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The Teaching vs. The Teacher

The last couple days I’ve been reading a book of theology by an author I was heretofore unfamiliar with. I know and trust a couple of the guys who endorsed it, though, so I plowed in and I’m generally enjoying it and on board with what the author has to say. Curious to find out more about him, I headed over to his website, which then pointed me to his Twitter. And what I found there? Oh dear.

This author of a thoughtful book championing love as the highest law has a Twitter account full of vitriol against our current President, frequent retweets of the loudest and most thoughtless conservative pundits, and images comparing vaccine mandates to Nazism. I was stunned by the incongruity. The people I know who endorsed his book (written in 2017) are thoughtful, gentle people who aren’t rabid politically in either direction. So what’s up with this guy? Even more, his website offers the reader a chance to sign up for his “Discipleship Course”. Do I really want to be discipled by someone like that? And, more challengingly, what do I do with his book when his recent demeanor seems so troublesome?

I tweeted briefly about my quandary, and my friend Matt (a teacher who always seems to ask good questions) asked my thoughts about learning from the approach/perspective rather than the person. And that got enough thoughts going that they merited a blog post rather than a tweet thread.

How can or should we separate the teaching from the teacher?

On one hand, Jesus was the only perfect teacher, so literally anyone else that we learn from is going to have issues. And yet there are those who have taught truth whose behavior is so disqualifying that it brings into question the integrity of everything they taught.

That behavior could be unrelated to their teaching or their methods. J. H. Yoder was the classic example of this quandary. It is perhaps easier, though, to think abstractly about an obscure Mennonite ethicist who abused women than it is to consider examples more fresh and prominent in our memory: men like Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, or Jean Vanier. Did (or should have) their behavior have disqualified them from teaching? Absolutely. When we find out about their behavior after absorbing their teaching, how should we reconsider it? That’s hard.

Then we have the case of this author where the behavior directly brings me to question the teacher, because his online behavior seems so out of line with the principles he’s teaching, and because the judgment and logic and reasoning skills he’s displaying on Twitter make me wonder whether I should question the judgment, logic, and reasoning in his book.

Ultimately, I need to evaluate the teaching separately from the teacher. But if I start seeing a pattern where people who teach these things also act that way, I want to factor that in to my evaluation. Correlation isn’t causation… sometimes.

Then there’s the question of discipleship. As a Christian, my aspiration is to be a “little Christ”. If I disciple myself by attending to teachers who are impulsive, caustic, and illogical — even if they are teaching true principles in that way — I shouldn’t be surprised if I learn to be impulsive, caustic, and illogical myself.

But what about the flip side of that? Surely just because a teacher is kind, gentle, patient, loving, and self-controlled doesn’t mean they’re correct, does it? Well… maybe not. But what does Jesus say in Matthew 7?

Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will know them [prophets, teachers] by their fruits.

Matthew 7:16-20, NRSV

In the case of this particular book and author, I think I’m going to end up on the side of agreeing with the book even though the author is problematic. Partly because I think the principles hold up regardless of the teacher, but also partly because there are other teachers I know who are saying the same thing and who provide very compelling examples of living out the fruit of the Spirit and Jesus’ kingdom principles. But am I gonna follow the guy on Twitter to keep learning from him? Nope.

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