How to Teach for Different Generations

Graphic of two women from different generations.

There I was, standing in front of a classroom filled with a wide mixture of generations. Most were training for ministry of some kind, though some were seasoned pastors. Ages ranged from early twenties to late sixties. I was still a seminary student myself, privileged to be the teaching and research assistant to Dr. Clint Arnold. I was exploring and praying about the idea of pursuing a PhD in New Testament with the goal of teaching at a Christian university. Dr. Arnold, as a wise and attentive mentor, graciously gave me a handful of opportunities to give teaching a try while I was still pursuing my MA. I was incredibly nervous, as I recognized that some of my students were experienced pastors more than twice my age. What if they didn’t want to hear from me? What if they knew more than I did? Was I really qualified to step up to that lectern?

This experience and many others like it have caused me to reflect on the responsibility of teaching the Word of God in such contexts. I have received comfort in the Scriptures, especially the words of Paul to the young Timothy.

There are many observations about teaching in 1 Timothy that apply broadly to any teacher of God’s Word, and much of Paul’s exhortation centers on the intent and character of the one who teaches.

Love

First, Paul articulates clearly the purpose of his own instruction:

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. (1 Tim 1:5 ESV)

The “aim”—the purpose or goal—of teaching the word of God is always love. This purpose ought to be a given, since the greatest commandments are loving God and loving neighbor (Matt 22:36–40; Mark 12:28–31; Luke 10:25–28). If love is the goal of discipleship in general, it ought also to be the goal of the specific ways we live out our discipleship. Augustine of Hippo summed up well the priority of love in all of the Christian life:

So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.1

If lacking this twin love indicates failure to understand the Scriptures, how can one then rightly teach them? Donald Guthrie observes that such love was most likely lacking in the false teachers Paul addresses in this letter. We too should be on guard that we are not teaching for our own “intellectual satisfaction,”2 or sense of personal pride. Rather, it is out of the self-giving love of Jesus Christ that teaching can be effective.

Faith

If love is the goal, then what is the source of such love? Paul expounds extensively on the importance of personal character, identifying the source of love to be a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. A pure heart is one that is free from sin and moral guilt; this corresponds to having a “good conscience”—that is, the keen ability to distinguish right from wrong. This conscientiousness and discernment guides how one conducts him or herself among pupils—as well as how the Scriptures are studied and presented.

The source of such love, then, is a sincere faith. Trust in God that is genuine and without pretense is absolutely vital in teaching, for teaching is not a right that is earned but a privilege to be stewarded. That stewardship necessitates a relationship dependent upon Jesus Christ, the One who teaches with authority (Matt 7:29), and a reliance upon the Holy Spirit (John 16:13). Without this solid foundation of faith, teaching is vain and futile.

Humility

Also important to the character of one who teaches the Word of God is a posture of humility. We do not teach God’s Word in order to elevate our personal prestige. Paul reminds us that those who proclaim the gospel message that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” are not above that humble status ourselves. Indeed, Paul identifies himself as “the foremost” among sinners (1 Tim 1:15). Pride will rear its ugly head repeatedly; the human heart always seeks glory for itself. Remembering constantly that we, too, are sinners, saved by grace, is key to maintaining a spirit of humility.

Calling

Another important element in teaching is having confidence in calling, something Paul also models well. Indeed, the very mercy he received from Christ is ultimately for a purpose beyond his own salvation: Paul received mercy to fulfill a calling to preach and teach the gospel, and to be an example to all those who believe (1 Tim 1:16). But someone’s confidence in their teaching should not be rooted primarily in their abilities. For Paul, this confidence stems from the truth that it is Christ Jesus who has appointed him to teach and to serve, and it is Christ Jesus who has given him the strength to do so (1:12). In 2 Corinthians, where Paul defends his apostleship to the doubters in Corinth, he repeats the mantra, “Yet not I, but Christ” in a variety of ways to remind his audience that his authority, confidence, and enabling comes from God (e.g., 2 Cor 1:9; 2:17; 3:5; 4:5; 4:7).

This confidence in God’s calling should also be recognized by other Christian leaders. Paul recognized that Timothy had a unique calling and “entrusts” him with the responsibility of teaching and instructing others. Such assurance was consistent with other prophecies made about him (1 Tim 1:18–19). Timothy’s gift and calling were recognized widely by those in authority in the church, specifically the council of elders (1 Tim 4:14).

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Glory

Paul also models the goal of glorifying God in all things, especially in one’s instruction. In his own recalling of his ministry and confident calling, he provides an opening and closing statement of thanksgiving (1:12) and an ascription of glory to God: “To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever” (1:17).

Youth

Knowing one’s purpose, standing with humble and pure character, and having confidence in one’s calling, as well as having that calling recognized by other leaders, are all foundational to serving in the role of teaching. For those who find themselves in the role of teaching different generations, and especially older generations, Paul gives additional words of encouragement. Paul exhorts Timothy: “Let no one despise you for your youth but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). Once again, good character, love, faith, purity, and being an example are all vital. And it is out of such character and fruit that others can find themselves teachable by those younger than they. Perhaps there will be some who struggle to learn in such a context, but humility and purity help to break the chains of skepticism or distrust. Be patient, gentle, humble, and sincere: godly character can diffuse personal qualms and open the space for God-honoring communal growth.

As a younger teacher, it is also vital to recognize the value and dignity of those who are older. Regarding them with honor and respect will go a long way toward paving a peaceful path for mutual growth and discipleship. Paul exhorts Timothy against rebuking older men. Instead, he is to honor the older generation as he would his own father or mother (1 Tim 5:1–2). In my own teaching, I like to invite those who are older to share their wisdom and experience, both practical and intellectual. My teaching philosophy is that, as a lifelong learner, I am learning with my students. I have been given opportunities to learn what others may not have. Yet others’ life experiences have afforded them opportunities from which I may also learn. While I may be the one who has the platform to present, when possible I try to provide opportunities for discussion. When that is not feasible, invitations for testimonies work well to include and honor other individuals. On this side of eternity, we are all disciples of Jesus. We all have been gifted with certain responsibilities, but remember that one calling does not supersede the callings of others. This is especially important for those of us who teach!

Prayer

Lastly, bathe everything you do in prayer. Pray as you study, pray as you prepare your message, pray for the people who will receive your message, and pray that you too will be challenged and changed in the context of a community that is guided by the Holy Spirit.

Since that first time of teaching, the Lord has graciously built my confidence, but I pray it will always be a humble confidence. Teaching is a gift, because through it I receive constant reminders to check my own heart. Is my life continuing to be shaped by the gospel? Do I recognize that it is not I, but Christ in me, who will be effective in transforming hearts and minds for his glory? Is my life consistent with what I am teaching? Is my motive love for God and others? With my calling affirmed, these provide a better set of questions I can ask of myself anytime I prepare to present the Word of God to others. Sometimes the simple prayer of David is the best way forward:

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! (Ps 139:23–24 ESV)

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  1. Augustine of Hippo, On Christian Doctrine, trans. R. P. H. Green (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 1.36.40.
  2. Donald Guthrie, Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 14 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 72.
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Written by
Jeanette Pifer

Jeanette Hagen Pifer (PhD, Durham University) is affiliate professor of New Testament at Biola University/Talbot School of Theology. Her research focused on the Pauline concept of faith. Pifer has presented academic papers at a number of conferences in the US and in Europe. She has published a handful of book chapters and a couple of books, including her PhD dissertation: 'Participation by Faith' (Mohr Siebeck, 2018). She also contributed to the Lightfoot Legacy, a three-volume set of previously unpublished commentaries by this foremost English New Testament scholar of the nineteenth century.

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