Modern Rabbis

When you look at the current Church landscape, Christian leaders have many varied titles and honorifics. Sometimes these claims to authority are hotly contested. If you live in my part of the world you would know how titles really matter in some cultures (in Africa you dare not call your parents by their first name.) One title that is rarely used is “teacher.” I wonder why?

Perhaps, prophet or apostle has a better ring to it. To be sure many people are described as teachers. They just don’t use it, or rather reject it, as a title. On the contrary, one of the popular titles that Jesus was known by is Rabbi, meaning master or teacher. Not only was he regarded as a teacher in popular opinion but he readily identified himself as one. To be called a rabbi was obviously a prestigious title in Jesus’ day. Today, being called teacher may conjure up images of exasperating children and low salaries. Different cultural settings either add prestige or stigma to the title.

Recognising these cultural differences reveals some interesting things about life in 1st century Palestine. When you study Jesus in historical context you realise that he was very similar to the rabbis of his time. There are often parallels in the sayings of Jesus in Jewish literature such as the Mishnah. There are also his disciples which teachers of the day had. Jesus behaved as you would expect a 1st century rabbi to so his society easily recognised him as one. Just because Jesus was a rabbi doesn’t mean that he was only that. Jesus is a very complex historical figure.

Another important pedagogical figure in the New Testament is the apostle Paul. Paul was no doubt a recognised teacher in the early Church. He had a strong Jewish background having passed through the top tier of rabbinical training of his day as a Pharisee. When he became a missionary to the Greek speaking Gentile world he showed he had a strong grasp of Greek literature and learning. He quoted Greek poetry and he contended ably with Stoic philosophy. He was comfortable in both the Greco-Roman world and the Jewish and he was recognised as a teacher in both.

Jesus and Paul were both culturally relevant teachers but do we find the same standards today? The orthodox churches are much stricter but in the riotous spontaneous world of evangelicals and Pentecostals/charismatics things are more interesting when it comes to teachers.

Whether they call themselves teachers or not, many pastors and other church leaders who teach are culturally irrelevant. They are culturally irrelevant in the sense I described about Jesus and Paul. Most pastors outside the four walls of a church are not considered as “experts” whose input counts. Pastors are not regular panellists on shows about national affairs, politics or social commentary. Their input is mostly limited to the “religious stuff.” Current New Testament scholarship is recognising that Paul and the New Testament had quite a lot to say about the politics of the day. The early Christians were a stark minority but they were able to leave an indelible mark on their society and history. They punched way above their perceived weight. Today, when relevant, cutting edge issues regarding human society are being discussed, the clergyman is often the last person to the round table like the last kid to be picked during P.E.

I do recognise the Gospel is not the message world desires but it is the message it needs. The modern trend of secularization has compartmentalized faith, the most important part of many people’s lives, as private especially in the West. In the face of groups like ISIS, the West needs to seriously revise this cultural policy. In spite of the fact that Christianity has always swum against the tide, the Church’s leadership is mostly incapable of wrestling with these issues.

On the whole pastors and church leaders do a wonderful job. The counsel, support and direction they provide to millions around the world is indispensable. Beyond the field of “spiritual matters” global issues like terrorism, global warning, geopolitics, global economics, the clergy is often out of its depth. Even on our home turf of theology the experts are often high up in the ivory tower of the Academy.

In today’s world the teachers are the scholars who have passed through the rigours of academic training who contribute to the discussion in their various fields. People also recognise those who make significant and relevant contributions even though they might not have very many letters after their name. In short the world recognises excellence.

The teachers in today’s church need to aspire to the standard where they can be recognised as culturally relevant educators. Their voices need to be heard beyond the shadow of the steeple. Our teachers need to be theologically adept. I am not saying everyone needs to get advanced degrees. Unfortunately, many pastors don’t make the attempt to keep up with contemporary scholarship. (Conversely, many theologians do not make the effort to keep up with contemporary Christianity!) If the teachers in the early church were culturally qualified, referencing the learning and knowledge of their day, today’s teachers also need to be. A teacher in the church should be able to reference and use contemporary scholarship and also identify contemporary societal trends.

There must be a vibrant synergy between the Academy and the Clergy. Theology must be the launch pad from which we grapple with societal and global issues. Theology is a province of academia which has direct relevance to the Church. When you take a close look at the Bible you realise it was written in the cognitive environment of the time. As Prof John Walton points out, the Bible was written in a prescientific community so that is how they understood things. For instance, they genuinely thought the intestines were the seat of mental activity. There is no Hebrew word in the Bible for the brain. Every generation needs to rediscover the Bible in its context before we can figure how it applies to our own. If we do not do good theology this task is made immensely difficult. The Bible was immersed in its culture and as living epistles we need to be too.

The Church does not only need correct doctrine but quality teachers as well. We need modern day rabbis. We need people who are considered to be real educators both within and without. As members of the Church it is our right and responsibility to have high quality teaching and learning in the Church. Just because it comes from a pastor’s mouth and it sounds spiritual doesn’t make it good. We need to hold them to higher standards. We need to probe and ask questions and not simply take things at face value. When we seek the truth we are also established in it.


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