20. Teaching, prophesying, exhorting, and ruling (Romans 12)
Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness.
The four speaking gifts found in Romans 12 are contrasted with the serving gifts. The servings gifts are ministering, giving, and mercy. Ministering, in the passage above, is the same as serving and encompasses all serving gifts in the churches. Giving includes the giving of money, things, or one’s time. Showing mercy is probably a special form of ministering or serving. It does not matter that we have a right designation for our ministries so long as we do what the Lord has put before us to do. The sole reason for differentiating the ministries is to show the different facets of Christian ministry.
Now, the object of this chapter is to differentiate the speaking gifts, in particular to differentiate prophesying, exhorting, and ruling from teaching. All Christians are accustomed to receiving teaching—or what we think satisfies the requirements for “teaching”—on a weekly basis. (The reader will recall that the NT meaning of teaching was elaborated on in the chapter on “the sermon,” so there is no need to revisit this.) A consequence of the church’s infatuation with teaching is that the other speaking gifts are almost entirely unrecognized. It is not that they are ignored but that they are not even discerned.
The churches have heaped to themselves teachers in these last days. I have never heard it taught that this prophecy of Paul’s refers to anything other than a corruption in teaching. It certainly does mean that, in that the people want teachers who will tickle their ears. But it also refers to the sheer quantity of teachers. In fact that is the meaning of “heaping,” which has no reference to doctrinal corruption.
We also note that “last days” does not limit this occurrence to the end of the church age. Students of the Bible are well acquainted with the six thousand-year history of mankind according to the Scriptures. The church age, to date, has occupied the fifth and sixth millennia of the history of the world, and these, by the day/millennium analogy, are the fifth and sixth days of the week, or Thursday and Friday. Then, too, the NT writers used the term “last days” to refer to the entire age, cf. I Pet. 1:20, Acts 2:17, II Tim. 3:1, most famously perhaps in Hebrews 1:2, “Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son.” Therefore no one can use the argument that the heaping of teachers to the churches “in the last days” is much ado about nothing because “we’ve always done it this way.” Indeed, this long-running problem corroborates a general theme of this book, which is that the church has been characteristically (though not universally) worldly for most of the age.
One of the adverse consequences of the churches heaping to themselves teachers is that the other speaking gifts have been swept under the rug. Thus the endeavor here to differentiate the speaking gifts. I say again, recognizing or defining one’s gift is not so important as doing what your hand finds to do in the church. The gifts are manifested, to individuals and to their brethren, in motivations, opportunities, and the proving and approving of one’s ministry. God does not care if you are able to define your gift so long as you are motivated to minister. A spiritual gift is not a label, it manifests one or several of the described gifts, and this gift is unique to every believer. I believe we are to understand that as each person is unique, so each ministry is unique. This is true of the serving ministries and it is true of the speaking ministries. The latter are my concern here, for the reason that the speaking ministries except for teaching have been unrecognized and no place provided for their expression in the church meeting. These ministries have been preempted.
Paul says of prophesying, “He that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.” I Cor. 14:3. If this gift has expired it is not owing to any lack of need for it. The church needs all of these things today. No mention is made of new revelations, though certainly in Paul’s day new revelations from God satisfied the description of prophesying found in I Corinthians 14. Also notice that exhortation is said by Paul to be an expression of prophesying. So we are to understand that the speaking gifts overlap. It is not even necessary that we recognize the difference between prophesying, exhorting, and teaching, so long as the message conforms to the written Word. What is indeed necessary, however, is that the churches not preempt men from prophesying or exhorting or ruling (granted, the churches aren’t preempting men from ruling; they simply haven’t recognized their rulers), “because it isn’t teaching.” Which is what the churches have done, in that only “the teacher” is recognized on Sunday mornings.
The distinction between teaching and prophesying seems to be that in the former a man or woman (like Priscilla, teaching at home and not in the church) explains the Scriptures and applies them to life, while in the latter a Christian discerns problems in the world and finds the appropriate Scripture teaching that truly speaks to the problem. There is a profound difference between the two. The teacher may be able to prophesy, and the prophesier able to teach, but they have different strengths. And these “different strengths” seem to perfectly describe the various spiritual gifts. After all, the brethren have the indwelling Spirit, the mind of Christ, and all use the same Book. So it is not as if a spiritual gift makes one unable to do any of the other facets of Christian ministry. Does the gift of teaching make one unable to serve? Does the gift of prophesying mean one is unable to give? Is the exhorter unable to show mercy? Not at all. A gift is a strength, and a prophet has a different strength than a teacher.
Even were my distinction between prophets and teachers incorrect, is not the need for both forms of ministry self-evident? We might call it all “teaching,” but this does a disservice to prophesiers and prophesying. (I believe this book, taken as a whole, is more like prophesying than teaching in that it starts with a problem and evaluates it in light of the Scriptures.) When the church faces a particular problem corporately, the need is not for continuing in Ephesians or Philippians as the church has been doing “the past few weeks,” it is to find the very best Scriptures that speak to the problem. The pastor may “interrupt his study of Ephesians” to teach on the issue, but this only shows that teachers may prophesy. Meanwhile those with the gift of prophesying are preempted from ministering.
Prophets today are not inerrant. (As noted earlier, teachers are not inerrant, either.) “And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.” I Cor. 14:32. There is continual need for dialogue among the saints, in and out of the church. In the process “iron sharpens iron.” One of the limitations of Christian writings is that the writer cannot be sharpened, refuted, or asked for clarification as he can be in the assembly of the saints. (The best that can be done is to ask fellow Christians to critique the book before it is published.)
It is good to desire to prophesy. “Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy.” I Cor. 14:1. Here Paul apparently encourages all the saints to aspire to prophesy. That does not mean all will prophesy, or that all are gifted in this regard, but there is nothing wrong with aspiring to it. This being the case, there must be a difference between the prophets cited in I Corinthians 12:29 and the prophesying in I Corinthians 14:1. The prophets in I Corinthians 12:29, mentioned with the apostles, are long gone. There is no new revelation and the need for these prophets has ceased. By contrast, prophesying for edification, and exhortation, and comfort is still sorely needed. It is not foretelling or revealing something new from the Lord, but it is simply telling forth, or forthtelling, the truth of God. It is “saying what God says,” in the right time and the right place. If any think this is presumptuous, I Peter 4:11 authorizes it, “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God.” Where is the presumption? It is commanded.
The second gift to distinguish from teaching is exhorting. Of course in the broadest sense all four of the speaking gifts are forms of teaching. Teaching informs us of the truth. Exhorting emphasizes the doing of the truth. We are to be doers and not hearers of the Word, the implication being that simply hearing the Word and not responding to it with action is disobedience and, indeed, unbelief of the Word.
What exhortation is is self-evident. We are to understand that exhortation is very likely the most common speaking gift. Are not all the saints able to do this at some level? Not all have this particular gift, yet all are able to exhort. The gift is manifested in those with a particular strength in this area, that is all. But, Romans 15:14, “And I myself also am persuaded of you, my brethren, that ye also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.” All do not have the gift of exhortation, but all are able to admonish one another. Should not those with the gift of exhorting be allowed to do it in the churches? All should be free to exhort, and especially those with the gift of exhorting. And not only “should be free to exhort,” they are free to exhort, according to the Word. The stated reason for assembling on the first day of the week is written, “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.” Heb. 10:24-25. Not only are we free to exhort one another, we are commanded to do it, so it follows that those with the gift of exhorting are commanded to do it.
Exhortation is the most practical of the speaking gifts. In exhortation we say, “Brethren, you know what the Word says. Now, do it!” It is as simple as that. Or it consists in reminding the brethren of what they know to be true, thus “Wherefore I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance of these things, though ye know them, and be established in the present truth. Yea, I think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up by putting you in remembrance.” II Pet. 1:12-13. Here, an apostle to the church specifies his principal duty to the brethren as, not “expounding” the Word (as the church has come to redefine “explain”), or even discoursing with the brethren as Paul did in Troas, it was simply reminding them of Scripture truths they already knew. We need frequent reminding of what we know! Indeed, the church needs far more exhorting and less teaching. We need more exhorting and less “hearing sermons.” We need this in the churches, first and foremost, not consigning this ministry to “outside the church.”
I say again, exhortation is very likely the most common and even preponderant of the speaking gifts because it most conforms to a straightforward handling of the Word. Not only is this a most practical speaking gift, but it principally consists in communicating in the power of the Spirit a conviction that we ought to do what the plain and unvarnished Word says. An exhorter can simply use the words of Scripture! Like the prophesier, in doing this he speaks as one of the oracles of God.
The third and final gift to distinguish from teaching is ruling. And what is ruling but the elders of the churches speaking, whether by teaching, or prophesying, or exhorting? When they speak, they rule. Ruling is not only speaking, but speaking as a leader in the church. It is any and every speaking gift manifested in the elders of the churches. Hebrews 13 is very clear that we are to obey those who have the rule over us, cf. Heb. 13:7, 17, 24. Other Bible translations describe this ruling as leading, and the second term conveys a more accurate meaning of the original Greek to us today, as we instinctively and erroneously associate “ruling” with the manner of Gentile ruling, cf. Mt. 20:20ff. When elders speak they rule, and this ruling is leading, nothing more and nothing less.
Hebrews 13 describes ruling as speaking the Word of God to the brethren and being good examples, which squares with the teaching in I Peter 5. These elders are responsible for their flocks, and “they must give an account,” i.e., at the judgment, for their ruling. Ruling, then, is not arbitrary exercise of authority. The apostles never ruled in this way. It is not “church administration,” for these are things assigned to deacons. Ruling has no jurisdiction in matters of Christian liberty, though elders (or rulers, or pastors, or shepherds, or overseers) will give their opinions in these things where it is solicited. (And we ought to take their opinions seriously, as we do Paul’s, cf. I Cor. 7:6.) If they speak, they are to speak as the oracles of God, just as all the brethren are, the difference being that the elders have the office of ruling in the churches, and we are plainly commanded to obey them.
It does indeed make a difference whether the man speaking is a ruler or one of the brethren. What the ruler says carries greater weight due to his office, an office he occupies due to his godly experience. An elder and a brother may speak the same truth, but we more readily defer to an elder due to seniority and not out of disrespect to the brother. And when an elder’s speaking contradicts the speech of one of the brethren, are we not more inclined to hear the elder? We should be due to his seniority. If the elder is judged to be wrong, nevertheless we initially incline towards hearing him above the others. But far more frequently the elder has the better judgment, and that is of course why God has ordained the pastorate be found in the elders in the churches. When are the elders wrong, except when they have acquiesced to young men?
I hope the reader understands the common aspects of the speaking gifts. Teaching, prophesying, exhorting, and ruling are simply different manifestations of what has long been lumped under the heading of teaching, thereby warranting the ministry of one man as being all things to all people in the churches. Not only have all the speaking gifts been vested in one man by the churches, but those with the gifts of prophesying or exhorting or ruling are not even recognized as having anything important to offer. Rather, it is erroneously held that a man must expound the Scriptures verse-by-verse, Sunday after Sunday, and that this is the only profitable form of speaking in the churches. Not only so, those with the gift of ruling are not recognized. Of course they are not recognized as having the gift because they are not recognized as elders! Since only an elder can rule, he is the only one we should expect to have the gift of ruling. These are elders not only in name but in function.
There are various speaking gifts in the churches, and teaching is but one of them. Making distinctions in these gifts is not so important, but provision in the churches for exercise of these gifts is very important.