James begins this third chapter warning that not everyone should be teachers of the Word of God as they are held to a higher standard and accountable to God for what they teach. I have always been of the opinion (because I was taught this) that this chapter of James was speaking about foul language in general. And while foul language should not be part of the Christian’s vocabulary since we are ambassadors for Christ, I now believe James was talking about something entirely different.
Standard Jewish doctrine is that everyone sins and one of the most destructive devices to cause one to sin was the human tongue. Jewish sages warned against teaching error and that those who taught false doctrine would be judged more harshly. During James’ day, to be a Rabbi with followers was to gain a certain amount of prestige and James was addressing those who sought that prestige. Like celebrity preachers today, they were operating from wrong motives and were risking the spiritual welfare of those listening to them. Faith, works and controlling our tongues are crucial to a faith that works.
In Greek, the word for “curse” is Katara and it means speech that is hostile or damning to others. Psalm 52:1-4 expresses the evil and damaging effects of the tongue quite well:
Why do you boast in evil, O mighty man? The goodness of God endures continually. Your tongue devises destruction. Like a sharp razor, working deceitfully. You love evil more than good, lying rather than speaking righteousness (Selah). You love all devouring words, you deceitful tongue.
You can see why James warned some against teaching the Word of God, especially if they couldn’t control their tongues. The tongue loves “all devouring words.” Out of it come lies, boasting, pride, hate, anger, vulgar speech, etc. Our speech has the potential to do good or to do harm. When Christians use vulgar language in anger or out of habit, they show they have no respect for God or His creation. They may believe in Jesus as their Saviour, but their actions are not working in conjunction with their faith. As we grow in grace and love our tongues will bless others, encourage them and build them up, rather than tearing them down and cursing them.
But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our God and Father, and with it, we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so (James 3:8-10, NKJV).
James finishes this chapter right where he started, by addressing those who sought to teach.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above but is earthly, sensual, demonic (James 3:13-15, NKJV).
During James’ day to be a teacher came with the title of Rabbi and it meant you had followers, prestige and honour. James was asking them to check their motives, and the same applies to those who teach and preach today. Anyone who preaches/teaches the Word of God to gain money, titles or influence will be judged more strictly by God in the end, for their motives are not pure. For example, those who teach false doctrines like the prosperity gospel are self-seeking and not teaching the truth. They are twisting God’s Word for their gain. Their motives are not pure. But, James says the wisdom from above is first “pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and hypocrisy.”
Notice that wisdom from above is “willing to yield.” This means those who teach God’s Word are open to instruction themselves and not pushing their agendas. During James’ day that wasn’t necessarily the case. And so he was trying to get them to examine their hearts to see if they were pure.
Remember the parable Jesus told of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the Temple to pray? Jesus stressed that the Pharisee trusted in his own righteousness and despised others. When celebrity preachers or even our own pastors do not submit to instruction, advice or guidance from their peers or fellow Christians, they are not serving with humility and are in danger of falling into sin.
Faith that works involves humbly submitting to the Holy Spirit and living out the Word of God daily.