Did you notice that the surrounding context of James 3:1-12 is all about the tongue? Interesting that James approaches the subject of the tongue by giving a warning to those who hold a place of teaching. He does this because an elder’s calling is one that contains many words. The majority of an elders teaching happens through words, how careful therefore must one be who is called to such a task if the tongue is as dangerous as James says it is.
Now, it is not a great mystery that teachers have always been very prominent in the history of the Church. 1 Cor. 12:28 and Rom. 12:7 mention that teaching is one of the most prominent ministries in the Church. Eph. 4:11-12 even says that teachers are among the gifts that God has given the Church so that the Church would be built up for the work of ministry. Because God has revealed Himself to us in a book, we ought to be a people of the book, and therefore have teachers of the book. Romans 12:1-2 calls us to be living sacrifices who are being transformed by the renewing of our minds. If our being transformed is dependent on the renewing of our minds we better be eager to renew our minds and what better way to renew our minds than placing ourselves under Biblical teaching? Even more so in the first century society where there weren’t many ways for one to educationally advance oneself. Few people could actually read. What then did they do if they wanted to be transformed by the renewing of their minds? They found a teacher. It is not surprising then that the teaching office, the office of elder, within the Church became to be held with a certain authority and prestige because it was and still is sought out by so many. But I think it is precisely this reason that James begins his instruction about the tongue with teachers because many have sought and still do seek to teach for wrong reasons. Enter James who himself was an elder in the Church at Jerusalem saying here in his letter, “Not many of you should become teachers…”
To reinforce this warning James not only warns that not many should become teachers, he adds another warning too – “…for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” The Greek word for greater here can also be translated as “intense”, “vehement”, while the Greek word for “strictness” here can also be translated as “severity” or “condemnation.” So we can read this verse as teachers will be judged with an intense severity, or a vehement condemnation. This is a serious warning. Clearly James cannot mean that teachers will receive a more severe penalty or condemnation than other Christians because Romans 8:1 says there is therefore now no condemnation for those that are in Christ, Christian teachers included. If it were the case that teachers received a more severe condemnation than other Christians who would ever want to become teachers?
Rather we should understand James to be saying that because of the importance of teaching correct Biblical doctrine to others, teachers in general are held to closer scrutiny because it is the elder that works with the Word, so much with the Word, that we ought to know the Word like the back of our hand. How great an atrocity is it than when an elder sins and falls out of line when he houses within him such a storehouse of Biblical truth. James 3:1 calls out the teacher, and challenges us to faithfully ensure that what we teach is Biblical.
This is an awesome responsibility in every respect of the word.
Paul was very much aware of this responsibility. As he said farewell to the elders of the Ephesian church, he said something that a teacher yearns to say at the end of their ministry. In Acts 20:26-27 Paul said, “I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” How could Paul say he was innocent of the blood of all of them? Because rather than holding back parts of the Word that are hard, deep, or challenging, Paul had faithfully taught the whole counsel of God to God’s people. As an elder he discharged his ministry well. This is the elder’s calling.