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Epistle of James 3: 1-12 (NIV)
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. 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.
James warns that those who teach will be judged more strictly (verse 1). He was not referring here to judgement by other human beings. His warning is that teachers have a unique responsibility to teach accurately the word of God and, in interpreting Holy Scripture, to be faithful to God’s purposes. If teachers abuse or misuse their responsibilities, God will be their judge.
Who would not agree that “we all stumble in many ways” (verse 2a)? The epistle’s reference to stumbling, to the “making of mistakes” (NRSV) focuses on the making of mistakes in what we say and, specifically, in what we teach. Verse 2 demonstrates this in pointing to anyone “who is never at fault in what they say”.
No human being is perfect. None is able to speak only God’s truth and to do it mercifully or compassionately. When the rich young man asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied: “No one is good – except God alone” (Mark 10: 18). Only Jesus, God the Son, is perfect. So James’ warning that we are to “speak and act as those who are going to be judged” (James 2: 12) should cause us to think carefully before speaking and particularly before teaching.
Who has not regretted words hastily spoken? Who has not regretted situations when we should have spoken up but remained silent? James observed: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (verse 9). Who is not guilty of this very thing? James’ assertion, “my brothers and sisters, this should not be” (verse 10), states the obvious!
Let us resolve to invite the Holy Spirit to be the guardian of our tongues and, specifically for those who teach, the guardian of our teaching.