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Saturday, April 18, 2015

Trained or Gifted?

A few posts back I promised to try to answer the question How can we recognize teaching gift?

In one sense the title of this post represents a false dichotomy: why not be both trained AND gifted? In fact, many gifted men are trained, whether in Bible schools, seminaries or less commonly through private mentoring, or discipling. Still, there is a distinction to be made between what can be supplied by a seminary (good study habits, recognition of logical fallacies, general principles of homiletics, familiarity with Greek and Hebrew, etc.) and what can only be supplied by the Holy Spirit of God.

It is the latter set of qualities I’d like to consider.

Spirituality

Before we consider giftedness or training, it should be evident that no amount of either is sufficient to overcome the sort of spiritual tone-deafness caused by willful immaturity or carnality. If you are away from the Lord but still teaching publicly, what you have to say will almost surely be deficient in content or power. That’s not to say that if you make a true statement it will sound false, or that the Lord cannot use you to the benefit of some in the church, but that the characteristic discernment brought about by consistent and genuine spirituality is the necessary third element in making any gift effective and profitable on a larger scale. “The spiritual person,” Paul says, “judges all things”. 

That qualification aside, I’d like to suggest several ways a teaching gift may be recognized:

Authority

We may rightly anticipate that a man or woman taught by the Holy Spirit will display the same qualities as his or her teacher and the One of whom that teacher speaks.

One distinctive feature of the Lord’s ministry was his authority. It astonished the crowds not only because the son of a carpenter spoke with authority, but because nobody in their day did. Presumably they were used to waffling, equivocation, a complete absence of spiritual conviction or even incoherence.

Authority is not charisma or charm. It is not mere dogmatism or intensity. It is a confidence borne of repeated exposure to truth. It comes out of familiarity with the Word but it is more than simply being a good student. A teacher will not be thought authoritative if he makes statements that are transparently ill-considered, if he characteristically hedges his bets (maybe it means this, maybe it means that) or if he is rocked on his heels by the first sensible question he is asked. Even less will he be considered authoritative if he does not rest his case on the bedrock of scripture as the Lord Jesus invariably did.

The Holy Spirit does not overwhelm an existing personality, but he does manifest himself consistently. A skinny, balding academic with a teaching gift will come across with more spiritual authority than an ungifted but charismatic alpha male in his prime.

Of course that will not necessarily be evident to everyone. There were unspiritual Corinthians who dismissed Paul because they were looking for the wrong qualities in a teacher. To effectively judge a spiritual gift it is necessary to be spiritual yourself. This is why polling an entire congregation to assess their impressions of teaching gift is of limited value. A more selective survey of the opinions of mature and godly believers is bound to produce more useful input.

Conviction

Conviction and authority are not the same thing. “Authority” describes the manner in which a teacher presents scripture. “Conviction” describes the effect on his audience, which may manifest quite differently from person to person.

Paul tells us that the appropriate exercise of certain spiritual gifts produces conviction. In this he is only reiterating what the Lord said about the Holy Spirit: one aspect of his role is to convict. His sword is the word of God, able to pierce “to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart”.

The exercise of a spiritual gift produces conviction in both the world and the church, but the results of conviction may be poles apart. An open, humbled heart may receive the word of God with joy. Those with hardened hearts may plug their ears, gnash their teeth and pick up rocks.

When on the lookout for teaching gift in a local church, look for those whose employment of scripture characteristically produces a strong reaction. The word of God is living and active. When accurately handled by a gifted teacher, it should produce change, assuming of course that there is any fertile soil in its vicinity in which a seed may flourish.

Then again, a negative reaction from unbelievers or hardened professing Christians may be just as telling as a positive reaction from spiritual believers.

Clarity

God is not the author of confusion, Paul tells us. If a bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? One of the crucial qualities of Spirit-empowered teaching is clarity.

Again, this needs some qualification. To the natural person, the things of the Spirit of God are folly, no matter how clearly and explicitly they may be presented. The person without the Spirit of God is not equipped to judge whether Bible teaching is understandable. The stubborn, hardened individual is equally ill-suited to express an opinion. Even the disciples were accused from time to time of being “slow of heart to believe”.

In fact, the most gifted, Spirit-filled Teacher in the history of mankind was crucified for what he said. Perhaps he was too clear.

When looking for gifted teachers, look for those who are able to break down the word of God so as to make it understandable to those with tender hearts. “He will guide you into all truth,” the Lord said of his Holy Spirit.

Christ-Centredness

God’s favourite subject is his Son. It should not surprise us that the Holy Spirit characteristically testifies about Christ. After all, he is to be found in “all the scriptures”.

Seminaries and Bible schools can teach you how to stand on a platform and hold an audience. Sometimes. They cannot teach you occupation with Christ. Yet he is, emphatically and always, the substance of Spirit-empowered teaching.

Frequently the complaint is heard among Christians that they would like more practical teaching. People are looking to have the problems of everyday life addressed: unemployment, marriage failure, child rearing, relationships and so on.

A gifted teacher may well hit on those subjects, but his emphasis will always be Christ. This is how Paul dealt with important practical issues. Submission in marriage? That’s a tough one, but a lot easier when you start with Christ. Not feeling a lot of love for a difficult wife? Another tough, practical issue, but Paul starts with Christ. So will the gifted Bible teacher.

Gift and Charisma

There is a danger of choosing the wrong gift for the wrong audience. The world needs evangelists. By and large, the church doesn’t, at least not when it gathers. The evangelist’s gift is intended for the world, not the church platform. But community-focused churches tend to de-emphasize the critical importance of building up believers under the mistaken impression that maximizing the audience for a Sunday service is a priority. They often prefer charismatic, outgoing doctrinal lightweights who serve up milk instead of meat. Slickness ends up trumping substance.

And then there is the reality that seminaries and Bible colleges are expensive. They may help hone a spiritual gift and make it that much more effective, but they can also create an illusion of giftedness where it does not exist. Formal training is no substitute for either maturity or gift. And, as in the days of Saul, man still has the unfortunate tendency to “look on the outward appearance”. If a man is polished, presentable and well-liked, it is my experience that the content of his teaching may be less carefully scrutinized than it ought to be.

Trained or gifted? In a perfect world, both. But it is not a perfect world.

If you have to choose one or the other, look for gift.

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