but I remain confused about why Jesus made the above statement, and how to interpret it in light of other scriptures.
I will have to say that is one of the more blatant examples of abuse of scripture I have seen! I can think of at least three basic rules of interpretation which were broken by this rather obvious misinterpretation of scripture.
First if all, it violates the rule that passages of scripture should be taken in their context. The context of Matthew 23 is that Jesus is speaking against the pride and unspirituality of the Pharisees. He is certainly not talking about roles in the church. The point of the passage is that leaders should not seek religious titles and that they should not seek the worship and praise of those they lead. Jesus could just as well have said, “Do not let anyone call you the great grand poobah,” or even, “Do not let anyone call you evangelist.” The point is that the Pharisees were far more concerned with the praises of men and the enforcement of rules that in loving God.
Second, to hold to this interpretation requires us to ignore or explain away clear teachings of the Bible. We know from Ephesians 4 that teacher is one of the established roles in the church. We know this from James 3 and Titus 1 as well. In the list of qualities needed in an elder in Titus 1, ability as a teacher is included as a needed quality. From Ephesians 4:11 we can conclude that teaching was not just something to be done in the church, but that the teacher was a named role in the church. To interpret Matthew 23:8-10 as a proscription against having people known as teachers in the church would cause us to ignore or dismiss many other passages of scripture. We also know from church history that there were teachers in the very young church. The Bible never contradicts itself. The interpretation you heard cannot be a correct one, given this “rule” of correct Bible interpretation.
A third rule of Bible interpretation is that one should avoid proof-texting. We all recognize proof-texting when we see it in others, but it is harder to detect when we are guilty. To “prove” that the teacher is not a biblical role would require establishing a stronger case than simply quoting a single passage, especially when it is not clear that this is even the subject of the passage in question.
Let me add a fourth point. In Matthew 23:8-10, Jesus is saying, literally, do not let anyone call you Rabbi. A Rabbi is clearly not exactly the same thing as a teacher. So, if this is a commandment to be applied literally, then it is to not call people a Rabbi, not that people cannot be called a teacher. I have not heard anyone in a Christian context being called a Rabbi, so it would be hard to know how to apply this if it were a commandment to Christians. We need to be careful when we interpret a passage of scripture to remember that the original language is not English. For this reason, using a particular English word in a passage as a proof-text of a particular teaching is something to be done with great caution. One should consider the original language in interpreting any scripture.
I would like to give a word of caution here. It is possible that the person who gave you this rather obviously poor interpretation has a “thing” against teachers, and that he is abusing this passage to support his agenda. It is also possible that he heard this passage and the interpretation from someone else and is simply repeating what he heard. You should be hesitant to accuse the person of having a bad motive for misinerpreting the passage. In correcting unfortunate misinterpretation, we should always be humble, remembering that we have a plank in our own eye and have probably made the same mistake at one time or another. If you choose to point out the fault in this interpretation to your leader, you should be humble and not agressive.
With that caution, I believe you ought to point out the misinterpretation to your leader and help him to avoid making such a big error in the future.
One more comment. It is clear from many biblical passages that the church needs the skills of those who are gifted in teaching in order to mature and to become strong. I would especially use the Ephesians 4 passage in that context. However, this does not mean that a local church needs to have appointed, recognized teachers to be mature. We do not want to overinterpret a passage of scripture. However, it is very clear from a wide array of biblical passages that the role of teacher in the maturing of the church is an important one. To use Matthew 23:8-10 to teach otherwise is a very unfortunate error.
John Oakes, PhD