Recently I read something that made me sad. It was a Facebook note penned by a noted Bible teacher and it went something like this: “I’m a teacher of the gospel, but you’re probably not a teacher, so best not to pretend you are because you could lead people astray.”
This comment wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular, but it made me sad for two reasons:
(1) We are all called to preach and teach the gospel, every single one of us (Mark 16:15; Heb 5:12), so don’t let anyone silence you just because you’re not as eloquent as the next guy. You have a story to tell and the world needs to hear it.
(2) Graceless comments like that kill dreams. Some of you are gifted teachers but you don’t know it yet, and if you listen to this guy you never will. Don’t let anyone squash your dreams. Step out and be who God made you to be.
I said all that to say this: How should we read these words of James?
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (Jas 3:1, NIV)
Growing up I always enjoyed explaining things, but I had no desire to be a Bible teacher partly because of the heavy responsibility implied in this passage. I used to think, The Bible’s a big book. I know a bit of it but I don’t know all of it and the bits I don’t know might contradict the bits I do know, so best I should say nothing.
What a tragic mindset! If everyone thought like this, no one would ever hear the good news.
Happily, I repented. I now believe that if you have known Jesus for even a single day, you know enough to tell others about him. In fact, it’s sort of expected:
By this time you ought to be teachers … (Heb 5:12)
Not all of us are gifted to teach (see 1 Cor 12:29), but all of us are qualified to teach. You are not qualified because you went to seminary or teaching school. You are qualified because Jesus the Teacher lives in you (Matt 8:19). You are qualified because his Spirit teaches you all things (John 14:26).
“But Paul, I don’t have a teaching certificate.” Neither did anyone in the Bible.
How to read James 3:1?
Hebrews 5 says you should teach, but James says you shouldn’t:
Not many [of you] should become teachers (self-constituted censors and reprovers of others), my brethren, for you know that we [teachers] will be judged by a higher standard and with greater severity [than other people; thus we assume the greater accountability and the more condemnation]. (Jas 3:1, AMP)
The word for teacher (didaskalos) is sometimes translated as master. Jesus was called master or teacher on many occasions and in a Jewish context that meant something special. A master was revered like an Old Testament judge, as these examples illustrate:
1. A rich young ruler came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). He was saying, “Jesus, I recognize you as a Master in the law. Please judge my law-keeping performance.”
2. Another man said to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). The man was saying, “Jesus, I recognize you as a Master in the law. Please judge my case for me.”
3. The law-experts and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and said, “Teacher, the Law says stone her. What do you say?” (John 8:4-5). They were saying, “Jesus, apparently you’re an expert in the law. Prove it by judging this woman.”
See the pattern? In Jesus’ day to be a master or teacher was to be one of the Big Dogs when it came to dispensing law and passing judgment.
So when James says, “Don’t presume to become a teacher,” he’s saying “Don’t set yourself up as a judge of others.”
Refuse to play the judgment game
Jesus did not come to judge but to love people (John 12:47). In the courtroom of sin and judgment, Jesus doesn’t wear a black robe and swing a gavel. He stands between the condemned woman and her accusers. He defends the sinner and saves the lost.
If Jesus refused to play the judgment game, so should we. That’s what James is saying here.
Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another? (Jas 4:11-12, NKJV)
Why should we avoid playing the judgment game? James gives us two reasons:
- It’s unloving. It’s not how brothers relate to each other. “Love does not delight in evil” (1 Cor 13:6), so don’t speak evil of others.
- It’s unlawful. Not only does it break Moses’ law (Lev 19:16), it also breaks Christ’s law (Matt 7:1).
The greater condemnation
James says teachers will be held to a higher standard and “receive the greater condemnation” (KJV). Read his words in context and we can clearly see what he is and is not saying.
James is not saying: Teaching people about Jesus is a dangerous occupation more likely to send you to Hell than any other.
James is saying: Don’t aspire to be one of those religious-types like the Pharisees who delight in condemning others. Don’t speak evil of your brothers. That’s not how Jesus rolls and it’s not how love works.
Occasionally there may a temptation to judge those who aren’t as “righteous” or “enlightened” as us. However, we need to be careful that we don’t set ourselves up as Old Testament judges. The moment we find ourselves with stones in our hands, we’ve joined the wrong crowd. I’m not saying we turn a blind eye to sin. I’m saying the cure for sin is not a heavy rock of condemnation. Give them grace.
By the grace of God we can all teach someone about the good news of Jesus. Don’t let fear silence you, but always be ready to give a reason for the hope you have within. Thank God for good teachers, because none of us would be here without them.
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