James 3:1-2 [ESV] Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.
Last week, I concluded Part 1, the introduction, of this series with an advisory notice of sorts that James 3 will likely rough you up a bit. In other words, James does not mince words in his illustrations as to the tongue’s power and its propensity to destroy. Along those lines, I wanted to recount something I heard John MacArthur attribute to his father in a sermon many years ago.
He said, “I remember so many times my father saying to me, ‘My greatest fear in the ministry is what people might say.’ That is– and still– I’m sure, is his greatest fear; that someone might say something that isn’t true and totally destroy his ministry. And he used to say to me, ‘People can say anything. People can say anything. Pray that God protects you from the evil of people’s tongues who slander you and you can never recover the damage they do.’ The tongue is a fire. It is a devastating thing, the tongue, and must be kept under control.”1
I recount those comments here because, as you work through this series, I want you to fully grasp the potentially devastating power of your tongue. Further, I want you to consider that your tongue is not always audible in its devastation. “Well, Landon, what in the world are you talking about? If my tongue isn’t audible then it’s not speaking, and if it’s not speaking how could it possibly destroy anything?”
Two words: social media.
What you type is the expression of the tongue in print. As such, what you type, just as what you speak, is an indicator of the nature of your heart (Matt 15:18) and it has as much or more power to destroy as does the spoken word. One can utterly destroy or be destroyed by what they post or have posted against them in the realm of social media. Is not that a terrifying thought? Consider your social media interactions over the past 24 hours alone. Were your words filled with grace? Kindness? Tenderness? Seasoned with salt (Col 4:6)? Or were your words hurtful, cutting, divisive, stinging, or maybe even false (Ex 20:16)? When Dr. MacArthur’s father spoke those words to his son, he had no way of knowing how much easier it would become to destroy a person and/or their ministry through their words.
So, James 3 not only applies to the words we audibly speak, but those that manifest themselves in other ways, including through your keyboard.
Since I neglected to mention the power of our tongues manifest through our keyboards in Part 1, I wanted to address that straightaway. All that said, let me ask, have you given someone advice sometime in the past month? How about spiritual advice in the past month? For those of you that have, and those that at some point in the future will give out advice (which would be all of us) the first two verses of James 3 are terrifying! The warning James puts forward should send chills down your spine and weigh on you greatly. Verse 1, after all, isn’t directed only to Christian leaders, but to any Christian who might want to become a teacher; that includes lending advice to people in your own life.
Let’s read it again, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Notice here that James uses the word “we”. He is considering himself as a teacher in this situation. He’s not distanced himself from the points he’s making.
Words are powerful. They can hurt someone in ways we often aren’t even aware of, but, they can also heal. Proverbs 12:18 says, “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Harsh words are like sword thrusts! Again, words hurt. They hurt, right?
And what were we taught and what do we pass onto our kids as the shield of protection for hurtful words? Poems and nursery rhymes. Right? “Sticks and stones may break your bones, words will never hurt you.” I mean, who wrote that?! They must have been deaf! Of course harsh words hurt us and why is that? Proverbs 12:18, harsh words are like sword thrusts.2
How about this gem of a schoolyard rebuttal, “I’m rubber you’re glue whatever you say bounces off me and sticks to you.” Nonsense. It’s just nonsense.
This idea of the power of words is especially true for teachers which, again, is any Christian, not just pastors. In fact, all verbal activity is potentially dangerous. James’ point here is that a person who is teaching error has the potential not only to destroy themselves, but also harm those listening. We’re not only talking about hurt feelings here, we’re talking about the state of our eternity being at stake! Folks, be careful to whom you listen. Be very careful to whom you listen. Make certain those you’re listening to are adhering to the truths of Scripture.
So, James’ point to these believers is that not many should want to step into the role of teacher for a couple of reasons.
First, you’re going to be judged with a stricter judgment. Second, you might end up poisoning the very community you teach. To that end, be very careful of stepping into an area and pretending to be an expert when you’re not. Look, I’m not trying to scare you out of becoming a teacher of the Bible or from giving advice to other people. I’m simply encouraging you to make sure that the advice you give is built upon the Word of God and not just something you think.3
Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” You have to give an account for the souls of those you teach! Teaching is not something to slap together the night before. Teaching is not something to blow off until the last-minute. Teaching the word of God is serious, eternal business.
In today’s America, we tend to make heroes and idols out of anyone who gives has the perception of being a person of importance. Well, the Christian pastor or teacher in general is a natural target for that same adoration and, often times, idolization. Unfortunately, because of this reality, we have many men who promote themselves to a position of teaching authority inside Christianity who have no business being there simply because they want the prestige and popularity that comes along with the position. Too many are seeking the status of being a teacher in Christianity without the necessary moral, and maybe even intellectual, qualifications. Most tragically, it’s really to their own eternal destruction.
Like I said, be very careful of stepping into an area and pretending to be an expert when you’re not; especially when it comes to the things of God. Because when you step into those positions, you have taken upon yourself a greater responsibility; one in which you may ultimately heap stricter judgment, further destruction, on yourself. Teachers, because their ministry involves speech, the hardest part of the body to control, expose themselves to greater danger of judgment. The constant use of the tongue means they can sin very easily, leading others astray at the same time.4
In Luke 12:48 Jesus warned, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” As you grow in your knowledge of Christ and the Scriptures, it’s going to be very natural to want to step into roles of leadership and teaching based on your newly acquired knowledge. That is a good and healthy desire, to want to teach others about Christ. But, remember that God will expect a careful handling of His Word (2 Tim 2:15) and you should consult Scripture to determine your Biblical eligibility (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, 1 Peter 5:1-4) before taking on such a role.
In 2 Timothy 2:14-15, Paul writes to Timothy regarding workers approved by God, “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” We are to rightly handle the word of truth. In other words, we are to properly study and teach the Scriptures, not read into them what we want them to say, rather, professing from them what God has to say.
Paul continues in verse 16, “But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene.”
The men and women in my life can attest to the fact that, well, I’m a bit of a talker. I talk… a lot. So, something that is a daily struggle for me is as James mentioned in chapter 1 verse 19, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger;” I have to work at being quick to listen and slow to speak. I mean, like really work at it. While that may seem harmless to the world, James warns us that the more I yap my mouth, the more chance I have of heaping judgment on myself. What I’m writing in this article and what I teach at my church, if not rightly divided, also brings greater judgment on myself. I will have to answer for every word I write and speak.
That, brothers and sisters, is terrifying! But, it’s also convicting and it brings a necessary level of thoughtfulness and seriousness to what we do here at Entreating Favor and what I do each week in my local church. The more knowledge you gain, and you should aspire to gain more knowledge in the Scriptures and ways of the Lord, the more responsibility you have to live according to that knowledge; and the more danger you’re in of becoming “puffed up” or arrogant.
James isn’t trying to talk anyone who has the gifting and is called to teach out of doing so, rather he wants to impress upon us the seriousness of this calling and to warn us about entering into ministry or giving advice to others with insincere or cavalier motivations. Make certain the advice you give and the things you teach are based solely on the word of God and not just what you think.
James 3:2 goes on to say, “For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.”
We’ve already mentioned a couple of verses in Proverbs but I want to hit another one. Proverbs 18:6-7 state, “A fool’s lips walk into a fight, and his mouth invites a beating. A fool’s mouth is his ruin, and his lips are a snare to his soul.”
His mouth invites a beating! For those who are married, how many times have you popped off at the mouth and knew immediately you just invited a beating from your wife?! Right? As we all know, words can just fly out of our mouths before we even really think about them. If we’re being honest with ourselves, that has likely caused each of us problems in the past.
Our words reveal the progress of our faith. One of the primary marks of maturity is self-discipline, and self-discipline in regards to a person’s faith is rare.
It says, “For we all stumble…” Here’s something interesting about sins that come from our mouths. The very last chapter of Ecclesiastes talks about what will fail as we get older: sexual sins, sins of conquering, making ourselves mighty, etc. As we get older these things will fall away and in some cases, become physically impossible to do. However, the tongue will get sharper and more aggressive as you get older. As you become physically unable to sin through your anger, manipulation, intimidation with your physical presence; the tongue is always there and it’s always ready to go.5
When I say that words reveal the progress of our faith, I’m not saying if you control your tongue all your problems will magically disappear. What I am saying is that what comes out of your mouth reveals what’s in your heart. Luke writes in Luke 6:45, “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Your words reveal the true nature of your heart. We will all stumble in many ways, including speech, but an indication of your growing sanctification and your real, saving faith, is an increasingly tamed tongue.
Think about a time you’ve been angry and it built up inside until it eventually exploded out of your mouth, coming from your heart, and landed on someone else! If we’re honest, some of our lives are marked by words that tear down, words that attack, words that hurt.
In a recent sermon, Pastor Matt Chandler used a very good example of how we purposely try to hurt people. He asked his congregation:
How many of you in this room have purposely tried to wound another person with your words? (Raise your hand) You did it on purpose. You knew if you said it, it was going to hurt, and you knew if you said it, it was gonna crush ’em! You wanted to crush ’em! So you said it. Yeah, my hand is up too.
How about this one: sometimes some of us are too fear-of-man oriented to go that far and just crush someone. So, instead, we just refuse to enter into their celebration. So, whatever they’re excited about we just kind of take it away from them. We get all passive-aggressive…
“Bro, you see my new truck??”
“Yea man, but, honestly I’m more of a Ford guy.”
See, I’m gonna try to take your joy from you. Or how about…
“Look at those wheels!”
“You know how much it’s gonna cost to replace those? Just think it was an unwise decision, brother. Is that good stewardship?”
Boom, I take that from you. So, I’m gonna wound you but I’m too cowardly to just say I don’t like you.6
What drives your mouth is your heart. What drives you heart is your identity.
I wrote last week that this was going to be a bit rough on us. James is calling all of us out. It is very easy to be loose with our tongues, to unleash hell fire on friends and foes alike. Brethren, this is eternally dangerous. I’ll conclude today with this excerpt from a John MacArthur sermon:
…if speech is the mark of true faith, and if you go back to James 1:26 he says that, “If any man among you seems to be religious, but bridles not his tongue, he deceives his own heart, the man’s religion is useless.” A faith which does not transform the tongue is no saving faith at all. So since speech is the mark of true faith, it should be a proper measure, then, of those who articulate the faith, those who teach the faith.
Even those who teach need to take a personal inventory on their speech to see if their faith is real.
Next week, in Part 3, we’ll begin in James 3:3 by taking a look at the many illustrations he sets forth regarding how such a small member of the body can have so much control.
This series is an adaptation of a sermon delivered by Landon Chapman in March 2016. Check back next week for part 3 in the Untamable Tongue series.
- MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2014). John MacArthur Sermon Archive. Panorama City, CA: Grace to You. ↩
- Chandler, Matt. “Blessings / Curses.” The Village Church. 22 Mar. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2016. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Moo, D. J. (2000). The letter of James (p. 148). Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos. ↩
- Chandler. ↩
- Ibid. ↩