When I first started teaching the Bible about fifteen years ago, I was given a Sunday School class at my church. It was a “college and career” class. I was inexperienced in teaching and was very nervous every Sunday, but I had such a strong desire to teach I was willing to endure the stress each week. I remember that I had red splotches all over my neck and my chest evidencing my green nervousness. (I still am nervous each time I teach, but just in a different way).
When teaching the class one Sunday (I don’t remember the subject), a certain gentleman raised his hand. I thought it was going to be a question concerning the subject we were on, but it was not. He began to complain to me and to everyone there how much he did not like the way I taught and how, exactly, he thought I should change. I was speechless, embarrassed, humiliated, angry, and hurt.
Looking back all these years I have been able to see his problems more objectively. In fact, I think he was right on in his criticism. Everything he said was true about my teaching style and it did need to change. However, he was also very wrong and he should not have said what he said. While nothing that he said was wrong, he lacked a great deal of wisdom in his tact and approach.
The point of this post is this: Saying the right thing without tact is wrong. This is true of Sunday school or any other venue. We are not only called to say the right things, but to say the right things at the right times in the right ways.
Here are a few things to remember when you are the learner.
You are not the teacher
No matter where you are when you are not the teacher, do not act as if you are. So many times I see people who are looking to spring board off other people’s platform. I have been in classrooms where I know who’s hand not to call on. Some people just take over and want to show the class how much they know. You may have the best intentions when you do this and what you say may be right, but, unless the venue expects this, you are not called by God to teach at that time. I am sorry. That is just the way it is.
If the teacher is wrong, and I mean dead wrong, you are still not called to teach. You are called to respect the teacher and listen. Even if the teacher asks you your opinion, you must be very careful not to dishonor the platform that this person has been given.
You don’t have the respect of the people
You must remember that people have gathered to listen to someone else, not you. No matter how smart you are, people don’t care that much about what you have to say. In fact, attempting to be the teacher will be counter-productive. No matter how learned you are in the subject, your arrogance will turn all the others against you and you will only serve to annoy the audience.
You have to gain an audience with the teacher in other ways
You may feel obligated to correct the teacher, but you have to gain an audience first and you have to do it at the right time. The gentleman who corrected me during that class so long ago did not have my ear. In other words, I did not really know or respect this person and I had no past with him. Under these conditions, he was in no position to correct me. Not because he was not right, but because his words only served to make me self-defensive. It does not matter how persuasive you are, speaking to people without gaining their respect does no good. You must first gain the right to correct. This involves time with the person. It involves much more than corrective criticism, but a history of friendship and respect. If you don’t have this, don’t bother trying to correct during the middle of class or any other time.
Let the venue and culture be your guide
Most teaching venues (pulpit, Sunday school, lectures, presentations, etc.) assume respect to the person who has been placed in the teaching position. Therefore, you are never the teacher. But there are some venues that allow and expect a different type of interaction where you are encouraged to interact in a different way. These venues include some blogs, debates, and forums. This does not mean you have any right to disrespect the teacher or that your meanderings will be more attractive to the audience, but it does mean that your disagreements are already welcomed to some degree. The culture of the venue is your guide. For example, this blog is more open than some to discussion and disagreements. But this does not mean that you will necessarily gain the ear of the readers or the authors. In fact, once you begin to use this blog as a surrogate blog, other readers will be offended and discouraged from reading any more than the main post. You have to be tactful even in these type of venues, but they are more open than others.
For some of you, these points all come easy. You are too timid to expose your thoughts or feelings in public in any way. These points are much harder for those who feel a burden to teach or who are well educated. This is because they will usually have some points of intelligent disagreement. This disagreement intensifies their passion as they, with good intentions, simply want people know the truth as they know it. They also think to themselves that the have an obligation to correct false teaching. Therefore, they often cannot help themselves. But the point I am making in this post is that knowledge without tact is counter-productive – always.
In the end, we need to calm down. Don’t think that you have to correct everyone. Respect others even when they are wrong. Let them be wrong and, yes, let them teach this wrong. You really can’t do anything about it with emotionally motivated actions that lack tact and wisdom.
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. (ESV)
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]