James tells his readers “not many should become teachers” (3:1). Why does James make this command?
It is possible he is concerned about the messianic community having too many teachers, or maybe that some unqualified people were aspiring to be teachers. Jesus told his disciples they ought to avoid meaning called “rabbi” in order to avoid the hypocrisy of the Pharisees (Matt 23:6-8).
The reason for this warning is that those who teach will be judged with “greater strictness.” James includes himself in this warning, although the ESV and NIV add the words “we who teach” as the subject of “will receive greater judgment.” Similarly, Jesus said “to whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). The teacher will receive “particularly rigorous scrutiny” at the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10–15)” (Laws, James, 144).
The reason for this scrutiny is the teacher speaks more, therefore has more opportunity to say things worthy of judgment. If the wise person is to be slow to speak (2:12), then teacher is in danger of judgment because of his constant speaking! (The more you talk, the deep the hole you dig).
James is concerned with too many teachers talking in unloving ways (McKnight, James, 269). For teachers in the Jewish or Greco-Roman world, a teacher was judged by his popularity, Just as happens in the modern world, a popular teacher is entertaining. This may mean they use humor and amusing stories as a part of their presentation, and anytime you use humor there is a possibility of offending someone (or everyone).
Teachers are often guilty of making a careless aside which derails everything they were trying to say. I knew a teacher some years ago who made cutting jokes and remarks, often under his breath as if no one could hear them. He regularly offended his students and really did not have the influence he assumed he had. I have done this myself, trying to make a joke and it comes out totally wrong and I destroy a relationship (and any chance to teach that person a thing!)
Some teachers attain a level of popularity which prevents them from addressing some issues which are controversial. The larger the following the weaker the theology. For example, Joel Osteen has very thin theology but a massive church; a conservative pastor preaching the Bible has every theological T crossed and every I dotted, but they have a church of fifteen elderly people. Joel Osteen cannot speak out against a particular sin because he would lose a section of his congregation that enjoys that sin and does not come to church to be preached against.
In addition to careless speech, a church teacher is presented as an authority on God’s word, Christian practice and theology. With any authority comes great responsibility. When asked, a teacher will gladly give their opinion, even if they have no real preparation or expertise to address the topic (worse: ask a blogger a question!)
Perhaps an extreme example for contemporary culture, pop-stars often give their opinion on matters of science, government, religion, etc. even though they have no education which qualifies them to be an expert. That sort of “careless speech” is influential because people like and trust them. So too a teacher might offer an expert opinion on a theological or ethical issue when they have not really done the work it requires to understand the issue, and therefore lead people astray.
It is likely James has in mind careless speech which leads to division within the church. There is nothing in James which implies the elders (some of whom are likely teachers) are deficient in their theology, but through careless speech they may be creating a divisive atmosphere in the small diaspora Jewish churches. Paul certainly had to deal with this in Corinth, there is no reason to doubt diaspora Jews were any less divisive.
How ought we evaluate public teachers of the Bible? Is it fair they are held to a higher standard just because they are teachers?