Rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. — 2 Timothy 1:6-7
These words of the Apostle Paul must resound in the ears of those who have taken on the responsibility of teaching in the Church. For we have all received the gift of the Spirit for the proclamation of the “mystery hidden for the ages but now revealed to his saints” (Col. 1:26). We received it in our baptism, in our confirmation, and — for some — in our ordination, but we must stir up this gift, fan it into flame, not let it lie buried within us, a talent of no profit to the Master.
For those who have been called to teaching, “we should not think it is sufficient for our salvation” if we shirk our duties in a time of theological malaise; it is not enough if we come up simply to the level of an “untaught crowd” (Bede, Homily 1.20). Make no mistake: the teachers of the Church will be judged for this turn. God has sent his teachers as watchmen for the house of Israel, and if they do not speak, he will hold them responsible (Ezek. 3:17-21). But have we not failed, either to speak up or to speak well? Have we not abandoned theological conversation with our brethren or conducted it with darkened hearts?
Some do not speak up. They have lost the confidence that God can change and guide the hearts of the Church’s members through conversation and persuasion. But surely the God who brings life from death, who quickens to repentance those “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), can move the hearts of his people.
But some do not speak well, and for them a different admonition is needed, the one offered by James that “not many should become teachers” (3:1). Teachers are held to a higher standard of speaking, and they must learn carefulness of speech. Why?
The tongue is a fire. That world of unrighteousness, the tongue, is placed among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the wheel of generation and itself set on fire by hell (James 3:5-6).
There is personal peril for the teacher caught up in anger and foul speech. But there is also peril for the Church. Teachers are set in the Church as those who must speak the oracles of God, set indeed as the tongue among the many members of Christ. Yet some have cursed their brethren, allowing the whole Church to be stained by their viciousness, rather than blessing God and inspiring the Church with the gift of the healthful Spirit.
Worse yet, both those who refuse to speak and those who speak with malice no doubt believe that they are guided by God in doing so. Listen to Gregory the Great:
[But] that one … certainly is not filled with the Holy Spirit who either in the calmness of his meekness abandons the fervor of his zeal, or in the fervor of his zeal loses the virtue of meekness. We may perhaps explain this matter better if we appeal to the pedagogy of Paul, who recommended different kinds of preaching aids to two of his disciples …. When admonishing Timothy, he says: “Reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine.” But when admonishing Titus, he says: “These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority.” (Gregory, Pastoral Rule, 3.16)
To teach properly, then, requires a delicate balancing act: a turn neither to the left nor to the right; a careful following of the narrow path that leads to life, not the broad way that leads to destruction. For graceless human beings, this is an impossible task: no one can tame the tongue, and no one is sufficient for the task of the teacher. But with God, all things are possible. We can learn to speak again to each other in the presence of the God who is generous with his gifts. The hellish fire staining the Body of Christ, staining our church, our communion, can be countered by the Spirit’s purging flame. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God” (James 1:5). “For the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (James 3:18).
Fight fire with fire. Rekindle the gift of God; pray for the Spirit’s fiery wisdom. And then speak up in all authority and speak well in all patience, not shrinking back in cowardice but teaching with power, self-discipline, and love.
The featured image is from a stained glass in St Paul’s Church in Jericho, Oxford. The photo was taken by Fr Lawrence Lew, OP (2010), and it is licensed under Creative Commons.