A Rigorous Approach
In a previous article, I showed that every Christian is responsible to teach the Word of God. But God does not call every Christian to be a shepherding teacher (a pastor, Eph. 4:11), and not every Christian receives the spiritual gift of teaching (Rom. 12:7). Still, every Christian is responsible to teach (Heb. 5:12). Thus, every pastor is responsible to motivate and equip the members of the church he shepherds to teach the Word of God effectively (Eph. 4:12).
Paul deployed this strategy. He trained Timothy in both what to teach and how to teach those things to others (2 Tim. 2:2). So how did he do this? What method did he follow? He tells us that he held nothing back. He reveals this rigorous approach in Acts 20:20, when he told the church at Ephesus that he “kept back nothing that was profitable” from them. This rigorous approach reveals why the Ephesian church affected the outlying region so well (Acts 19:10). As Paul equipped them to do the work of the ministry, he held nothing back that enabled them to do this.
What does it mean that “he held nothing back”? Paul tells us, saying both what he did and where he did it. The what? He proclaimed and explained the Scriptures. The where? In public forums and private homes. Let’s take a closer look.
Two Verbs & Two Venues
Paul uses two verbs to describe his “hold nothing back” approach to pastoral ministry. Various Bible translations render the first verb as “shew”, or “proclaim” or “declare.” It means “to announce or declare a message.” Luke uses this word in Acts 14:27 to describe what Paul did when he reported to the church at Antioch, after his first missionary journey. In this way, Paul proclaimed the Word of God to the believers at Ephesus. Though Paul uses a different word in 2 Tim. 4:2, he encouraged Timothy to “preach the Word.” This is a parallel concept.
The second verb of Paul’s “hold nothing back” approach is teach. It means to “provide instruction.” Luke uses this word in Luke 11:1 to describe when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them “how to pray.” This word includes both formal classroom instruction and informal instruction in other settings. So Paul explained the Word of God to believers at Ephesus in a clear and practical way.
This twofold approach raises an interesting question. How does preaching differ from teaching? Perhaps you have opinions of your own. Here is my conclusion: preaching and teaching differ in style and purpose.
The Difference Between Preaching & Teaching
In style, preaching primarily declares information in a straightforward manner. It is like a hammer on a nail, or a trumpet in an orchestra. It is the work of a herald, announcing an important message. Teaching, though, primarily explains information in a methodical, detailed way. It is like a scalpel in surgery, a needle and thread or the violins in an orchestra. It is the work of a scribe, giving the sense and being thorough.
In purpose, preaching targets a changed mind and definite decisions, with a focus on big, important ideas. Teaching provides a strong foundation, accurate understanding and practical training. It focuses on details and thoroughness.
Ultimately, these approaches overlap. Good preaching teaches, without compromising the distinctive qualities of preaching. And good teaching preaches, especially when application emerges during the course of instruction. In 1 Timothy (1 Tim. 4:11), Paul emphasizes the importance of church leaders teaching people. In 2 Timothy (2 Tim. 4:2), he emphasizes the importance of preaching to them. Both approaches are necessary to the kind of “hold nothing back” ministry that equips Christians to be effective ministers in their own right.
Ministering in Public Gatherings
So when Paul held nothing back from the Ephesian church, he proclaimed and explained the Scriptures. That is what he did. But where did he do this? He tells us that he did these things in public forums and private homes, both. He said he ministered “publicly and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).
This twofold balance is important. Men like Frank Viola and George Barna have promoted informal house churches, while denigrating other formal church gatherings. In response, good men have rejected home church gatherings with similar vigor. Rather than debate which forum is better, perhaps we should agree that both forums are biblical. Perhaps we should include both of them in our own “hold nothing back” approach to church ministry.
So did the early church meet only in homes? Definitely not. They met in various public venues and buildings. Consider these examples:
- The Jerusalem Temple (Acts 2:46)
- Other religious buildings, like synagogues (Acts 19:8)
- Public schools, like the lecture of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9)
- Underground burial sites (early church history)
We see that public gatherings are legitimate venues for church gatherings and ministry. This is especially true for a weekly gathering on the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:6, 1 Cor. 16:1-2, cf. Rev. 1:10). At the same time, gathering and serving in private homes is also appropriate, especially during the week (Acts 2:46, 5:42, Rom. 16:2, 1 Cor. 16:19, Col. 4:15, Phil. 2).
Ministering in Homes
In fact, I believe that church gatherings in private homes have equal importance to regular public gatherings. Public gatherings increase church unity by enabling corporate worship and ministry as a body. Members share the same experience and hear the same message together. This also enables more spiritual gifts to benefit more believers. Whether this happens at a church-owned building, a rented Jewish synagogue or a public school gymnasium, a weekly, church-wide gathering on the Lord’s Day is a biblical practice.
But home gatherings strengthen personal relationships and encourage church expansion in a way that large, church-wide assemblies do not. Without smaller, home gatherings, churches may devolve into large-group spectator events, relying on church staff. To overcome this weakness, some churches incorporate small groups gatherings into their church meetings. While onsite small groups at a church building is a good approach, this cannot provide the benefits of regular home gatherings during the course of a week.
A Call to Personal Reflection
If you are a pastor, will you prayerfully consider whether you are holding anything back from the church you serve? Biblical questions I might ask myself include:
- Do I proclaim the Word of God boldly, announcing what it says in a straightforward way, calling for simple, faithful obedience?
- Do I explain the Word of God rigorously, devoting conscientious attention to words, sentences and backgrounds? Do I give adequate time to explain all things, even those that are difficult to understand?
- Do I practice this regularly in a large-group setting, leading the church to a unified embrace of our mutual calling as the body of Christ?
- Do I practice this regularly in the homes of people throughout the church, providing proactive, personalized ministry and attention to families and individuals alike?
The weekly schedule and annual events calendar for any church will vary in the details. No one church is a model for every other church. But when the leadership of any church falls behind, whether in preaching or teaching, in regular, public settings and home settings, then they “keep back” something important that will better equip the church for ministry.
In closing, allow me to share some cursory thoughts as addendum.
Do I Preach & Teach Equally Well?
Some pastors preach the Bible every chance they get, but rarely teach with calm, conscientious attention to the finer details of words and doctrine. Others teach the Bible every chance they get, but rarely get around to preaching in a bold, declarative manner, calling for simple obedience. Either tendency limits the development of church members for effective ministry. The first scenario produces simple, childish obedience. The second produces heady, intellectualism. What is the solution? First, any pastor should understand his own tendency and work hard to achieve a balance. Second, every pastor should expose the church to other men with different spiritual gifts.
Do I Rely Too Heavily on Bible Colleges?
Pastors should consider whether they lean too heavily on Bible colleges, “keeping back” certain areas of teaching and preaching from congregations, trusting Bible colleges to handle more difficult things. Should a pastor teach systematic theology to a church? Greek and Hebrew language skills? The finer points of the Bible translation debate? The ancient Gnostic heresy and its manifestations today? When appropriate and when helpful, yes, yes, yes and yes (2 Tim. 3:16-17, Heb. 5:12-14).
Do I Spend Adequate Time with People?
Pastors should prayerfully consider whether they spend as much time ministering in the homes of church members and inquirers as they do studying and preaching for large-group settings. I plan to write more about this in a future article. But it seems to me that if we err, we do so by allowing our pulpit presence to eclipse our personal presence as shepherds. “House to house” ministry entails far more than our modern door-to-door soul-winning methods. People need a shepherd who shares his life with them, teaching them along the way, not just in a pulpit or a professional office.
Pastors, the people you serve need to be developed. They need to be equipped to do the work of the ministry, especially teaching the Word of God to others. Let us follow the example of Paul and do whatever we can to preach and teach the Word of God. Let us give equal priority to public and in home gatherings alike. Are you holding anything back from the church? If so, are you willing to change that?
Thomas Overmiller has served as pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Corona, Queens, New York since 2014. He blogs and podcasts at Shepherd Thoughts. He received his BA and MA from Baptist College of Ministry and Theological Seminary in Wisconsin, where he served on Bible faculty for nine years. He has received advanced graduate training from Maranatha Seminary. He and his wife, Sarah, have five young children. He enjoys freelance writing, urban cycling, pickup basketball and Mets baseball.