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Teaching and Learning in the Bible: An Interview with Claire Smith

Claire Smith is a graduate of Moore Theological College and a well-known speaker and writer. In 2012 she recently published a detailed and internationally recognised academic monograph on teaching and learning in New Testament churches—the result of her doctoral studies [Pauline Communities as ‘Scholastic Communities’: A Study of the Vocabulary of ‘Teaching’ in 1 Corinthians, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus (Mohr Siebeck, 2012)]. We thought we’d chat to her to see what we can discover about teaching and learning in Christian life and ministry today.

Claire, tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in Sydney, and although I was sent to Sunday School and a traditional Anglican School, I did not come from a Christian home. By my mid-teens, I was deliberately anti-Christian and defiantly feminist. However, my first (short-lived) boyfriend was a Christian, and during my teenage years, he often came to my rescue when I was in trouble and told me how Jesus loved me. When I was 20, at a particularly bad time, he asked me to his church to hear John Chapman preach. For the first time, I really heard and learned the gospel. I went home that night and entrusted my life to Jesus. 

Since then I’ve trained as a nurse, worked in oncology and palliative care, and studied at Moore College, where I also met my husband, Rob. We’ve been married for 27 years, and been in ministry together all that time. We have an adult son who lives in London with his fiancée. I spend my days teaching or writing about God’s word—which I love, and love doing.

What motivated you to pursue this investigation into teaching and learning in the New Testament?

To be honest, I can’t remember! It was a bit like a loose thread on a garment that I started pulling and the more that came away, the more interested I was to keep pulling! One factor was probably my interest in the Bible’s teaching about men and women and our different responsibilities within the church family. But more generally it was just part of my desire and enthusiasm to know and love God’s word in depth. 

How did you go about doing the investigation?

Well, my research started its life at Macquarie University but after two years I decided to return to Moore College because I felt Moore was better suited to the in-depth study I wanted to do of the Bible and its vocabulary. 

Over time, too, my focus changed from a wide general study of ‘teaching’ in first century churches, to the way education (i.e. teaching and learning) formed, maintained and shaped the early Christian communities. I explored that through a detailed study of the vocabulary of ‘teaching’ in four letters written by the apostle Paul. As we might expect, as part of God’s inspired word, these four letters have plenty of things in common but there are also some interesting differences. 

1 Corinthians was written to a church, in Corinth (Greece), in the early years of Paul’s ministry (early-mid 50s), at a time when Paul’s authority and teaching was not questioned. On the other hand, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus—or the ‘Pastoral Epistles’ as they are often called—were primarily written to individuals, Paul’s delegates, Timothy in Ephesus (Asia Minor), and Titus in Crete (Aegean Sea). These letters were written towards the end of Paul’s ministry (early-mid 60s), and they focus on establishing and securing the future of those churches for the time when Paul would no longer be around. It seems too that there was growing opposition to the gospel Paul preached, and to his apostolic authority. 

Also, while no-one doubts that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, liberal scholars often claim that Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles—so a side interest for me was whether their claim is supported by the evidence. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t!)

Six years is a long time to study one topic! Was it challenging? How did God sustain you during the process?

Yes, it was challenging, but it was wonderful!! I think of it as a luxury being able to spend so much concentrated time sitting at my desk with my Bible (and lots of other books) open, reading and praying and reflecting on God’s word. 

Also, my methodology required detailed work on the Greek text, where I looked at each occurrence of each particular word (or activity) that had an educational element. There were 55 different verbs all up, ranging from general words for ‘teaching’ and ‘saying’, to more specialised words for activities like prophesying, commanding, exhorting, praying, testifying, evangelising, imitating, and so on. Some occurred only once but most occurred many times, and I examined each occurrence in great detail, to determine the who-what-where-when-why-and-how of educational activities in these early Christian communities.

It was painstaking and (sometimes) lonely work, but a great privilege and joy. I pray the result is a blessing to the people of God. One special encouragement I discovered after I had finished is that an elderly Christian sister, who anonymously financially supported my studies, had also prayed faithfully for me over the years. She went home to be with the Lord before I could meet and thank her in person. What a humbling expression of Christian fellowship!

What did God teach you from his word?

First of all, God taught me to love his word more and more—to see that it is rich and good and true, and that it can stand up to all the scrutiny we want to give it. 

More particularly, my research showed (and I learned) that all God’s children are learners and teachers—and that God alone is the ultimate Teacher, and from whom we all learn. Every part of the Christian community portrayed in these four letters was equipped and used by God to instruct their brothers and sisters and others, in many similar and different ways, and at no stage in the Christian life was anyone beyond learning, even the apostle Paul! 

And this makes sense when you think about it: we can’t know God unless he makes himself known to us, and teaches us about himself, about ourselves, and about his will for his creation. God is our Teacher, our only Teacher, really. As his children, we are each at various stages of knowing and learning of him. This is why the early Christian communities can rightly be called ‘learning communities’ (which is the punch line of my thesis).

So what exactly is ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’, according to the Bible?

That’s a huge question, and one that goes beyond the exact focus of my research, but the short answer is that ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ are bigger and broader than we can tend to think.

Let’s take ‘learning’ first. We tend to think of learning in terms of learning our times tables or learning to drive. That is, being able to remember and recite something or achieve or do something. But learning in the Bible is about hearing and accepting, welcoming and submitting to God himself. It is about a relationship with him. So we’re not just to grow in our knowledge of God—we’re to grow in our knowledge and love of him, by trusting him and being conformed to the image of his Son. Learning is our response to his loving self-revelation and will. 

Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29), and the Christian life is one of learning—right up to our final breath, indeed, right up to the time we shall see him face to face (1 Cor 13:12).

Likewise with ‘teaching’: we tend to think that ‘teaching’ is only what ‘teachers’ do—or (worse still) what preachers do. But the clear evidence of the New Testament (and the Old) is that all God’s people can teach others his truth. We can speak it—publicly, privately, formally, informally. We can pray it—not just in the content of our prayers but also in what we pray about, how we pray, why we pray, and in our trust that God will hear and answer us. We can sing it. We can model it in faithful lives of self-giving. We can remind people (or ourselves) of what we already know. We can read or write Scripture to others. We can proclaim Christ in our words, and even in our actions as we participate in the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:26).

Whoever we are, and wherever we are, everything we do and say and think (and don’t do and say, etc.) either declares that Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour, or that he isn’t—and whatever we declare, in some sense, we teach.

What insights into Christian life and ministry did you gain from this investigation?

At the heart of Christian life and ministry is the desire and goal to know Christ and to make him known—and when it’s put like that it’s easy to see that learning and teaching are at the heart of Christian life and ministry! 

We can only grow in our love of God by growing in our knowledge of him, and so our personal goal should be to know him more deeply, and our desire for other people should be the same. We ‘learn Christ’ (Eph 4:20) by hearing and reading his word, loving it, accepting it, trusting it and obeying it—and in doing so we love Christ, and cling to him as Lord and Saviour.

In terms of ‘ministry’—or more broadly in relationships with Christian brothers and sisters in and out of church, and in relationships with those yet to know Christ—this means that every moment is an opportunity to be taught or teach about the truth. It might be as quick and simple as telling a three-year-old that God made the mountains, or as long and complex as trusting God in a time of great trial. It might be as carefully worded as a sympathy card or as messy as an evangelistic conversation with a work colleague. In all these, we will learn (if we have willing hearts) and teach others (if they do too).

How do you think we can do better at encouraging teaching and learning by men and women together in church?

I’ll focus here on the teaching aspect of this question, because the learning part flows on from it.

I think there are two errors to avoid when we consider what ‘teaching’ is in church. We can conclude that ‘teaching’ is everything—and on that basis, read 1 Timothy 2 and the injunction that women are not ‘to teach and have authority over men’ and conclude that women can’t say anything to a man lest he learn something from her! Or we can claim that what Paul was talking about was a very narrow, particular form of ‘teaching’ directed at special circumstances at the time the letter was written, and therefore which no longer applies to us. In a sense, the first error casts the net too widely, and the second claims the verse casts the net into a lake that has since dried up! 

It is clear that Paul was very happy for women to teach in certain circumstances, and that he highly valued the ministry of godly, gifted women. It is also clear that his reasons for reserving the formal, ongoing teaching and authoritative leadership of congregations to gifted and duly appointed men were based on God’s purposes in creation for men and women. So this is not about old-fashioned misogyny or the quality of women’s contribution or local or time-limited circumstances. 

So what does it mean for us today? Paul’s use of the same vocabulary in 1 Timothy and elsewhere shows that 2:12 relates to the part of our church meetings where God’s word is opened and authoritatively taught and applied to God’s family. So for us that means the formal teaching or preaching in our church gatherings should be done by men, not women – however gifted the women are!

But it should be clear from everything else I’ve said, that it would be misguided to think that the only opportunity to contribute educationally in church gatherings is during the sermon. 

There are opportunities to teach, or to come at it the other way, there are opportunities for people to learn from us, from the moment we turn up to church. For some of us (men and women) that might be through up-front participation like prophetic encouragement or rebuke, testimony, mission reports, public prayer or Scripture reading, performing drama or songs, etc. But for all of us it will be things we say and do, from singing and praying together, to greeting old friends or visitors, to being attentive listeners, to the conversations we have. Each moment is an opportunity to declare biblical truth, and our belief in it.

I suspect we could all do better at this by being more prayerful, thoughtful, receptive and pro-active when we come together to meet with God and his people, and to sit under his word.

If there’s one big thing you’d love Christians to know about ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ in the Bible, what would it be?

Can I have two big things? (I’ll take that as a ‘yes’). 1. Rejoice that God has not hidden himself from us but has made himself known, in creation, in his Spirit-inspired word, and supremely, in his Son, so that, by the power of the Spirit, we can each know and learn of him, and grow in our knowledge and love of him throughout all our lives. 

And 2. Rejoice that God has equipped and given us all (men and women, young and old) countless opportunities to teach others, to speak his truth, to evangelise, to witness, to encourage, to exhort, to urge, to rebuke, to pray, to sing, to prophesy, to model and live lives worthy of imitation, in fact, to do whatever it is we have gifts and opportunity to do, to glorify God by making him known. 

We are all learners and teachers, whoever and wherever we are. May we be found faithful teachers and learners on the last day, to the glory of God.

Thanks so much for your time, Claire!

This interview was originally published in Magnolia Magazine (a publication of Moore College) in 2016, with questions written by Lionel and Bronwyn Windsor.