The Ministry of Teaching in the Letters of Paul



Emphasis will be given to (1) explicit references to teachers and teaching as cited by the apostle in his correspondence to churches as well as (2) the substance and approach of Paul’s teaching itself as it is embodied within the letters. This analysis will consider Paul’s correspondence in roughly chronological sequence, giving priority to those letters or portions of letters containing the most pertinent data on teaching, and omitting those which are less relevant to our discussion. Lastly, we shall explore how this aspect of Paul’s ministry can be applied to and illuminate contemporary approaches to Christian teaching.

Before beginning our study, further clarification is needed on two points. First, it is important to differentiate between the New Testament usage of the terms teacher, prophet/prophetess, and preacher. Siegfried Schatzmann notes that “[teacher] describes the function of expounding the Word of God; not as a new revelation from God, as in the case of prophetic ministry, but as the imparting of instruction based on truth already revealed.”!

In a similar vein, James Edwards reflects that “the prophet interprets the gospel according to the Spirit’s direction in given circumstances, but the teacher, through knowledge of and reflection on the revelation of God, instructs the church in the whole counsel of God.”‘2 By contrast, the role of the preacher, like that of a herald, is to cry out or proclaim a message.

Second, a brief word is in order as to Paul’s teaching via the genre of the ancient letter. As is commonly recognized, Paul tended to include in his letter body first a section comprising didactic or doctrinal material that expounded “truths of the Christian message,”3 followed by an advisory or hortatory section (known as paraenesis) containing advice or exhortation that pertained to Christian conduct or ethics. Although these two types of material were often mixed and are therefore difficult to distinguish, within the paraenesis Paul typically applied to the moral conduct of his readers theological truth that he had conveyed earlier in the letter. For purposes of this study, where applicable both epistolary forms, doctrinal and paraenesis, will be regarded as teaching.


Teaching is a subject critical to understanding I Thessalonians as a result of Paul’s hasty departure from Thessalonica after his initial evangelistic efforts in that Macedonian city (Acts 17:111). Persecution by the Jews forced a period of separation between founder and fledgling saints, and thus Paul was unable to address adequately in person many issues he could have had his tenure there been longer. As an alternative, he addressed some of these issues by way of written correspondence. As I. Howard Marshall has observed, “The problems and needs which lie behind the letter are … those of a church in its infancy, facing opposition from outside and lacking in the detailed teaching that Paul would have given if he had been able to stay longer with them.”4 Paul began the more or less instructional portion of the letter (4:15:24) by exhorting his readers on the importance of maintaining moral purity in a world notorious for sexual laxity (4:1-8). After admonishing them on the theme of brotherly love (4:912), he responded to questions raised by the Thessalonians concerning the fate of those among them who had died (4:1324). Paul informed them concerning the sequence of events that would accompany the parousia (the Lord’s second appearing). It would include a resurrection of the dead in
Christ, thus removing any need to grieve or become discouraged over fellow
saints who had already departed this life (4:13, 18; 5:11). Paul could not, how
ever, provide an “eschatological timetable”5 for these events, which would
transpire “as a thief in the night” (5:2).

In II Thessalonians, Paul raised the issue of future events in response
to those who were refusing to work (3:6ff), thinking the parousia was past. In
actuality the day of the Lord had not arrived, Paul claimed, but was to be pre
ceded by the appearance of a certain eschatological figure (“man of sin”) and
events that were yet to be fulfilled (2:1-16). As a result, the Thessalonians
were to “stand fast and hold the traditions which [they had] been taught”
(2:15; cf. 3:6ff.). Later in the letter, Paul admonished the Thessalonians on how to conduct themselves during the delay of the parousia. Rather than living like freeloaders, the idle among them were to “with quietness … work and eat their own bread” (3:12).

Corinthian Correspondence

Because much of the material in I Corinthians could be categorized as teaching, it is impossible to adequately cover it all in any detail in a study of this limited scope. We will attempt, however, to touch on some main issues Paul raised that relate to teaching, particularly his discussion of teaching as a spiritual gift or charisma (12-14). It is important to note that each topic Paul introduced in this letter was in direct response to attitudes or situations confronting the Corinthians. His instructions to the Corinthians were called forth primarily in response to (1) reports of their conduct he had received from members of Chloe’s household (1:11; cf. 5:1) and (2) questions the Corinthians had asked Paul in a letter (7:1). Paul’s overarching goals were to rectify the disordered state of the congregation and achieve reconciliation. In an attempt to quell Corinthian party strife Paul replied with a lengthy teaching (nearly four chapters) on the proper understanding of leadership in the church. Paul made it clear that he was not concerned with delivering refined oratory, but that truth be conveyed “in the words … which the Holy Ghost teacheth” (2:13). Through the use of analogy he demonstrated that teachers such as himself or Apollos had been assigned various functions (e.g., planting and watering) by God for the edification of the church (3:5-8), and that the varying abilities of these teachers were not to be compared.

An extremely importance reference to teachers is provided in I Corinthians 12:28-30. In this passage teachers are placed third in a list of spiritual functions or gifts, following apostles and prophets, but before such members as those who were performing healings or exercising “diversities of tongues. ” This placement of teachers in the list indicates the preeminence accorded to this aspect of ministry by Paul. By asking rhetorically, “Are all teachers? ” Paul affirmed that not all possessed this gift, but it was one among many to be used for edification of the body (12:7). Like the other gifts, teaching was allotted and activated by volition of the Spirit (12:6, 11).

Epistle to the Romans

In his lengthy correspondence to Roman house-churches, Paul passionately presented the various components and workings of his faith based gospel (1:16). In 12:3-8, a passage related to teaching, Paul admonished his readers not to be haughty, “but to think soberly, according as God has dealt to every man the measure of faith. ” He went on to describe in language reminiscent of I Corinthians 12 that the church consisted of many members exercising “gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us”; one such gift was teaching. In another notable passage, Paul urged the recipients of the epistle to “mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned” (16:17), whose teaching was but “good words and fair speeches [designed to] deceive the hearts of the simple” (16:18).

The Prison Epistles

It is noteworthy that in his correspondence to the Philippians Paul penned a digression in which he warned of false teachers whom he labeled “dogs” and “evil workers” (3:1ff.). These “adversaries would seem to be itinerant Christian preachers, who in the name of a higher ‘perfection’ (vv. 12-16) seek to impose upon Gentile converts what is in Paul’s eyes the essence of a Judaism outdated by God’s act in Christ.”6 Paul responded to these teachers by claiming that he could boast in the flesh as well, but instead chose to rely on the power of God and “the righteousness … which is of God by faith” (3:9).

In Ephesians 4:11, Paul included pastors and teachers in a list of spiritual gifts. It is significant that these two functions are correlated, for it is probable that they are two aspects of one ministry. The reason behind God’s granting of ministry gifts, Paul informed the Ephesians, was “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (4:12). The purpose of teaching, therefore, was to better equip the body of Christ for “the work of active spiritual service.”7 Thus outfitted to serve, saints would possess an improved capacity to engage heretics, since the saints would no longer be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of man and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (4:14).

The letter to the Colossians was written evidently to counter heretical tendencies being leveled at the church in Colossne, though there has been no clear consensus among scholars on the exact nature of the heresy. Arthur Patzia highlights the plurality of the probable makeup of the false teaching when he notes that it can “best [be] described as a syncretistic religious system, that is, as a mixture of diverse religious and philosophical components coming from Oriental, Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures.”8 Paul warned his constituents to be on guard against such heresies and to avoid being taken captive “through philosophy and vain deceit” (2:8). The false instructors taught according to “the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (2:8). By contrast, Paul plainly expounded Jesus Christ, for it is He “whom we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ” (1:2728; cf. Ephesians 4:7-16).

The Pastorals

The letters to Timothy and Titus provide several important references to teachers and teaching. This concentration of material on teaching renders them extremely pertinent to our topic and proportionally more deserving of our attention than some of Paul’s other letters.

Throughout much of his correspondence to Timothy and Titus, Paul bolstered the faith of his younger colleagues as they combated heretical teachings. Paul prescribed sound teaching as the antidote to the beguiling doctrines championed by their antagonists. In I Timothy 1:3ff., for example, Paul reminded his “own son in the faith” that he had stationed him “at Ephesus … that [Timothy might] charge some that they teach no other doctrine, neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith.” Paul informed Timothy that the essence of the instruction given by these false teachers is “idle talk” (1:6, NKJV) and “profane and vain babbling” (6:20), and must be properly countered with “the sound doctrine that is according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1:10-11). While it is not entirely clear what the false teachers were teaching, nor exactly who these teachers were, it is probable, as Gordon Fee has pointed out, that the doctrines consisted of a blend of elements stemming from Hellenistic Judaism and Greek Dualism.9 The error of the heretics manifested itself not only as erroneous teaching but as improper behavior, substantiating the corollary that true teaching and godliness cannot be separated, and that proper teaching promotes proper actions (cf. 6:18).

Paul offered several directives to Timothy to rectify the situation he was facing in Ephesus and to inoculate against further spread of the apostate teachings. These measures called for implementing household codes (5:1-6:2) and appointing leaders (bishops and deacons; 3:1ff.). Significantly, one of the traits necessary for an aspiring bishop was that he be “apt to teach” (3:2). Coupled with this qualification was a list of moral attributes required of bishops and deacons. Timothy was to concentrate on his teaching and spiritual qualifications by giving “attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (4:13), while simultaneously focusing on godliness and proving himself to be “an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (4:12).

As in I Timothy, in Paul’s letter to Titus we read that Paul assigned his mentoree or understudy (in this case Titus) to a locality (Crete) to handle certain administrative and instructional matters critical to the well-being of the churches there. In accordance with his orders to “ordain elders in every city” (1:5), Titus was to deliberately choose candidates that had ” a firm grasp of the word” (1:9, NRSV). Along with a ability to teach, these officials were to demonstrate noble character (1:6-8) and “devote themselves to good works” (2:8), including maintenance of “a stable home-life.”’10

In order to undermine the influence of his opponents, Paul advised Titus to “teach what is consistent with sound doctrine” (2:1). With strong words Paul admonished him to silence the false teachers (1:11), to “rebuke them sharply” (1:13), and to select leaders in Crete who “may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers” (1:9). Moreover, Titus was to instruct his constituents on their respective modes of conduct (2:1-9). Paul was keenly aware of the impending parousia, recognizing that the instruction he was advocating correlated to the godly lifestyle of those who wait “for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ” (2:13).

Although the tone and situation change in II Timothy, Paul was again concerned with furthering the ministry of teaching. In this personal letter to his younger colleague written shortly before Paul’s impending execution, Paul reminded Timothy that he (Paul) was suffering hardship as a result of his appointment as “a teacher of the Gentiles” (1:11; 2:9; cf. 3:11-12); nevertheless Paul remained confident despite his trials (1:12). As he shared in Paul’s suffering (2:3), Timothy was to “hold fast the form of sound words” which he had heard from Paul (1:13). The appearance of false teachers was but a sign of the end times, in which people would exhibit a host of ungodly characteristics (3:1-5) and refuse to “endure sound doctrine” (4:3).

In order to counteract this invasion of false teaching, Paul admonished Timothy to face his adversaries with a spirit of “power and of love and of a sound mind, ” rather than a “spirit of fear” (1:78, 12). Erroneous teachings were to be repudiated with “the form of sound words which [Timothy had] heard from [Paul]” (1:13). The ultimate source of Timothy’s teaching was to remain the sacred writings which he had studied from childhood and which instructed him in matters pertaining to salvation (3:14-16). Furthermore, Timothy was to recall that the message he proclaimed stemmed from the salvation provided through Jesus’ atonement and grace (1:9; 2:1; 3:15), was based on faith, love and peace (1:13; 2:18, 22; 3:15), and was to result in good works (2:21; 3:17). As in the other Pastorals, Paul sounded an eschatological note: these admonitions to Timothy had been given in view of Christ’s “appearance and his kingdom” at which time he would “judge the quick and the dead” (4:1).

Applications to Contemporary Teaching

Paul’s approach to teaching carries several important implications for those engaged in teaching ministries today. We will consider these under the headings of (1) the content of teaching, (2) the aim of teaching and (3) the qualifications of a teacher.

1. Content

For Paul, all teaching was to rest upon Scripture (I Timothy 3:15), consist of sound doctrine (Titus 2:1), be Spirit-guided (I Corinthians 2:1-14), and must have as its core Jesus’ gospel of grace, love and faith (Romans 1:16; II Timothy 1:9; Titus 2:1114). Our teaching must likewise be biblically based, exegetically sound, Spirit led, and characterized by the attributes of the gospel. And like Paul’s, our teaching must be appropriate to the occasion. It is clear from a study of Paul’s letters that his approach was to teach only what was relevant to the needs of his churches.

2. Aim

Paul’s stated aim for the instructions he provided in I Timothy 1:5 was “charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned. ” Teaching, therefore, like the other gifts, should edify the hearers and equip them for greater spiritual service (Ephesians 4:11ff.). At times, however, teachers may be required to sternly refute heretical teachings (II Timothy 4:2-4).

3. Qualifications

One cannot manufacture the gift of teaching, a calling received from God. “And he gave some … teachers” (Ephesians 4:11) “Are all teachers?” (I Corinthians 12:29). A teacher of God’s Word must not only have a firm grasp of the Scriptures but be morally and ethically fit, living a holy lifestyle and maintaining a pure heart before God (Titus 1:9, 15). If we are to train others, we must ourselves be trained by “the grace of God,” which instructs us to deny “ungodliness and worldly lusts” and to “live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world” (Titus 2:1112). Although teachers may suffer for their calling (II Timothy 1:11-12; 4:5), they should consider their eternal reward (4:6ff.).


We have examined the Pauline Letters with a focus on teaching as a ministry. It is clear that teaching was a key element in Pauline thought and in his interactions with his churches. For Paul, teaching was a highly effective medium for communicating his instructions to his converts. As such, his approach holds important ramifications for contemporary Apostolic teachers as they seek to edify and train disciples for greater spiritual service.


A Pauline Theology of Charismata (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 23. Italics are mine.

2 Romans, vol. 6 of New International Biblical Commentary, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1992), 288. Italics are mine.

3 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Introduction to the New Testament Epistles” in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary R. E. Brown, J. A. Fitzmyer, R. E. Murphy, eds. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1 990), 770.

4 “I Thessalonians” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, Carson, R. T. France, J. A. Motyer and G. J. Wenham, eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 1277. Italics are mine.

5 The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Bruce M. Metzger and Roland E. Murphy, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 294n (NT).

6 Brendan Byrne, “The Letter to the Philippians in New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 796.

7 New Oxford, note, 276 (New Testament section).

8 Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, vol. 10 in New International Biblical Commentary, 1992, 4.

9 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, New International Biblical Commentary, 1988, 7-10 and 40-42.

10 Donald Guthrie, “The Pastoral Letters,” in New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, 1312.