1 Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur stricter judgment.
Verses one may seem unrelated to the subsequent verses in the chapter (it certainly did to me at first reading today), but after examining the passage more, it became clear that both sub-topics (spiritual teaching and speaking in general) both hinge on the issue of the power of words. We’ll address the subtopic of teaching today, bearing in mind the overall context as we do so.
Firstly, we know that “teachers” here is clearly referring those with the spiritual gift of teaching (Romans 12:7, Ephesians 4:11). However, if teaching is a spiritual gift, aren’t those with it supposed to use it (Romans 12:6, 1 Corinthians 12:7, Ephesians 4:12)? Why then is James telling them, “Let not many of you become teachers”? I believe the answer can be found in 1 Corinthians 12:31a “But earnestly desire the greater gifts” (this is spoken after listing off the “coolest” gifts like apostling, teaching, speaking in tongues, and working miracles). Therefore, I believe that James is telling his readers to be cautious when asking for the gift of teaching, because it is a dangerous job with ramifications. It’s sort of a “Be careful what you wish for” case.
So what’s the big deal? I’d say that it goes back to the theme of the power of words. From my personal experience, it seems that when you’re having a spiritual conversation with another brother or sister in Christ, you’re far more likely to check what they say against Scripture than if you hear the same thing from a pastor, Christian author, or other spiritual teacher. It’s like people assume (perhaps subconsciously) that we teachers are experts in the Bible. But what makes the Bible so beautiful is that God made it so complex that no man can ever fully understand every facet of it! I 100% believe that no human ever has had, or ever will have, perfect theology and doctrine until we finally meet God face to face in heaven. Which means, “even” we teachers are going to make mistakes sometimes and tell you something incorrectly.
I can think of three ways this can be manifested:
(1) An incorrect tidbit that’s a side point, but not doctrinal. For example, I don’t speak Hebrew, so if I had not been taught by a former pastor of mine that in the Old Testament when literal translations say “sons of God,” it means angels in Hebrew, I would have assumed this meant human followers of God, and likely would have passed this misinterpretation on to others. Does this affect anything? Not really – but it’s still incorrect.
(2) A doctrinal, but not salvation-affecting point. For example, the debates over predestination, the timing of the rapture, and whether or not we are to keep the Sabbath. Getting these wrong is a much bigger deal, but still is not “false teaching” in the sense of affecting salvation.
(3) Out-and-out false teaching. Meaning, “teaching a different gospel” – i.e., cult leaders (see Galatians 1:8).
What, then is the “stricter judgment” spoken of in today’s verse? First, I want to express that I believe this is referring to the second category spoken of above. Why?
(1) Only God knows everything. I see no evidence in Scripture (which is the most important source), or in personal knowledge of God, or in theological reason, to believe that if a preacher got an historical tidbit wrong that had no effect on anybody’s walk, why they would be judged for it.
(2) (Related to the above #3 about cult leaders) We know from throughout scripture that cults who deny the deity of Christ, preach a Gospel of salvation through works, etc. are not saved, and thus their leaders and members will face judgment in hell (you can find this taught throughout the New Testament, so I won’t bother including references for this one). However, James is not writing to cult members – he is writing to Christians.
So…is he saying that any Christian teacher who makes a mistake and teaches incorrectly on one issue is going to hell? NOT AT ALL! This would mean a gospel of works, and require all teachers to know everything! Rather, my understanding of this issue is based on two passages: Matthew 5:19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” and 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 “Now if any man builds upon the foundation [his salvation, given by Christ – see verse 11] with gold silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw [based on common interpretation, the first three presumably being good works and deeds done for Christ with pure motives, and the latter three being works and deeds that you screwed up somehow, such as by seeking human recognition for your “holiness”], each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.” Considering those passages, it is my understanding that the judgment today’s verse speaks of refers to a lesser degree of reward, a lower position in heaven (See our study on James 1:12-16 for a much more thorough discussion of the issue of heavenly rewards).
In case you haven’t noticed, I often include disclaimers in my posts – phrases such as, “in my opinion,” “my interpretation is,” etc. This is to protect both me and you.
So, what are some applications for you non-teachers out there?
1. If you think I’m teaching something unbiblical, please send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org mentioning what I said, what you believe is correct, and the Scripture you base your belief on. Do this with your other spiritual teachers, too –you will be helping us tremendously!
2. Don’t believe something without checking it out for yourself, no matter how much you trust the teacher – we aren’t trying to purposefully mislead you about anything, but we don’t know everything, and we will make mistakes.
3. Study the Scriptures for yourself so you can easily recognize and unbiblical teaching the instant you hear/read it.
4. When asking God for a certain spiritual gift, mission, etc., be sure to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28-31).
I don’t have any discussion starters for today, but please, if you have any thoughts on this passage, share them in the comments section below. I’d love to hear from you! :-)