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?

23 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.

  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.

  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.

  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).

  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.

  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.

  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.

  8. I would have to agree with James in saying that not everyone should become a teacher. Some are not gifted from the Lord in speaking, preaching, and teaching, but rather are gifted in other ways. For those who are gifted with teaching, James 2:12 can be a hard verse to live out due to their profession of speaking. It is true that teachers in the Bible are held to a high standard because they are referenced speaking wisdom a number of times, but that does not mean everything that they taught in there life was true. Teachers of the Bible today are definitely held to a high standard, as they should be. God calls Bible teachers to teach His word for a reason, sometimes for reasons that they do not understand, but He does have a reason. Their job requires them to have truth about the knowledge, and one would assume that they are more proactive about living out those truths. James 2:13 warns those teachers of the Bible that they will be held accountable to their teachings in their personal lives. A Bible teacher who does not walk the talk that he is speaking is not going to have listeners who do what he says as easily. Followers, especially Christians, are more likely to follow a leader who does as he says and is not hypocritical in his teaching. Karen Jobes in “Letters to the Church” points out that James is writing to Jewish Christians leaders who have been scattered (Jobes, p. 163). Those tribes and leaders do not have many leaders to support their teachings of the Bible, and therefore, James is encouraging them to pay close attention to what they are saying and how they are preaching.

  9. I believe that your point about this passage being mostly a warning towards loose speech, and that teachers being those who are those who others strive to listen too are particularly vulnerable to this. Loose speech is warned against in other passages as well such as Matthew 12:36, so this is a known problem. Feel another part of this warning is because teachers mostly teach those who are less mature than them. This may lead to a situation when a teach may knowingly or unknowingly lead an immature individual such as a young adult or child sin which is deeply displeasing to God as shown in Matthew 18:6.

  10. In one of my other classes we have spent this week looking at what it means to trust a leader and the importance of trustworthiness in any organization or group of people. In a ministry setting there is a certain expectation that the leader is correct in their teachings, people trust their pastor because they are “… an authority of God’s word” (Long, 2018). In my mind trust and faith are fruits of each other; I trust God because I have faith in him and I have faith in God because he has never failed me yet, so I trust him. In reflection to James 3:2, Jobes says, “The goal is never to be at fault in what we say and have the self-control to keep one’s whole body in check” (2011). Students and parishioners alike can be dependent on their pastors and teachers to give an example in speech and life of what is proper and true. I would assume that one of the hardest parts of ministry and teaching is the constant eye that ministers/teachers are under. Everything they do in a teaching scenario can be misinterpreted and used in a negative manner despite best intentions.
    In my experience so far as a university student, I seldom doubt something that a professor tells me because I have assurance in their experiences and credentials that qualified them to be in the teaching position that they are in. There are times where I disagree with a statement or a lesson, or do not understand it in its entirety, but I still have confidence in their knowledge even if mine is lacking.

  11. To answer your second question (Is it fair they are held to a higher standard just because they are teachers?), I would so far as to say that it is only proper to do so.

    As a basic example: if a neurosurgeon is scheduled for cases on any given day, he or she is held to a certain amount of accountability – more so than someone who delivers mail to patient rooms.
    Following the same logic, it would only be right to hold Biblical teachers to a higher level of accountability when teaching the Bible publicly. Of course this is not to say they are expected to be perfect in all they do or say. But it does reflect the passage that you noted above in Luke 12: to whom much is given, much is required. It also reminds me of the parable Jesus taught of the talents in Matthew 25. We also have the story of the widow’s mite in Luke 21. Different tasks or positions demand different standards of levels of accountability.

    There is a certain amount of authority assumed by any one who teaches. Individuals who put themselves in – or find themselves promoted to – a position of teaching ought to be aware of the responsibility. For example, careless speech, as mentioned in the original post, is something to avoid. And it can have unintended consequences. If something is said in a one on one conversation the opportunity for a negative impact is there. Said on a stage, the chance of creating a negative impact multiplies quickly.
    Your post also points out that Bible teachers are viewed as authorities on the Word of God. Because they are given that respect or platform, those who teach must be all the more careful against careless speech.

    The ESV Study Bible makes note of the fact that during this time period, teachers were of high status. It suggests that James may be warning against becoming a teacher for the wrong reasons. To those who might be tempted to do so, it serves as warning that it is not all fame and glory. This passage reminds me of other sections of the Bible (ie Hebrews 13:17). I can’t help but wonder if there is a theme here, discouraging individuals from becoming teachers. Or at least warning the ones who may be tempted to jump on board too soon. For those who are called to teach, might this serve as a reminder that their work matters (and not to let their position as a leader get to their heads)?

  12. James brings up a good point that I very much agree with when it comes to becoming a teacher. Whether it’s a preacher, schoolteacher to just a leader somewhere on some team. I think that some people have the capability to become great teachers or leaders. But there are some that aren’t the ones to step up and teach or take leadership. There is nothing wrong with that at all, God has a better place for those people doing something great that fits them. but at the same time, I think that God has and will call those to teach, preach or lead. Along with that God will have to use these people to help someone walking through a hard time that the teacher might not ever go through. So, God will give them the wisdom and guidance to teach and walk these people through what they are going through. Along with that these teachers might not even know all about God, but God will guide them to say and teach the right things. Although there are people that aren’t in this kind of role there is nothing wrong with that and God is using them in a different and perfect area for them to teach and lead. But I think that God has to appoint those in order to teach and lead properly.

  13. I think it is important for anyone to claim or present themselves as a teacher of the Word to be deeply rooted and fully knowledgeable of what they are learning and speaking. Both areas that is a continuous growth towards full maturity. I think for someone to be a teacher needs to have proper credentials supporting their education and their dedication of subject of expertise. Dr. Long made a good point about “careless speech,” that I so often see on social media. It is easy to only read a title of a news headline and share it without properly engaging in searching the facts as to the reasons for such news, time and date it was delivered, and the truth from all angles of the story. In Luke 6:40 says, “a disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained would be like his teacher.” Jobes make a great point how Jesus presents himself as a teacher with greater authority than those of the teacher of law and Pharisees (193). Depending how one is presented as a teacher of the Bible, may have a greater responsibility because the Bible is the Word of God that comes with power and authority and if we are not careful or rightfully in tune with the Holy Spirit in wisdom and discernment, error and careless speech of the Bible come with judgment and most times bring curses. In 2 Timothy 2:15 says, “be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.” If a teacher is teaching about sexual immorality, yet this person is committing such sin behind closed doors, and later he or she is exposed, it can severely bring the impression that the Bible is a lied to others (especially baby Christians) because it was unable to even correct the teacher. I think being a teacher is not just I choose to be one today, but it takes a lot of time of investment to learn and continue learning, gaining proper lessons and correction by the Bible. You cannot become a master if you have not fully master it. In Judaism “rabbi,” means teacher of the Torah. Also, can mean master, which translated to “great one.”

  14. As I read through James 3, I see the waring of opening our mouth and being discerning of what comes out of it. I don’t think that it is saying to never open our mouth but to be sure that the quality of the words comes out is more important than the quantity of words. When James is warning teachers or “wannabes” he is saying that they will be judged with greater strictness. We know that the tongue can do harm and people in authority have the most power to the right thing and the most power to say the wring thing. People will hear if you say the wring thing. There are a few pastors out there they I follow for their entertainment value. I don’t know if that is the correct thing to say, but I listen because I want to know what ludicrous thing they are going to say to their congregation of thousands. When I think of these pastors, I always think of Romans 12:2. It tells us to not conform to this world, but to be transformed. Is there purpose to please the crowd or serve the Lord? Which also brings to mind Galatians 1:10 that talks about pleasing God and not man. In your last paragraph you discuss the thought that James was likely not putting down their theology, just their careless speech. While this was probably true for this community, I don’t think the same thing can be applied to our society, which I think is pretty clearly seen in popular culture. I think it can be a combination of bad or careless theology and careless speech.

  15. James speaks of the tongue and how it is capable to steer one’s whole life (James 3:3-5). The tongue is powerful. James warns teachers because they are worthy of judgment for their followers and fans. Teaching and leading is no small task. I grew up watching the struggles and challenges my parents had to face being teachers. Teachers today are held to a high standard. They are called by God to teach His word and bring others closer to Him. Unlike some celebrities that voice their opinion about a political matter, but have no knowledge or background on it, teachers of God’s word must have knowledge and insight. They are being held accountable and evaluated for their teachings. James states that not everyone should become a teacher. I agree with him as many people don’t have the calling from God or have the knowledge to teach. If one becomes a teacher with no knowledge, they become hypocrites and are “worthless” (James 1:26). We should be on the lookout to what teachers are saying and how they are preaching, so to not follow wrong teachings.
    “The larger the following the weaker the theology” (Philip Long). I never really thought of this but is so true. A teacher aims to be sincere and honest. They want to keep their “popularity”, to do so they have to keep people content. They are therefore unable to discuss controversial issues. I think of how difficult it is for mega churches, because no matter what or where there are so many strong opinions and people who get hurt feeling and leave. James gives great advice that can help us as teachers and learners.

  16. The thoughts from James in chapter 3, verses 1-2 is fairly interesting and eye-opening. In this passage of his letter, James claims that not many Christians should be teachers because teachers are judged to a higher standard than others. Verse 2 of this passage focuses on the idea that all people stumble. One of the main ethical exhortations of James’ letters is centered around Godly speech and how Christians use their voices. According to Jobes (2011), “There is probably no greater self-revealing way we can present ourselves to the world than through what we say” (pg. 223). James’ seconds this notion, for James is very much concerned about how Christians speak and interact. Are their messages and voices reflecting Christian ethics, or are these messages and voices disregarding Christian ethics? This is of much concern to James. Jobes (2011) claims that Jesus and James share a perspective that the words that Christians say are incredibly important because they reflect the inner selves of people (pg. 223). James litters his message in the Bible with ethical instructions about how Christians are to speak. For example, James 1:19 encourages believers to be slow to speak and quicker to listen, James 1:26 claims that one’s faith is irrelevant if they cannot show the ability to control their tongue, James 2:12 claims that speech, along with actions, will be judged by the Lord, James 3:8 states that one’s mouth is difficult to control, etc. It becomes evident that James is heavily engaged in discussion about how Christians speak and use their voices. This passage in James 3:1-2 is just another significant example.

    Moreover, I completely agree with the third paragraph of this blog post. The third paragraph highlights the fact that James believes speech is judged by God, so Christians should be slow to speak (James 1:19 and James 2:12). This means that teachers of the Word and of Jesus will have a much higher standard of judgement because they will speak much more than the Christian who is slow to speak. For example, a Christian who is slow to speak will really focus on only using their voice for good and the kingdom of God. That being said, a Christian teacher can have that same mindset and that same plan, but since their job requires them to speak early and often, then they are more prone to messing up with their voice. For James 3:5 highlights the disproportionate relationship between the size of one’s tongue and the trouble that it can cause in one’s life. This means that the more one speaks, the more trouble can appear. This is why James believes teachers are to be held to a higher standard, and I understand and tend to agree with this frame of thinking.

    Along with these opportunities to speak, church teachers have the opportunity to gain a crowd, a fan base, or a popularity measure. This comes with teachers today too. People who speak a lot can gain a large crowd and large following that support their every move and their every word. This can be beneficial for individuals, as well as society, if the content of the message from the teacher is healthy and Biblically supported. However, if teachers gain this kind of support and popularity, and they choose to preach and teach messages that do not correlate with Jesus’ teachings and the Bible, then a major problem arises. Therefore, because of the opportunity to influence others is such a major aspect to those who teach, I feel as if it is fair for teachers to be judged to a higher standard.

    Jobes, K. H. (2011). The Letters to the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

  17. I definitely agree with James on this one. I feel like there were people in this time that wanted to be preachers. spread the good news of Jesus and yeah people the Bible. But it was for the fame and glory that they wanted to do it. They wanted to be looked up to. Not that they cannot be that person but God has something special for them to do. giving God the glory is the key to that leadership. You said it best when you said that leaders cannot be afraid to tell the hard things. Do not be like Joel Osteen. instead speak the truth, like God wants. Matthew 7:21 even says that not everyone who will enter the kingdom of heaven. Even the people who call him lord. Now that is a heavy statement. As a teacher God holds you more accountable than others because you are leading people to christ. If you are leading them astray then God holds you accountable to that. He does not want you to take your job lightly. But also God forgives and understands we mess up. We just have to admit to that. not just be a preacher but also a leader.

  18. James 3 is a warning about taming a tongue. This goes into responsibilities of being a teacher. “With great power comes with great responsibility.” Being a teacher, in modern day, means you know more than what other people know and you are held responsible with anything that goes wrong with your students. In Luke 12: 48, Jesus said, “to whom much is given, much is required.” A teacher in a sense of Jesus’ time, it meant Rabbi. This was to be a teacher of the word of God. This was a great responsibility for one to have.
    When the bible talks about that not everyone should be a teacher, it means this is a job that a few are called to. It comes with lots of responsibilities and at the end one will be judged strictly.
    I agree that because they are given higher responsibilities, they should be held on higher standards.
    As a pastoral student this verse every time I read it, it helps me visualize how much of responsibility am headed to. This verse has encouraged me to pray more and seek for God’s guidance with everything as I am preparing to get into a pastoral position.

  19. James warning believers about becoming a “teacher” is something I never really had much thought about. Reading this article gave me insight that if you decide to be a teacher of God’s word, than you better be prepared of the judgement you’re about to take on. You have put so much stress on your shoulders on showing perfection. Becoming a teacher of God’s words means that your deeds and words must reflect our faith in God. This does not mean that you should not become a teacher. A teacher of God is one of the most important roles in the church. Teachers are made to help people understand the Word of God, but this also means they have to demonstrate and live by what they teach. 1 Corinthians 3:12 talks about how anyone who builds a foundation with gold, silver, precious stone, is building a foundation of Christ with good teaching but, building with wood, hay, straw, one’s work will become a manifest. It will be revealed by fire. Fire will test what sort of work each one has done. Whatever foundation is still standing after the fire, will receive a reward. The one’s whom’s foundation has burned up will duffer loss. I relate this to the verse about teachers being judged. Teachers can build with hay, straw, or wood or they can build with silver, gold, stone. The more you know about God’s word and live it you will be rewarded, but if you don’t live by what you are teaching than you will suffer a loss and be judged by your actions. If you plan on becoming a teach just remember if one of your “students” sees you doing anything other than living by God’s word, you will be judged immensely.

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