A Warning for Teachers – James 3:1-2

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?

11 thoughts on “A Warning for Teachers – James 3:1-2

  1. I have taught over this passage 3 times now, and each time I find a great irony in saying “Not many of you should become teachers” while teaching.

    As for your question, we ought to be held to a high standard. Paul tells Timothy that elders need to be above reproach. As those who are influential in steering the direction of the souls of many people, we have to do so with utmost seriousness and humility.

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  2. As a Pastoral Ministry major, this verse has very much so impacted and humbled me on my spiritual journey. Biblically, I believe it’s very important to examine the leaders of the church and each other as well. Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 are excellent passages to reference when speaking of the qualifications of teaching and preaching the word of God as well as ministering to God’s people. Holding them to the standard of “being above reproach” is vital for church success. Jobes mentions that Jesus and God are both viewed as “judges” who will judge according to the law. With that being said, a teacher of the law and word of God has to be judged to a higher standard than those who aren’t called to be a teacher.

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  3. Teaching is an important aspect to the Christian life. To a certain extent we are all teachers, because we are called to share the gospel with those that are lost, and to me that is a form of teaching. I think it is fair that teachers are held to a higher standard because they are what is going to make the biggest impact for the kingdom of God. It is also important for teachers to watch what they say to make sure they aren’t implying careless speech to their teaching. In conclusion, teachers should teach with caution and understand that they are the ones that are making an impact on the kingdom of God.

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  4. Teachers must be held to a higher standard because of the nature of their work. I think this is true because of what Scripture tells us in multiple spots. Teachers are typically more knowledgeable about expectations laid out for Christians in the Bible because they relay that information to others. You will be judged because you knew what you were supposed to do (and claimed it to those you taught to), but you fell short. When you know more, you become more accountable. An example of this is in Luke 12: 47-48 when the servant knew his master’s will, but not act accordingly so he got a harsh beating. The servant who did not know only got a light beating in comparison. The moral in this story is Luke 12:48, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” I don’t necessarily think it’s “fair” to judge them more harshly, but I think it is important to do so. Everyone tells us from when we are little that life isn’t fair so this is just another one of those situations. The necessity of teachers following through of their words is far more important than them feeling “fair”. Also, teachers are more spiritually mature if they are supposed to be teaching others about the Lord and what the Bible says. One section in the reading talked about how godly speech is important throughout the New Testament. Jobes wrote that, “Spiritually mature people exhibit godly speech that is consistent with who they are becoming in Christ” (Jobes, 172).

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  5. Teachers are fairly put at a higher standard, because if we are to take what they are saying seriously, then we need to be able to know that they are in the position to teach and have reasons to be respected. For all intensive purposes, what people say should be a reflection of who they are and what they believe, so for that reason, not everyone is going to be fit to be a teacher (Jobes 172). Teachers are held accountable to a different standard for what they say, so even the smallest of polarizing statements can have an effect on a community or on a student’s life (Jobes 171). The reason why Jesus’s teachings were so effective and had such a powerful impact on people’s lives, is because it came from Jesus, a man who never gave into temptation, a man who did not ever sin or wrong people, even when He knew that He was destined to be wronged by His peers. Even people in ministry suffer from sexual immorality and the other various sins of the flesh, and that’s why teaching or ministry is not for everyone.

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  6. I think that what James is saying here matches everything else in life. Like you said above: “with great power comes great responsibility” look at the president or any celebrity there is if they make a mistake they become a spectacle for the whole nation. I remember that my pastor’s wife growing up used to talk about how sometimes our actions as Christians can bring “shame to the name” meaning that we are constantly being looked at by the world to be the embodiment of Jesus. It is the same of people called by God to be teachers, they are responsible for being the under-shepherd of the body that they are teaching. I don’t think that this is a question of being fair or not, but rather it is part of the responsibility of being a teacher of the Word. One must accept this and move forward with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

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  7. Yes I believe it is appropriate for teachers to be held accountable and to a higher standard. Looking at pastoring or teaching through the lens of this verse is very daunting. Its Scary to think that if i become a teacher or pastor I essentially will be under a microscope. This seems reasonable tho considering pastors have a great influence on peoples spiritual lives and eternity is nothing to mess around with. 1 Timothy 3:1 talks about it being an honorable position, his life cannot be spoken against. It seems like pastors are put in this position of “holier than art tho” and they have to be dang near perfect people. I would really like to challenge that and say, yes they are held to a higher standard, but the separation between congregate and pastor is much less than what people make it out to be. They are ministers among minsters first among many. They have a story too, they have pasts, they have presents. They were rescued just like everyone else was or is being rescued and they are in need of Gods grace on a daily, just as much as the one sitting in the pew.

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