by Joesph Duerr, Ph.D.
James 3:1 (ESV) “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
Regardless of whether you teach in a formal capacity in a Sunday School or small group, or simply evangelize to a friend or neighbor, all those who profess Christ are commanded to teach new disciples (Matthew 28:20). We therefore must honor such a ministry with appropriate knowledge and discipline.
Education has always been a passion of mine and a career choice I made over twenty years ago. I see education as a noble cause, one that helps an individual obtain his or her goals in this life. As important as this is, it is also one that is temporal in nature. So much more important is educating those in their faith to help equip them for a life of ministry serving our Lord. It is in this belief, that this passage from James addresses.
To fully understand this verse, it is important to understand the context and audience this letter is addressing. The letter of James has been dated by many scholars to the ‘40s and is considered to be one of the first letters written that constitute the NT. The letter is not addressed to any specific church (e.g., 1 Corinthians) or individual (e.g., 1 Timothy), but rather is addressed to “the twelve tribes scattered among the nations” (1:1). Forced to live away from their home church because of persecution and so forth, these individuals certainly could benefit from exhortation and advice on issues they were facing. What is more natural than that their spiritual guide send them a pastoral letter?
In addressing the role of the teacher, James is fully aware of the preeminent role of a teacher in early Jewish and Christian societies. Teachers were important in the early church (Acts 2:42; Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11). However, with greater responsibility comes greater expectations by God (Luke 12:48; Hebrews 13:17), and teachers will be judged with greater strictness, since they are accountable for more. It was well known that some of those who were ambitious sought teacher status for the wrong reasons. Some sayings of Jesus reflect concern that public acknowledgement and recognition—seats of honor at banquets, choice seats in the synagogue, differential greetings, and honorific titles—could prove a powerful incentive to seek a teaching role (Matt 23:6-7).
James ties in the role of the teacher with his pericope on the dangers of the tongue and the sins of speech (1:19, 26). He introduces his topic by first warning people not to be too anxious to become teachers (3:1). James does not want to discourage those who have the calling and the gift for teaching, but he does want to warn people about the heavy responsibility involved in teaching others about spiritual matters (see also Matt. 5:19; Acts 20:26–27). One of the reasons the teaching ministry is very difficult is that it makes use of the most dangerous, untamable member of the body: the tongue. So difficult is the tongue to control and subordinate to godly purposes that James calls the person “perfect” who is able to subdue it (v. 2).
While the teacher position might come with added prominence even in today’s society, without a humble heart and a teaching method that does not stray from God’s truth, we run the risk of being held accountable to not only to our own failings, but for leading others astray (Mark 7:14).
A teacher of any subject matter must know his or her material inside and out. It is in this knowledge that we can then extract the wisdom God has given us to share with others to help them along their journey. It is an awesome responsibility in the secular world and even more so vital for those who teach on the world to come.