If there is one text of Scripture that I here poorly exegeted, in the name of preserving sound exegesis, more than any other it is James 3:1; which reads,
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
I have heard numerous individuals and pastors encourage others and their churches not to become teachers because of the damage and subsequent judgment that an unbridled tongue will incur. But is that the meaning of this text? Are these pastors, who claim to use a literal, historical, grammatical, contextual, redemptive hermeneutic, exercising sound hermeneutical principles as they derive this application of the text? Is their proposed meaning of this text, “not many should become teachers,” really the meaning of this text? I think not.
I had originally wanted to take the time to walk through the whole of chapter three; however, after typing endlessly I felt it best to offer only a brief synopsis. If you would like more information I would gladly leave it in a comment.
While it is located near the end of the New Testament, it is actually the first New Testament book written. James, the half-brother of Jesus and a leader in the Jerusalem church (Galatians 2:9) wrote the letter to Jews scattered as a result of persecution (Acts 8; 12). The letter’s failure to mention the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), which addressed various issues concerning Gentile believer, means that it was written before that council. Subsequently, the book of James is thoroughly Jewish in character. Because of this much that is said here must be examined on two levels; first, the language and the meaning it bore within a Jewish cultural context and second, the meaning which these terms came to bear within the church.
A Paul works among the Gentiles who do not share a common theological heritage with him; he must establish patterns of right thinking so that patterns of right acting can flow from them, which is why many of Paul’s epistles are viewed primarily as doctrinal treatises. James, on the other hand, is writing to Jews, partakers of the covenants of promise, who all share a common theological heritage and therefore his concern is right practice. This is why James 4:17 reads, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” because right thinking is assumed and their failure is one of practice.
“1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a more intensive judgment” (italics my translation).
The theme throughout this text is teaching; using this text to address gossip or other issues is pure eisegesis and should not be tolerated. The opening admonition sets the tone for everything that follows. At the outset of this admonition several things are immediately clear. By the use of “my brothers” James is clearly speaking to believers, albeit immature ones as will be evident later, furthermore it is clear that even the teaching of the apostles will be judged (I Corinthians 3:10-15). Interestingly enough the word for judgment that is used here is a neutral word that is often used to describe the process of a legal suit where the outcome may be positive or negative; condemnation or reward.
“2For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”
There are two prominent ways in which this verse has been understood. First, it can be understood as a hypothetical situation in which James describes the perfect or ideal individual who has both subjugated his speech and conduct and is self-controlled in all he does. Obviously all but Christ would fall miserably short of this ideal and thus James has both grabbed our attention and demonstrated our need for sanctification of both speech and conduct. Secondly, it has been understood in terms of spiritual maturity. The word used for perfect is teleios (τέλειος); this is the word from which the English word teleology, the study of ultimate purpose or ends, is derived. If understood in this sense the text then addresses spiritual completeness/maturity as one who demonstrates his maturity by right speech will likewise demonstrate his maturity by right conduct as well.
Which of these interpretations of this text fits best within the context of this epistle?
Clearly within the book as a whole the emphasis would rest on the latter interpretation as James focuses heavily on spiritual maturity and the practical application of truth. Within the immediate context a similar emphasis must be noted. In the immediate verses that follow (v.3-12) James illustrates how if one can control the tongue he can control the rest of his members as well as the tongue’s destructive potential.
13Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.
Wisdom and understanding were critical within Jewish culture. Wisdom denotes the correct application of knowledge while understanding carries the connotation of using knowledge effectively, as one would know a trade or skill. Combined they speak of one who can correctly and effectively make use of knowledge. The heart of James’ request is that the wise and understanding individual should demonstrate his wisdom and understanding not by his speech but by his works, his correct and effective use of his knowledge. In the verses that follow (v.14-18) James compares and contrasts false and true wisdom, demonstrating that godly wisdom bears fruit.
From this one can gather that James is writing to spiritually immature Jewish followers of Christ whose are living hypocritically as they boast of their wisdom and yet fail to demonstrate it by their lifestyle; theirs is a dead and workless faith. Now that we have looked at what the text says it is important to note what the text does not say. James is not writing to admonish followers of Christ and to persuade them against becoming teachers; such an admonition is directed only at the spiritually immature.
To the spiritually mature; however, Scripture provides a unanimous and contrary exhortation, extolling the spiritually mature, the wise and understanding, to become teachers. Scripture as a whole argues for a church comprised of teachers. Regarding the leadership/offices within the local church Scripture argues for a plurality of teaching elders (Acts 14:23, 21:18; Titus 1:5; James 5:14), men marked by self-control, discipline, doctrinal soundness, blamelessness, respect, and hospitality (I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:6-9). In Ephesians 4:11-13 we see that the teacher is a specific office given that the saints may be equipped for the work of the ministry. Beyond these specific offices Scripture paints a picture of the church as an interdependent body comprised of various members who teach one another. Ephesians 5:19-20 and Colossians 3:16 describe a church where individuals teach and admonish one another using songs of various kinds. Titus 2 describes the teaching role of various members of the church, even the teaching role of women, a role that is further described in I Timothy 2:15. Above all Paul even exclaims, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (I Timothy 3:1). Rather than seeing an argument in Scripture against the proliferation of teachers within the church we see a consistent exhortation towards such an end, so long as they hold to sound doctrine and bear fruit in keeping with repentance.