Sunday, November 18, 2018

Credentialism and Truth

“As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.”

The Jewish religious authorities came teeming out of the woodwork to harass the apostles for two reasons. Primarily it was the public proclamation of resurrection through Jesus that irked them. Resurrection was a huge bone of contention for Sadducees in particular, who did not believe in it. Adding the name of Jesus to the mix, a man the authorities had only recently had put to death, only compounded the problem.

But we should not overlook Luke’s observation that they really did not like the apostles teaching the people.

Teaching the People

Fishermen didn’t get to do that, you see. They lacked the appropriate religious gravitas to weigh in publicly on the meaning of the Old Testament, to quote Moses or reference Samuel, let alone dare to tell you what the patriarchs meant to say. Teaching authoritatively was thought to be uniquely the domain of the credentialed religious elite.

Now, if your Bible leads you to question my point here, you are not alone. A number of the freer modern English translations run the two issues together. The most popular is the NIV, which reads “the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” The New Living Translation removes any distinction between the two issues at all, rendering it “Peter and John were teaching the people that through Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead.” That goes beyond merely non-literal to actually deficient, since it fails to render kataggellō [“proclaiming”] in English at all, though the word very much present in the text. Even the NIV skips the word “and” [in Greek, kai], which is also present and joins the two relevant clauses.

Two Matters of Concern

There are definitely two matters of concern for the Jews being described, though they are certainly related. The word kai is a very common conjunction with a wide range of possible meanings, but not quite so wide as to mean nothing at all. Here it most likely means either “and” or “and especially”, as in “teaching the people and especially proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection.” The Jews did not like what Peter and John were saying one bit, but they also did not like that it was Peter and John who were saying it.

William MacDonald puts it this way:
“These leaders resented the fact that the apostles were teaching the people. They felt that was their sole prerogative.”
Thus it is not surprising that when Peter and John were brought up before members of the high priestly family the next day, these religious leaders were astonished that they were “uneducated, common men”. It was not simply astonishing that they were able to speak intelligently about these matters, it was astonishing that they dared to do so. Accordingly:
“They called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.”
This is what the authorities ultimately sought (unsuccessfully) to prevent: not another public miracle, but the “wrong” men usurping their place in the religious hierarchy by teaching the people more convincingly than they themselves were able.

A Familiar Problem

A little gospel history reminds us they had this very same problem with Jesus. In Matthew, the chief priests and elders confront Jesus teaching in the temple and ask “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus responds by reminding them that they had this same problem with John the Baptist.

Can you see a trend developing here? The teachers of the law were looking for the impossible: credentials more convincing than the testimony of the Holy Spirit, who repeatedly drove out demons, healed the sick and raised the dead to authenticate both the teaching of Jesus and his apostles. Having rejected the evidence of their eyes, there was nothing on earth that could be said to convince them. The people, meanwhile, accepted both the teaching of John and of the Lord Jesus on the basis that it rang true. They were convicted, and they believed.

“Expressly Reserved”

Today, we also need to look for something other than miracles to authenticate men who teach the word of God, since God is simply not working the same way in our present age as he did in the first century. Sadly, many modern churches make the same mistake the Jews made: they equate the right to teach God’s word authoritatively with an acceptable religious education and the approval of an earthly body of doctrinal gatekeepers. Such thinking pervades Christendom, from the “high” churches to evangelical Bible churches:
“Blessing the faithful with the Most August Sacrament is expressly reserved to the ordained.”

“[A] generalized lay ministry should be regarded as something of an anomaly.”

“The M.Div. degree is an imperative for future pastors.”

“If your church is seeking someone whose training includes the basic tools for studying scripture, it is almost without question an essential that the person have at least a seminary degree (or a secular equivalent).”
Taken to its logical conclusion, such thinking would have excluded not just John the Baptist, but Jesus and all his apostles except perhaps Paul.

Speaking of Paul …

Where Judaism is concerned, Paul had all the right credentials. Of all the major New Testament teachers, he was probably the best educated in the formal sense. Yet when he cites his apostolic credentials to Christians, it is not his education under Gamaliel to which he refers, but rather to his sufferings, his financial independence, his demonstrated love of God’s people, his direct experience of God and even his weaknesses, because these provide opportunity for the power of God to be displayed in his life and ministry.

The true test of a teacher is not the correct pedigree, affiliation or experience. It is what his teaching produces. Good trees cannot bear bad fruit, and bad trees cannot bear good. People get excited about dynamic, charismatic, telegenic speakers, but the fact that they are capable of a professional delivery does not guarantee their content is actually helpful to the Body of Christ in the long run. The real test of a teacher is what he produces across time. Careful observation will show whether a Bible teacher who seems to be getting good initial results is a true servant of God or a mere flash in the pan.

Teachers and Students

Observe the general trends. Watch how a man’s followers progress. Are they too able to independently teach the word of God, or are they dependent on the pronouncements of their guru? Can the things they say be found in accordance with the scriptures, or do they require special, unique views or interpretations found only in the mouth of the man who taught them? Can they think on their feet and refute error by using the word of God, or do they depend on the talking points, mannerisms and language of the man who influenced them? Do they retain their individual personalities and incorporate their own God-given assets into their ministry, or do they become pale copies of a more impressive original?

One huge authentication of Paul’s ministry is that it produced people like Timothy and Titus, just as the astounding spiritual prowess of the Eleven was yet another evidence for the truth of what Jesus taught.

In Summary

We need to be careful not to make the same mistakes we find scripture pointing out repeatedly. In Christ, credentials are meaningless. The knowledge accumulated on the way to receiving such honors may be incredibly helpful to a humble teacher. Equally, it may be a crippling weight to a vain one. It may provide additional insight to teachers who are already discerning, or it may give obtuse windbags warren after warren of theological rabbit holes in which to lose both themselves and their audiences.

In short, we should not reject a man because he has religious credentials, but neither should we reject a man because he does not. The value of a man’s ministry turns on other things entirely.


  1. It seems that it is unavoidable to have occasional repetition of this (and other) topics on this site. But I remember that the topic of the natural need for, and occurrences of, hierarchical structure in an organization has come up before. My opinion is that the authors here are so committed and wrapped up in their mission that they sometimes loose track of what should be an expected and perfectly natural consequence of human interaction and organization. How else can one miss the fact that the ordinary person is not into pursuing and analysing their bible reading and interpretation to the minute detail as presented here. Who has, or wants to take, the time for that? This applies to most topics of human endeavor of course so that, as a natural consequence, people will defer to those willing to make that effort, to the "experts" or leaders then. It is therefore a bit astonishing that this is not simply recognized as a given human behavior and that the "expert" thinks others are lacking because they are not committed to the same degree. The real reason that this happens is of course because it is simply practical not to have everyone vying with each other but to agree to relinquish some amount of decision making to those with ability who are also willing to lead. This happens of course in all small and large organizational situations and not only in the religious sphere and is actually beneficial. So it makes no sense to complain about it when to most people this is a natural and acceptable situation.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Q. I think if you read the post carefully, you'll agree I am not objecting to leadership per se. The New Testament teaches us to "obey our leaders", so it is pretty clear we are to both have them and recognize them.

      What I am suggesting here is that in the NT, church leaders are recognized for different qualities than are often prized in other spheres of responsibility.