Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. Indeed, we all make many mistakes. For if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. (James 3:1-2, NLT)
We live in a culture that has unbridled speech. Think about our current news headlines, which cover vitriol on a variety of subjects from Johnny Depp and Amber Heard to sexual misconduct in our largest protestant denomination to the National Rifle Association’s convention just days after a mass shooting in a Texas school. Even Elon Musk’s attempt to purchase Twitter has surfaced conversation about what makes speech appropriate and helpful.
Nearly 25% of the epistle of James is devoted to talking and how words can be helpful or destructive. Although he directly addresses our use of the tongues, if you read carefully you’ll notice many indirect references to it as well.
As we begin chapter 3, James introduces a lengthy section devoted to this topic beginning with those who aspire to leadership and teaching ministry within the church. He has already addressed the need to be “slow to speak” in 1:19, and has identified it as one of the core tenants of “pure religion” in 1:26. But now he turns his attention toward the type of example church leadership provides.
Believers have always ascribed a certain authority and prestige to the teaching ministry. We see this evidenced in American culture by people describing their church affiliation in terms of teaching personalities vs. the churches themselves. For example, you may hear one say “I got to (fill in the blank)’s church.” In our culture we are drawn to the magnetism and charisma of teachers who are able to speak in sound bytes and offer a witty turn of the phrase.
In James’s day, charismatic personalities also existed(cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12). But the key distinctive was that many in those first century audiences were illiterate, making it impossible for them to read the Scriptures and discern for themselves its meaning and interpretation. In other words, they were more dependent on teachers for spiritual nourishment than we are.
James wants his recipients to understand that ministers and their messages contain a unique relationship that requires an integrity between the speaker and their speech. Those who assume the role of leading others in the faith undertake the responsibility to live out the example of the messages that are communicated. This is a serious challenge, for those who aspire to teach will be judged “more strictly” than others in the congregation.
James acknowledged that we all are flawed to a degree. We all stumble from time to time. But in his opinion, the clearest mark of spiritual maturity is our ability to control the most difficult thing we possess: our tongues. If we can control our tongues, we can control everything else. And the ability to do so serves as a spiritual marker for our Christian maturity.