James begins chapter 3 by stating: "Not many of you should become teachers" (3v1). Within a church, there are recognised roles, often called "offices". One of those roles was elder or teacher. The elder was recognised by the church community as having been gifted by God to teach the whole church.
James writes that not many of the believers should become teachers in the church. Why did people want that role? Perhaps they wanted to make the church more like the one they had left behind. Perhaps they didn't want the church to change with the arrival of new believers. Whatever the reason, James clearly felt he had to discourage people from taking this role.
James gives three reasons for his statement.
1) The high level of scrutiny (v1-2)
James writes that teachers will be "judged with greater strictness" (v1). He mentions being judged a couple of other times in his letter, and both times involve people making negative comments.
A teacher/elder is scrutinised because if he teaches it, he should live it! Hence James says that if you have perfect doctrine, you should have a perfect life (v2)! After all, how can you expect to persuade others if you haven't persuaded yourself?
But everyone stumbles in some way, and it will always be possible to find faults in a teacher. You'll always be able to find some way to judge or criticise a church elder.
So how does a teacher respond to that? By toughening up? Of course not! The apostle Paul writes that if you speak like an angel, but you don't have love, you're no more useful than a clanging cymbal (1 Cor.13v1)! A teacher must love the people - he must have a tender heart. If his heart is armour-plated, how can he speak the truth in love?
A teacher's heart will not be covered with armour, but with scars. Hence James writes: "Not many of you should become teachers."
2) The high level of difficulty (v3-5)
A small bit controls the direction of a horse. A small rudder directs a huge ship. In the same way, a few words can have a massive impact on a situation.
As an illustration, think of the canal in Welshpool. If you sat in a boat on one side of the canal, and someone asked you to row to the other side, you would probably be able to do it. It's not a huge distance, and a slight error in your direction won't have a big effect.
However, if you sat in a ferry at Dover, and someone asked you to direct the ferry to Calais, you would probably panic! You would know that if there's a slight error in your direction, you'll end up in completely the wrong place! The further the distance, the greater the impact if you get it slightly wrong.
It's the same with the role of teaching a church. Over the course of a lifetime, getting it slightly wrong will have a bigger and bigger affect upon the church. A small flame can cause massive damage (v5)! To avoid causing that damage, a teacher must study hard like a labourer (2 Tim 2v15).
He must learn how to handle different texts correctly. He must sacrifice time praying and meditating over the Scriptures. He must teach to help rather than harm. In Ephesians 6, the Word of God is a sword. But this sword is not to be used to hurt people, for "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood" (1 Cor. 15v50). Instead, it should be used to liberate people from untruth.
A teacher must train in spiritual swordsmanship, and the training is costly. Hence James writes: "Not many of you should become teachers."
3) The high level of responsibility (v6-12)
Our words can harm like a fire. They can affect a person's reputation, their "whole body", and words can affect someone's future, the "whole course of life" (v6). A teacher must handle his words carefully, not recklessly, and James tells us how difficult this is (v7-8). Careless words can make the teacher a hypocrite, a source of blessing and cursing (v9-12).
So consider carefully if you want the role of a teacher or elder. I remember my pastor from Bristol, Mr. Clarke, saying this about becoming an elder: "If you can do anything else, do that instead." He considered the calling to eldership was such a responsibility, you should consider every other option first.
So James writes: "Not many of you should become teachers." However, just as there is a fire that harms, so there is also a fire that heals. When the resurrected Jesus meets his followers, and helps them to understand the gospel, their response is: "Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" (Luke 24v32).
There is a fire that harms, and a fire that heals: a fire that wounds, and a fire that warms. The teacher must seek to ignite the fire that heals and warms; that only burns away the impurities; that inspires, motivates and equips the listener for ministry. It is a difficult task, and only possible with the help of God's Spirit, but it is the only fire worth kindling.
So how do we recognise who should become a teacher? We will consider that next week, as James answers the question: "Who is wise and understanding among you?" (3v13)