What’s Up With the Word “Teacher”?

One of the verses in the gospels that puzzles me is in Matthew 23. Here, Jesus instructs His disciples not to call anyone Rabbi, Father, or Teacher. However, Paul later refers to people as teachers in his epistles. I don’t think he would have so blatantly contradicted a command straight from Jesus (that is, I think, one of the chief principals to keep in mind when trying to interpret Paul’s writings). Maybe Paul knew something about this instruction that isn’t readily apparent to us. Let’s start by looking at the context for Jesus’s remarks.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues and elaborate greetings in the marketplaces, and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’ But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers. And call no one your ‘father’ on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant.  And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.

Matthew 23:1-12, NET

Reading this, we see the context is instructing us to avoide self-exaltation and not take on yourself titles/honors meant for God the Father and Jesus Christ alone. You are not to be called Rabbi (G4461, rhabbi, the Hebrew word used to refer to Jewish teachers) because Jesus is our Teacher (G2519, kathegetes, master, guide, teacher). You’re not to be called Father (G3962, pater, male ancestor, originator) because God is our Father (this would likely be an interesting study as well, but today we’ll just focus on “teacher”). Then the next verse warns against being called Teacher (kathegetes) again. Finally, this conversation wraps up with a warning against pride and an instruction to humble the self and serve.

Image of two people across from each other at a table with books, overlaid with text from 2 Timothy 2:24-25, NET version:  “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth”
Image by Claudine Chaussé from Lightstock

What Type of Teacher Ought You To Be?

Matthew 23 is the only place the word kathegetes appears in scripture. Rabbi doesn’t appear outside the gospel accounts. When we see other writers talking about teachers in the New Testament church, they use a different word. It seems that the New Testament writers were careful about this warning not to be called “rabbi” or “teacher” even though that’s not apparent in the English translations.

The word Paul uses for “teacher” is didaskalos (G1320). It’s a more widely used, general term for “instructor, master, teacher” (Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary, entry G2519). While it is listed as a synonym for kathegetes, that word for teacher, master, or guide seems to have more to do with authority; Zodhiates also lists kathegetes as a synonym for lord, master, and overseer (entry G2519).

Both didaskalos and kathegetes are used as a synonym/translation for rhabbi (didaskalos in John 1:38 and kathegetes in Matt. 23:8) (Zodhiates entry G4461). It may be that using “rabbi” as a general Hebrew word for teacher is okay in modern use because it could be synonymous with either of these Greek words. However, Spiros Zodhiates thinks the didaskalos teacher would more commonly be seen in the NT times as an equivalent role to Jewish scribes, who are “acquainted with and interpreters of God’s salvation.” He also considers pastors a sub-set of teachers, and says that teaching can be a gift or an office within the church (entry G1320).

Didaskalos is a role linked with apostles, prophets, pastors, and other roles in the church (Acts 13:1; 1 Cor. 12:28-29; Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). Hebrews implies that all mature Christians should be teachers, though James warns it’s a great deal of responsibility and is paired with stricter judgement (Heb. 5:12; James 3:1). There’s also a very specific focus to this version of teacher and related roles, which links back to Jesus’s warning.

And he himself gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature

Ephesians 4:11-13, NET

Remember that when Jesus warned not to be called teachers (kathegetes), it was in the context of not exalting the self or taking His titles for yourself. Here, the role of teachers (didaskalos) has to do with serving and building up the whole body/church. I think that Jesus’s warning in Matthew 23 and the choice of NT writers to use didaskalos to describe their roles has to do with the way authority is supposed to work in the church of God.

Image of an open Bible with the blog's title text and the words, Why does Paul talk about the role of "teachers" in the church when Jesus said not to be called "teacher"?
Image by Lamppost Collective from Lightstock

A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ Not so with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Luke 22:24-27, NET

Jesus didn’t want His followers lording it over people the way that the corrupt Jewish religious authorities did. That’s the main point in Matthew 23–their teachings were solid when they came from the Law of God, but many of the scribes, experts in the law, and Pharisees had a heart issue. They were not right with God and kept the letter rather than the spirit of the law (see the rest of Matt. 23). In contrast, teachers under the authority of Jesus serve the people they teach with humility.

We don’t have different words for “teacher” with different nuances of meaning in our English translations of the Bible. But I think we all have enough experience with people to know the difference between teachers who want recognition and power, and teachers who want their students to learn and thrive. We don’t need to obsess about not calling someone “teacher” (particularly since English doesn’t have two words like we saw in Greek), but we do need to be careful which teachers we listen to and even more careful about the types of teachers we are.

Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock

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