“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 come from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there.” (James 3.13-16)
James 3 has long been noted and employed as a caution about how we use our tongue, and it needs to be so used. As our culture distances itself from God, profanity and “corrupt communication” have become commonplace. And godly people should be aware and concerned about the pervasive influence of the spoken and written “four letter” word. Thus, God’s warnings here about the challenge of the tongue are apropos and needed. But there is a larger warning here that often goes unappreciated – a warning about a danger that is equally serious, if not more so.
In studying James 3, most will note the caution in verse one – “let not many of you become teachers.” It seems to be our tendency to quickly underscore the particular challenge of verbal control to those who use their tongue frequently, as do teachers. And that is not an unreasonable observation. But I would offer that the real concern being voiced here is not so much that teachers be guarded in their teaching, as that brethren be guarded in their ambition.
If James 3 is merely about the challenges of the tongue, then v.1 seems to unduly limit the application to a few, when the tongue is equally hard for all of us to properly control. Moreover, the comments which follow the warnings about the tongue (v.13-18) don’t seem to really fit that context. Rather, I would propose that v.13-18 continue the thought of v.1 and provide the real focus of James’ teaching.
In v.1, James directly teaches that not many disciples should become teachers. That seems an odd prohibition. Teachers are much needed in the kingdom, as Paul tells Timothy to develop teachers in Ephesus (2 Tim.2.2). In Eph.4.11f, the gifts that the Lord has given men all revolve around the teaching of God’s Word, so that we can all come “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. Paul extols the import of edification in 1 Cor.14, which results from prophesying (inspired teaching). Romans 10.8-18f underscores the fundamental need for those who preach the word, as the hearing of such is the basis of faith (v.17). And the Hebrew writer criticizes those brethren, who should have matured spiritually to the point that they “ought to be teachers” (5.12f). Clearly, God’s design demands teachers, and such an ability should be developed. So why does James say what he does?
If the context of James 3 is continued into the later verses (v.13-18), then God’s concern is not so much the teaching of the Word (and the resulting use of the tongue) as it is the attitude which drives men to teach. Jesus warned His disciples about those who loved being called “Rabbi” because they pursued the praise of men (Mt.23.5-12). In that context, He forbade His disciples from being called Rabbi or Teacher (v.8-10), not so much as a descriptive identification but as a title of esteem, exaltation, and grandeur. Thus, Jesus’ conclusion in the section is that greatness in the kingdom is measured by service and humility (v.11-12).
If we consider carefully the comments of James in v.13f, then it appears that he is offering a similar warning. The man who ought to be teaching is the man who is “wise and understanding” (v.13). The practical impact of that man’s life is a testament to “the meekness of wisdom” – a humble, selfless service that is the fruit of both knowledge and experience. In contrast is the one whose desire to be recognized as a teacher is driven by “bitter envy and self-seeking” (v.14,16). Such motives do not bring others to truth, faith, and the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. They are not “wisdom from above” which produces peace. They are not manifest in a spirit of purity, peaceableness, gentility, humility, mercy, good fruit, and sincerity (v.17). Rather, the motives of the ambitious, arrogant, prideful man are the result of the devil’s influence – “earthly, sensual, demonic” (v.15). That man in a position of influence will bring “confusion and every evil thing” (v.16). The ones in v.1 who are not to become teachers are the envious, self-seeking men of v.14f. Notice the potential impact and consequent admonitions in Jas.4.1-10f.
I have never been a part of a congregation of God’s people where there were not one or more such men. Perhaps the presence of ambitious and self-seeking men is nothing more than the “big fish in a little pond” phenomenon. After all, most disciples have more influence in a local church than they do in any other arena of life. And there will always be those who use their abilities more to bring attention, honor, and glory to themselves than to the Lord and His cause. Almost every NT warning about false teachers includes some observation about their hypocritical self-promotion. Sometimes this is a temptation among young men who want to be recognized for their talents, yet who lack the wisdom, spiritual maturity, and humility necessary to teach or lead. Sometimes this is the dark secret of those who preach, and whose work brings them recognition and repute. Self-seeking and envy have characterized, and destroyed the influence, of more than one gifted preacher. Sometimes this is manifest in elderships that are continually bickering and arguing and posturing for power, rather than seeing to the needs of individual disciples. And perhaps this is merely the result of Satan’s grip upon all people, for whom the pride of life and the appeal of greatness is simply the natural end of self interest. Whatever the cause and whoever the culprit, selfish ambition has no place among the people of God.
Oftentimes it is the tongue that exposes this mentality. “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Mt.12.34). Certainly, James warns about such. But the bigger danger – the greater threat to the work of Christ – is the ambitious desire of selfish men to occupy places of influence among God’s people. I must examine myself, and be honest about my motives. And if they are suspect, then I am the last person that needs to be teaching.