Not Many of You

Teaching has its own occupational hazards.  Teachers complain about lack of respect and pay.  They frequently gripe about the students under their care.  Teachers grumble about other teachers.  In fact, you can read complaints about any and all of these things from teachers in the ancient world, from medieval tutors, or from almost any teacher in almost any school today.    

As a teacher, I often think of the admonition of James.  In what may be the earliest book in our New Testament, James writes, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers” (James 3:1).  Yet James’ reasons for these words of warning do not follow along the lines of the normal complaints teachers have.  In fact, James cautions go much deeper, and they expose much more clearly the high stakes involved in teaching.

We know, first of all, that this warning against many becoming teachers is quite different from a warning that not any should become teachers.  Teaching, after all, is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the Church, and it could well be argued that the way in which God’s authority is mediated to his people is generally through teaching – specifically teaching God’s Word, the Bible.  So we cannot say that James prohibits, condemns, or even sidelines the role of teachers.  He does no such thing.

In fact, James’ reasoning is quite straightforward.  James writes that teachers will be judged more strictly.  This actually seems to reinforce, rather than diminish, the importance of teachers for the life of the local congregation.  The strict judgment of teachers sits comfortably, even necessarily, alongside their high degree of influence.

James also gives a second reason which has broader application.  It is not simply that teachers have influence and therefore will be judged, it is also that all speech carries with it grave dangers and duties.  James teaches that the tongue is a fire; it is untamable and poisonous.  Its use can lead to the vilest kind of hypocrisy: praising God, and cursing people who are made in God’s image.  For each of us, there is no doubt a long list of words we wish we’d never said, comments that never should have been uttered.  We’ve all – many times – left conversations wondering just how we ended up in a heated argument or a confused fog.  Conversely, we have all experienced the glow of an encouraging word.  Mark Twain is reported to have said that he could go a full-month on a good complement.  For many of us, some minor encouragement spoken to us at the right time still provides us with spiritual fuel today.  Both positively and negatively, we have experienced the power of the tongue, a power which is only increased when someone is using it to teach.

But apart from the truth about teachers’ stricter judgment and the general warnings about the tongue (which apply so directly to those who teach), James also gives another warning that may surprise us.  He warns against jealousy and selfish ambition – especially in the hearts of those who are known by reputation as wise and understanding.  “Who is wise and understanding among you?  By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13).

This notion of the meekness of wisdom leads to John Calvin’s comments on Luke 6:26, a verse in which Jesus warns against the applause of men.  Calvin writes that Jesus’ warning, “refers peculiarly to teachers, who have no plague more to be dreaded than ambition, because it is impossible for them not to corrupt doctrine when they ‘seek to please men.’”  What a sobering statement.  According to Calvin, ambition is a besetting sin of teachers, and a desire to please people cannot help but lead to a corruption in doctrine. 

If we connect this warning with James’ statement about strict judgment, we realize what a fearful task it is to teach.  There is the ever-present danger of misusing words – the tongue can be a deadly poison – and there is the threat of saying things in order to gain a following, to move ahead.  Ambition, jealousy, and a love for applause can lead to all sorts of doctrinal deviation, on both small points and large.

These dangers make the perennial complaints of teachers pale in comparison.  It turns out that it is not the external challenges of students, pay, and respect that present such a challenge, but the internal pressures – the dangers of the tongue and our love of being loved.  These are real threats to teachers, hazards that come from hearts struggling with sin.

Jonathan Master