Don’t Presume to be a Teacher – James 3:1
While attending a small group Bible study a number of years ago, I became concerned when one of the participants started defending an interpretation of a passage that I knew was very different than the writer’s original intent. I don’t recall what the specific verse was or what he was saying about it at the time. But I noted that several in the group seemed to be persuaded by his arguments even though the content of what he was sharing may have been biblically weak, perhaps because of the skill in which he articulated his viewpoint. After the study I cautioned my friend that he needed to be careful about what he shared as others could be influenced by what he said. I then quoted this verse to support my advice to him:
“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly (James 3:1, NIV).”
My friend responded by saying that since this verse is addressing only those who are in an official position of a pastor or teacher and that he was neither, it didn’t apply to him. Our pastor seemed to support my friend’s conclusion regarding this passage when his sermon some time later focused on this same passage and the pastor said, “Since most of you aren’t teachers, I guess this verse has little to do with you.”
This may be too limiting.
I think that my friend’s understanding of this verse as well as my pastor’s, that it applies only to those who feel called to teach or are in an official position of a pastor or teacher, is too limiting. I believe that this verse is actually addressing anyone who presumes to teach in any fashion, and it seems that there are a lot of situations where we do this without being in the actual position of a teacher.
One of those situations is in parenting. Consider for example these verses:
“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road when you lie down and when you get up (Deut. 11:18,19).”
In this passage, God is commanding parents to make the spiritual nurturing of their children a full-time profession. Parents do this first by embracing God’s Word in their own hearts and minds and then by teaching it through their lives and their words. Parents may not feel called to be teachers in this context but God says that they are.
Parents are not the only ones called to teach. Jesus said that all Christians are supposed to be teachers. An example of this is found in the instructions Jesus gave His disciples prior to His ascension to heaven:
”All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matt. 28:18-20).”
This command is part of what some call, “The Great Commission.” God is asking all those who have made a commitment to Jesus to teach others the importance of obeying Him. Being a teacher in this respect is not an option. It’s an obligation.
A similar sentiment is found in this verse:
“Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food (Hebrews 5:12).”
I believe that the writer of Hebrews was voicing in this verse his disappointment that some Christians had not matured enough spiritually to become the teachers God wanted them to be. The implication of this verse is that all Christians are called to teach what God says is true. The Christians the writer was addressing were apparently faltering in this role, perhaps because they themselves didn’t understand what is true from God’s perspective.
It ignores the context of the passage.
Pointing out areas where we are all called to be teachers doesn’t explain the full implications of James 3:1, however. The stumbling block in understanding this verse may be the phrase, “Not many of you should presume to be teachers.” Expanding the application of this verse to include situations where we are commanded to teach doesn’t address circumstances where we aren’t commanded to teach but are presuming to do so anyway. It also ignores the content of the next eleven verses which have little to do with teaching in general but instead are noting the effect of our words. Here are those verses:
2 We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep their whole body in check.
3 When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. 4 Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. 5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? 12 My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.
The focus of James 3:2-12 is on the danger of not weighing our words carefully and how harmful what we say can be to ourselves as well as to others. It’s warning about the damage that can be caused by a tongue that is out of control.
The effects of an uncontrolled tongue include the following:
- It can reveal an area of life the speaker is stumbling in themselves, a part of their lives they are not able to keep under control.
- Just like a rudder on a ship, it can affect the direction a person takes, whether that be for better or for worse.
- Just like a forest fire that is started by small spark, it (an uncontrolled tongue) , though being very small, can cause great damage.
- It reveals what is in one’s heart, and some of what is found there is not good.
It seems to me that all of James 3:1-12 including the first verse is addressing those who don’t weigh their words carefully and who tend to say what they want and to speak their minds without considering the consequences. It’s warning those who think they are off the hook because they aren’t in the official role of a pastor or teacher that they won’t get a “Get out of jail free” card if they speak rashly and what they say harms others or leads someone astray.
Be careful about every word you utter.
I believe that we presume to be a teacher anytime we share an opinion and that opinion has the potential of influencing someone else’s thinking or to affect their actions. And I cannot think of very many times when what we say cannot have an effect on someone else Nothing we say can truly be considered trivial or inconsequential. Nearly all our words can affect what people think, can alter how others act, and can change what people feel about themselves, about others, and about God.
It seems to me that this verse is saying that we need to be careful about every word we utter and that we won’t get off the hook or get a free pass simply because we’re not in the official role of a teacher or a pastor.
That’s my understanding of this passage, at least as I see it today.