Nigel has been the Director of Proclamation Trust's Cornhill Training Course since September 2016. He is also a member of 9:38's Executive Committee.
9:38 exists to encourage Christians to consider ‘word ministry’. We pray that the Lord of the harvest will send out many workers into his harvest. And our prayer is not just for ones or twos, nor even for tens, but for hundreds and thousands. Many, many gospel workers.
So James 3:1 is a surprising verse. Not many. Not many of you should become teachers, says James.
Why not? Well, says James, because we know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. Why will teachers be judged with greater strictness? Because of what we say, continues James in verse 2.
Words are our imprint on the world. And they are so very powerful, as James goes on to describe.
The theme in James is ‘double-mindedness’. The word only gets mentioned in just two places (1:8, 4:8), but the idea runs all through the book. James provides lots of examples of the many ways in which we try to live as Christians and we try to live as non-Christians. We develop our outlook, opinions, attitude and behaviour from the Word and from the world. And in chapter 3, James, like a doctor, tells us stick out our tongue. And from looking at our tongue … or rather, from listening to the tongue, Dr. James can diagnosis the sickness. And the clear evidence here, from verses 9-11, is that we are divided.
James makes it clear that what comes out of our mouths is both blessing and blasphemy. We drive our car singing along to a worship CD, and then rage at the stupid driver who cuts in front of us. Praises and profanities. It shouldn’t be like this. It doesn’t even make any sense that it is like this. But it is. And we can’t bring what we say under control. And speech like this is the reason why ‘not many of you should become teachers’.
Our double-mindedness is exposed. Our tongue shows our failings, our transgressions … the fact that ‘we all stumble in many ways’ (2). And for such sin we will be judged, as 2:12-13 explains. And indeed, ‘we who teach will be judged with greater strictness’. Actually, more accurately, ‘with greater judgement’.
And there's the rub. Teachers will receive ‘more’ judgement because they speak more words on which the Judge will assess, convict and condemn law-breakers. It is said that, on average, we speak about 7,000 words a day. When I preach a 30-minute sermon, I use up half of my daily quota in just half an hour! The more words I say, yes, there may well be more ‘blessings’. But there will also be more ‘cursings’.
Our mouths are where our minds come out into the open, so to speak (as the poet Steve Turner once put it). It’s just like a tray of coffee cups, with each cup full to brim … knock the person carrying the tray and the coffee is spilt. Knock any sinner, and the sin gets spilt. It spills out of our mouths.
So you could say that the message of James 3:1 is ‘avoid Bible teaching’! That could be the title for the next 9:38 conference! Obviously, we’re not to avoid hearing Bible teaching. But do avoid giving it. Hearers of the word, yes. Doers of the word, yes. But ‘teachers’? Not so much. Because ministry is so wordy. So exposed. So exposing. There are just so many opportunities for me as a Bible teacher, as I stand in front of you, to sin.
So who then should be our teacher? ‘Not many of you’, OK. But ‘some’, surely? And this is why 3:13f continues the passage. The ‘wise and understanding’ person should be your teacher. And you can tell who is that ‘wise and understanding’ person because he will ‘show his works’. And what his works will show is that he has ‘the wisdom that comes down from above’. Not the ugly so-called ‘wisdom’ that is ‘earthly, unspiritual and demonic’. That shows itself in ‘bitter jealousy and selfish ambition’. Whereas the wisdom that God generously gives us from above is very like the work of the Spirit. It produces the fruit of the Spirit. It shows itself in people who are pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, merciful, single-minded and sincere. A list of seven characteristics.
Who should be our teacher? We might say: it is the person whose godliness is real. It can be seen.
Let’s pause here. We are so easily deceived about who should be our teacher. Look back to 1:26-27 to see that James agrees that appearances may well deceive us. What we applaud in leadership tends to be things like charisma, vision, getting things done, and efficiency. We like the person who can string words together in a way that delights and instructs and moves us. We’re easily impressed, and often by some fairly inconsequential things. Here’s the thing: Christian character matters more than personal magnetism. It’s the godly person who should be your teacher.
It’s worth asking whether our church appointment processes are really fit for purpose. Can a one-hour interview and a couple of references from supportive friends really enable evaluation of character? It might work in appointing someone to work in an office, but does it show us what we need to know about a minister of the gospel? Can such meager evidence show us a person’s works? It’s godly character and life that matters in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:5-9. And here in James 3 too. It takes time, living alongside someone, up close and personal in the local church, to evaluate character – things like self control, how someone manages their household, whether they are hospitable, that they are not greedy for gain.
When deciding who should be a teacher, prize Christian character more.
"Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." – James 3:1