Here’s a little thought experiment to try. Complete this sentence: “I once had a teacher who…” What kind of story came to mind? Was it a positive story of a competent and caring teacher who went above and beyond the call of duty? Or was it a negative one about someone who probably never should have become a teacher in the first place?
Some of us were blessed to have good teachers who cared about their students and even instilled in them a love for the subject at hand. We remember them fondly and may even stay in touch. But we may also have had teachers who didn’t seem to know what they were talking about, or worse, didn’t know how to relate to students. They either couldn’t control the classroom or tried to rule through intimidation.
In theory, teachers are in charge. They have what’s called “positional power” over their students. But that doesn’t count for much if they can’t manage the relationships. And when push comes to shove (hopefully, not literally) they may try to wield their positional power like Peter flailing away with a sword in Gethsemane.
It’s not pretty. But unfortunately, it can be memorable.
As the apostle James writes:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will face stricter judgment. (James 3:1, NRSVUE)
When he says “teachers,” of course, he’s not talking about the modern educational enterprise of curricula and classrooms, diplomas and degrees. James writes in the context of a world in which people were valued for their oratorical skill; the greatest orators were the movie stars of the day. These were people who used their skill with words to make a living and gain status and influence.
This can be true of what we would call “teachers” of all stripes, including pastors and professors who influence people with their rhetorical gifts. But if James were writing today, I suspect that he would also include pundits and politicians, as well as the so-called “influencers” of social media. His larger point, which we’ll see as the chapter progresses, is about the power of words to do good or wreak havoc — and he could not have imagined the kind of global platforms now available to virtually anyone, anywhere.
In the world of the early church, of course, there was always the problem of false teachers. Think of the ministry of Paul, trying to help manage numerous church plants where people keep showing up in his absence, teaching false doctrine, and trying to gain a following by undermining Paul. This may be the kind of thing James is trying to address in the background, especially when he refers to “stricter judgment”; teachers who lead the people astray will have to answer to God!
But again, James’ point, grounded in his earlier insistence that true faith must show itself in right conduct, is that we must humbly and soberly recognize the power of words. Don’t naively aspire to the status of “teacher,” he warns. Even if your motivation is to do good, think twice before aspiring to be an influencer. When you put yourself out there, your words will have an impact on people’s lives — not always for the better. And God will hold you accountable.
Why the warning? Because none of us is above saying stupid and hurtful things. James will have much more to say about that in the coming verses.