On Being a False Teacher

On Being a False Teacher

his year's Christmas season was a mixture of highs and lows.  The highs: England cricketers retaining the Ashes in Australia (if you are American, you probably will not understand the remarkable nature of that statement - indeed, to offer a dynamically equivalent translation of such an incredible statement, try, `A can of Miller Lite beats Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA in world beer tasting competition'); and my wife relenting from the list of home improvements she had planned for me to do.  The lows: Bath beating London Irish with a last second penalty (I am no London Irish supporter; but, as Gloucester RFC man, I simply hate to see Bath win); and the untimely death of Boney-M frontman, Bobby Farrell.  Yes, I know, Boney M symbolize everything I despise about disco music, and Bobby only ever lip-synched anyway (he shared a manager with Milli Vanilli, so what do you expect?), but anyone who can take a song about Rasputin into the upper levels of the pop charts cannot be all bad, can he?

For me, the season also brought the usual Christmas accusation by email from somebody with time on their hands that I am a false teacher.   Now, the world is full of people whom I regard as false teachers; but, given the choice of using two minutes of my finite life to send them an email decrying them for blasphemy and cursing their children to the fifth generation, or simply pouring myself a glass of wine, putting Mark Knopfler on the stereo, and stretching out on the sofa with a good book, I have to say the choice for me is clear.  Yet the world is obviously full of more than a few people with no taste for wine, no Knopfler back catalogue, and no comfy sofa; so what better way to spend their time than firing off the odd heated email to somebody who has no clue as to who they are?   For me, sufficient to the denomination and institution are the problems contained therein; so these days it takes a lot for me to engage on a personal level with a false teacher outside of my denominational or institutional patch.

Over recent months, such emails have been a bit disappointingly formulaic and rather lacking in imagination and verbal inventiveness.  They have generally started with some statement using two or three of the following apparently synonymous terms -- `European,' `godless,' `socialist,' and `relativist.'  The 'European' accusation is always particularly hurtful; I am British, after all, fog in channel, continent isolated and all that.  The emails then usually go on to infer that I am insanely and uncontrollably bent on the complete destruction of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, not to mention private property. The evidence is typically drawn from my recent book, Republocrat, where, I have to confess, I do declare myself to have been a two-time member of the Conservative Party, to have voted for Mrs Thatcher, and never to have been a socialist.  What more evidence could one need?  As every conservative Christian conspiracy aficionado knows, only the true socialist messiah would deny that he was the socialist messiah.  And, hey, don't forget I was born in Europe, you know.  
Then, my critics have gone for the jugular, simply declaring me to be an apostate false teacher who should repent, though they have generally been a little thin and vague on exactly which of the cardinal doctrines of the faith I have denied.   Maybe a mild form of neo-Keynesianism is incompatible with belief in the Virgin Birth?   And, of course, I was born in Dudley, which is, generally speaking, never a good idea; but does it necessarily involve me in a clear denial of justification by faith?

Yet, for all of my amused detachment as these delightful missals land in my inbox, I have to say that they have provoked me to reflect on the significance of being a false teacher; and I would like to go on record at this point as saying that nothing fills me with greater dread than the thought I might indeed be such.  The words of James are awesome and terrible: `Not many of you should become teachers, my brother, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.'

For me, this fear is why I decided to be ordained.  Now, in the tiresome world of postmodern trendiness, we are constantly being told that institutions, and those who people them, are bad.   With a totalitarian triteness that frequently beggars the belief of all but the truly mindless, those on the left see the world as nothing but the playground of big business whilst those on the right see it as nothing but a giant government conspiracy.  One side whinges about robber barons, the other whines about jackboots, both with appropriately chic passion and home-crowd pleasing pejoratives.  Everywhere there is an institution, we are told, there the power-hungry puppet-masters will be found.

This suspicion of institutions is comical in the hands of the conspiracy theorists, right and left, but unfortunately it has spilled over into the church, to the extent that it is not uncommon to hear notions of ordination decried as somehow being hieratic and hierarchical; and, certainly, there is surely plenty of evidence that such has frequently been the case, particularly in Episcopalian and Presbyterian circles.   Yet the abuse or misuse of an office does not in itself invalidate the notion of office as a whole; and my reasons for seeking ordination were not rooted in a desire to control and cajole.

First, while I have no interest or desire in being a teacher of falsehood (though generally it is a more lucrative and prestigious occupation than being a teacher of truth) I am acutely aware that I am not the best judge of whether my teaching is false or not.  I do my best to be faithful to the Bible, but my own theology commits me to the belief that not only is my mind finite and my learning limited but my heart is faithless above all things as well.  I need help from outside; I need to be accountable to somebody else.

Of course, being accountable to somebody else is not particularly popular these days, and flies somewhat in the face of the notion of individual autonomy which, pace so much cant to the contrary, lies at the heart of the postmodern rebellion against authority.  Being ordained, however, places me immediately under the authority of a larger body than myself whose collective task it is to make sure that my life and teaching are consistent with the standards of doctrine and practice which I profess to maintain.  Is the system perfect and foolproof?  Of course not.  It is administered by imperfect and often foolish people; but, given the heart's capacity for self-deception, even with its limitations this system is a whole lot more perfect and foolproof than the alternative.

Second, I am also aware that my own horizons are very limited, that not only do I see but through a glass darkly, I also see only a tiny bit through said glass.   Ordination is thus not simply a way by which I consciously make myself accountable to a wider body in terms of people, of office-bearers; I also make myself accountable to a particular tradition of church teaching.  Some might be tempted to cry `Popery and Catholicism' at this point, the `t' word being as welcome in many evangelical quarters as a gold lame suit and matching platform shoes at a Led Zeppelin reunion concert; to which I would simply respond that every Christian stands in a tradition; the key is whether you are prepared to make your tradition public, so that it can be scrutinized by others, and whether you are prepared to norm it by scripture.  Those who claim to have no creed but the Bible generally do neither.

Ordination, then, should not be a way to seizing and exercising arbitrary power; rather it is the opposite, a means by which the individual submits to a greater body, both of people and of teaching, than that which he himself embodies.  In theory at least, it should be regarded both as an awesome privilege and a source of gratitude.  Ending well is tough, as church history shows; having a group of church officers around you to help you make it there is something which should make us all thankful, fellow officers and church members.

And that brings me back to those who love to sit at their computers and email others to accuse them of being false teachers.  If you really cared that such people as myself were teaching falsehood, you would charge us in the courts of the church, not hide behind email pseudonyms.  Frankly, you could not do me a greater favour, for if I am teaching falsehood, then James 3:1 leads me to believe that the kindest thing you can do for me, and for those whom I teach, is to stop me as soon as possible.  Unlike the self-appointed, the free-floating, and the parachurchers, the ordained man has placed himself within a context where his power is limited, he answers to a body greater than himself, and where he can and must be held to account, both for his good and the good of the church.