Teaching to indoctrinate or to educate?

It took me a long time to understand the difference between teaching (informing, enlightening) and preaching (re-presenting the Good News). It is unusual in our culture to find a church with leaders who are gifted preachers. Most churches we’ve attended have had teachers in the pulpit. Even those who claim to have a deep commitment to exegetical preaching typically teach the passage rather than endeavoring to form Christ in lives of the hearers. Both teaching and preaching are spiritual gifts, but the former is instructional, the latter designed to re-orient our hearts, souls, minds and strength to God’s character, his goodness, his nearness, his other-ness, his mercy and justice and holiness and beauty. Straight-up preaching can have teaching elements embedded. A teaching message may have a splash of preaching blended into it.

Though the church we attend is mercifully tilted toward preaching rather than teaching on Sunday mornings, we learned that for the next few weeks of the summer, the messages will be fairly instructional in nature. The series is dubbed “Hot Topics”, and these live-wire issues will include messages on men’s roles, women’s roles, homosexuality and church leadership. During the nearly three years we’ve been at the church, we have not seen those charged with preaching (yes, preaching) choose to zero in on these sorts of issues. When the Biblical text for the morning demands a comment on one of these issues, the person preaching will go there briefly, but not camp on any one of these issues for an entire sermon.

Thank God.

I wasn’t rejoicing when I left the building this morning. This morning’s message was the intro to the teaching series, framing the approach they’ll be using as they tackle these Hot Topics. My summary of the approach as it was presented this morning: There’s God’s way, and there’s many ways presented to us by the world. We might not like God’s way, but his way is the right and wise way.

I absolutely agree that there is only one way to God. His name is Jesus.

I respectfully disagree that there is one single Christian party line on many of these issues.

Let’s think for a moment about three possible categories of church people who will be hearing this teaching on these ‘hot topics’:

(1) There are some in the church who perhaps have never thought about these issues at all, and echo whatever popular culture has to say. These folks definitely need a tutorial on how to think Christianly, to love God with their minds, and they do need to hear what their church leaders believe about an issue.

(2) There are others who are content to parrot what the pastor tells them. This state shouldn’t be the spiritual goal of a caring shepherd, but in the case of many of the churches of which we’ve been a part over the last four decades, it is (unfortunately) what passes for unity in many congregations. If you’ve ever been shot down or humiliated when asking an honest question of a church leader (“Is it possible that there are other Scriptural views besides the pre-trib Rapture?”, “Why do we baptize infants in this church when I don’t see the practice mentioned in the Bible?”), you see the insecurity that fuels this kind of faux unity.

(3) There are others in the church who have approached one or more of these topics with a studious and prayerful heart, and have arrived at a different set of convictions. A mature teacher will ensure that his audience knows that there are serious, intelligent believers hold different views. While he or she explains the church’s convictions (or his/her own!), the teacher should also respectfully acquaint his hearers with the convictions held by other believers. Not doing so demonizes those positions – and the people who hold them.

When a teacher says that there is a single Biblical position on these issues, the grace and love of Jesus often gets trampled underfoot on the march to lockstep thinking. By saying there is one Biblical way to understand these issues, there is a not-so-subtle implication is that anyone who holds a differing view is either in grave error or, worse yet, not even a believer.

Church leaders have every right to teach their congregational or denominational party line on these hot topics. But they have the responsibility to ensure that their congregation understands that there are serious, committed believers who have come to very different convictions on every single one of these matters.

I’d welcome your thoughts: What is one practical way a teacher can communicate his/her/the church’s/the denomination’s convictions while ensuring that his/her hearers are equipped to love God with their heart, soul, mind and strength and love others as they love themselves?



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4 thoughts on “Teaching to indoctrinate or to educate?”

  1. We’ve been attending a new church recently. They had an announcement a couple weeksbago about a finance management class for the men to attend “because we feel that’s the man’s responsibility in the family.”

    I wanted to ask about those couples where the wife was patently the better money person, the families without a husband, single people, etc. Were none of them to attend?

    All these questions, of course, still leave us with the doctrinal question: Where exactly in the Bible does it say husbands do finances and wives dont? Hint: it’s not in there. In fact, I think complementarians would look at Proverbs 31 and say it is better left to the wives to handle family finances

  2. 1 Cor. 10 talks about dealing with the various convictions in regards to eating meat sacrificed to idols. This wasn’t just a dietary preference issue. It was a true “hot topic” in the church at that time.

    Paul encourages us to seek the good of others in our choices. The motivation in his words is very different than insisting that the Bible prescribes specific culturally-bound rules that came from 1950’s sitcoms (“men pay the bills”). Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 10 give a nod to people’s individual convictions and histories without turning them into a single rule for all.

    And you’re right, Tim – Proverbs 31 has a little something to tell us about who was probably handling the checkbook in this virtuous woman’s household.

    P.S. – It’s no fun searching for a new church. Blessings to you and your family. Hope you find a happy landing zone soon. 🙂

  3. I agree that the church has a responsibility to help its members understand how to apply what they understand about the Bible to modern living, including “hot topic” issues. Unfortunately, that sort of teaching usually includes dragging the church’s politics and social perceptions into the mix rather than attempting to examine what the Bible actually says. Add to this the fact there there are all kinds of churches with all kinds of political and social biases. The Gospel message pretty much gets lost amid the shouting.

    If the church pastor and its teachers can focus on an honest exploration of the Bible and how we can apply the core lessons to the lives of Christians in the 21st century, that would be terrific. Sadly, I don’t know of a church that actually attempts that goal, let alone achieves it.

  4. I agree, James. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if churches could think through their responsibility to educate with the some gusto they have for teaching doctrine (and opinion)?

    I think it is possible for some churches. At least, I hope it can be. I haven’t seen it in my experience, but I think it’s absolutely possible for a congregation with mature and secure leadership.

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