The teaching profession has always received mixed reviews. Teachers are universally revered. At the same time young people are advised not to become teachers because the salaries are low. Some even denigrate teachers with “truisms”: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” This same ambivalence is found in the religious world. Seminary professors and college professors of religion are often paid ridiculously low salaries and are sometimes ridiculed by their students as being “unable to pastor a church.”
James seems to share this ambivalence about teachers, but for a different reason. He says that most folks in the church should avoid teaching because religious teachers will be held to a higher standard by God. James admires teachers who are careful about everything they say and warns those teachers who cannot control their tongues. This inability to control one’s tongue, he implies, is the Achilles heel for teachers.
Teachers who misspeak became a problem in the first century because of the democratic approach of local congregations. The use of ecstatic utterances in worship services in Corinth led Paul to give strict instructions about what kind of speech was appropriate in that context (see 1 Corinthians 14:20-33). James is quick to admit that all Christians commit sins of the tongue. It’s an assertion that hardly ever receives any argument. James could say with Isaiah the prophet, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Nevertheless, James gives several warnings against allowing one’s tongue to go unregulated. He likens an unbridled tongue to a ship without a rudder, or a fire that is out of control.
There is one seeming contradiction in his diatribe against an unbridled tongue. James says that “no one can tame the tongue” (v. 8), but seems to suggest that there are some areas where one can control one’s tongue. Blessing and cursing should not come from the same mouth, he says in verse 10.
But if misspeaking is a sin into which we all fall, why does James single out teachers? He seems to believe that teachers are especially vulnerable to sins of the tongue. After all, teachers use words more frequently than do most folks. Their vocation requires them to speak. Also, teachers bear a greater burden in this area since students hang on their every word. Teachers influence their students by their words and, as a result, God will hold them accountable for what they have taught. For ministers and for laypeople who teach in the church, this can be discouraging.
To add to this warning, James says that our words are spiritual indicators. The words that we use indicate what is in our hearts. If our words are not spiritual, then neither are we. This does not mean that James is advocating for a spiritualist vocabulary. On the contrary, he wants our words to be judged by their sincerity. This concept is often ignored in conversations among Christians. In an attempt to “be spiritual” Christians are tempted to use religious language as a means to impress others. This is the very thing James warns against.
This kind of warning resounds throughout the book of James. He is worried that Christians will say all the right things, but fail to do the right things. He argues with those who talk about faith, but fail to emphasize deeds. For James the proof of one’s spirituality is not what you say, but what you do. So, this warning about what you say is important. It is a reminder that words are deeds in the sense that they can help or hurt the person who speaks them and the person who hears them.
One might be tempted to become mute in light of James’s warning concerning the dangers of sinful speech. However, that is not what he recommends. He encourages not silence, but the wise use of words. James acknowledges that words can be hurtful and that they can injure at a distance. But he insists that words can be used for good or for evil. The key is in learning how to control our tongues. This means learning to think before we speak. It also means choosing words that do not offend or label. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it important? It obviously is.