Preaching vs. Teaching

What is the difference between "preaching" and "teaching"? Where do we find the distinctives in the Bible?
The distinction between preaching and teaching is not one that Scripture draws for us explicitly. It is also fair to say that they way modern denominations use these terms is not always consistent with the way Scripture uses them.

For example, in my own denomination, we recently had a case before the General Assembly that challenged the propriety of a woman speaking to the congregation in a worship service, and using her time to expound and apply Scripture to the lives of the people (see The Final SJC Report on the John Wood Matter). The pastor of that church stated that he believed women can "preach" in the sense that they can offer a witness to the truth of the gospel in many different settings, but not in the sense that they can offer authoritative teaching from the pulpit during a worship service. He argued that both uses of the word "preach" had biblical precedent, and that he was not alone in that opinion.

In fact, Scripture (mostly the New Testament) calls many things "preaching," even when they aren't done in a worship service or by a minister. Usually, the word translated "preach" in our modern New Testaments is the Greek term kerusso, which can refer to many kinds of proclaiming or announcing in many settings. For instance, in Mark 5:20, the man from whom Jesus exorcised a legion of demons is said to have "announced" (Greek: kerusso) to everyone that Jesus had helped him, and the text gives no indication that he did this only in public worship services, let alone that he was ordained before he made his announcements. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), used kerusso in a similarly broad way, including to label Aaron's announcement of the idolatrous party that Israel threw after leaving Egypt (Exod. 32:5). But by convention, Old Testaments usually use other English words than "preach" to translate these activities.

"Teach," in turn, appears fairly frequently in both Testaments. Both the Greek and Hebrew terms for "teach" have ranges of meaning fairly parallel to that of the English word "teach," emphasizing instruction and explanation rather than a simple proclamation. And in fact, Scripture often uses both "teach" and "preach" together, without really drawing any distinction between them (cf. Acts 5:42; 28:31; 1 Tim. 2:7; 5:17; 6:2).

That being said, I'm not sure these definitions are really what you need. Generally, Christians and churches distinguish between "preaching" and "teaching" when they want to define the particular roles that different members of the church may fill. For instance, some churches allow women to "teach" but not to "preach." In the aforementioned example from my own denomination, the church intended the woman in question to "teach" during her time, but thought that she "crossed a line" when she began expounding and applying Scripture. But really, the question at this point was not "How does the Bible define 'preaching' vis-α-vis 'teaching'?" but "Did she do something she wasn't supposed to do?" And this, I suspect, is the heart of your question.

I think the best way to answer this question, then, is not to look at the range of meanings words may have in Scripture. After all, anytime any person says anything to a group, there is an "announcement" or "proclamation" of sorts, which we might designate by the Greek term kerusso, and therefore which could legitimately be called "preaching" if we are simply arguing from the definitions of Greek words and their English translations. But I suspect that most English readers would find that use somewhat misleading. We don't normally say that flight attendants "preach" when they tell people to watch the monitor in an airplane.

Rather, the more important matter is the specific roles the Bible assigns to men and women, clergy and laity. If what the Bible means is "a woman cannot read, explain and apply Scripture from the pulpit during a formal worship service," then it really doesn't matter if we call that activity "preaching" or "teaching" or "talking" or anything else. The fact is that the Bible might call it any of these, as well as a number of other things. So, it doesn't help us tremendously to focus closely on the definitions of such broad terms.

In Scripture, we find men and women, ordained and otherwise, offering instruction and making announcements in many different settings, and with the apparent approval of the authors of Scripture. So, in some sense, Scripture allows women to teach and to preach, even when they are instructing men (cf. Judg. 45; 2 Kings 22 // 2 Chron. 34; Acts 18:24ff.), although this is arguably an exception to the norm.

Theologians, however, at least in the Reformed tradition, have sometimes argued that expounding and applying Scripture in the worship service is the authoritative teaching of the church (1 Thess. 2:13), and therefore that it is only to be done by those who hold authority in the church, namely elders. Others have argued that it may be done by unordained men, but not by unordained women (cf. 1 Tim. 2:11-14). This is the common practice in my own church, though I am personally not persuaded that unordained men have greater freedom in this regard than women.

There is certainly ample biblical precedent for the ordination of men to the office of elder. And in fact, we have no biblical examples of women holding this specific office in either the Old or the New Testament (although they did hold offices that were more authoritative than elder, such as judge and prophetess). Elders seem to have consisted primarily of the heads of families, who were usually male (cf. Num. 27:1ff.). And there is good reason to believe that much of the teaching and preaching in the church should be done by the elders when possible (of course, most churches don't have enough elders to teach every class, sermon and study). Elders are presumably the most qualified, and of the offices in the church today (i.e., deacon and elder), only theirs explicitly includes teaching duties (1 Tim. 3:2; 2 Tim. 2:2,24).

What is less clear in Scripture is the idea that a formal worship service of the church is somehow so different from every other forum that unique rules apply to it. We find very little description of early church services in the New Testament, and almost no description of the weekly meetings in the Old Testament (see Lev. 23:3-4). So, it is hard to know why formal worship services should have such hard and fast unique characteristics.

And in all events, it is hard to reconcile statements like "I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet" (1 Tim. 2:11-12) with the fact that at least some women in Scripture did hold offices of authority, and legitimately taught men as a function of these offices (e.g., Deborah [Judg. 45] and Huldah [2 Kings 22 // 2 Chron. 34]). Paul grounded his teaching in a creation ordinance (1 Tim. 2:13-14), thereby indicating that it was a perpetual teaching throughout all ages. So, how were Deborah's and Huldah's roles defensible? Apparently, they were exceptions to the rule, though this did not lessen their authority or their value. Scripture does not call attention to them as exceptions, though it is clear from the vastly greater number of men who held these offices that the women were exceptions to the norm. Perhaps the elevation of women in these exceptional cases was necessitated by a failure of the men of Israel to lead properly (cf. Barak's hesitancy in Judg. 4), though not everyone agrees on this point. For my thoughts on 1 Timothy 2:11-14, see Women in Authority.

In some ways, I have played the politician here, using your question as a springboard to talk about something else. But my hope was to show that the distinctions in Scripture between preaching and teaching are often vague, and are at times nonexistent, in order to point out that the roles we serve as men and women, ordained and unordained, ought to be determined by more nuanced reflection than a dictionary provides.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.