James: The Tongue’s Stricter Judgment

Does a fountain send out from the same opening both fresh and bitter water?  Can a fig tree, my brethren, produce olives, or a vine produce figs?  Nor can salt water produce fresh.

James 3:11-12

Chapter 3 of James starts out with an interesting command:  “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren…” (3:1a).  Why would God inspire James to write this, considering that he also inspired the Hebrew writer to tell the first century church that they “ought to be teachers” after being in a church for a while (Heb. 5:12ff)?

God wants us to “grow up in all aspects” (Eph. 4:15).  All of us can and should become some sort of teacher of the gospel.  There are certainly many ways to teach someone else God’s truth, and not all of them require a pulpit and a classroom.  All Christians should work to grow to the point where they can share with each other at the very least “the elementary teaching about the Christ” (Heb. 6:1-2), and especially share the gospel which is God’s power to save souls with the lost in their lives (Rom. 1:16; Mk. 16:15; Matt. 28:19).

Note that he doesn’t prohibit “being” teachers.  He says that not many of his original readers should “become” teachers.  There’s a difference.  One can take on a teaching role, either public or private, before they’re ready…with disastrous consequences (cf. 1 Tim. 1:6-7).  One of those consequences is the reason James gives: “…knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (3:1b).  Some conclude the judgment will come from God.  While the Bible speaks of different degrees of sin and punishment from God (cf. John 19:11; 2 Pet. 2:20-22), it also speaks of God showing no partiality (cf. Rom. 2:11).  No, the “stricter judgment” does not come from God.

Note that he speaks of all of us “stumbl(ing) in many ways,” but then specifies, “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” (3:2).  In other words, we all sin…especially when it comes to what we say.  The small piece of metal which is a bit or rudder can steer the large horse or large ship (3:3-4).  In like manner, our tongues (what we say and how we say it) are a small part of our bodies…and they too can steer us, in many cases towards places we should not go (3:5).  James calls the tongue “a fire, the very world of iniquity…set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell” (3:6).  While we can tame any animal, we cannot tame our tongues; they are “a restless evil and full of deadly poison” (3:7-8).  James then says, “With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not to be this way” (3:9-10).

Thus the source of the stricter judgment of teachers is their brethren.  While I have been blessed by the encouragement, support, and legitimate constructive criticism coming from Christians over the years, I also join every other instructor of God’s Word – preachers, elders, deacons, etc. – in experiences in which some brethren have given us judgments which are not only stricter than that which they would give to themselves and others, but are also unfair and malicious.  The maliciousness comes from their tongues: not only the unfair and unrighteous judgments, but the sharp, unloving, impatient, and unkind way they are said.  And while James contextually applies this burden to teachers, other saints (as well as the lost) can certainly testify that they also have been the recipients of unrighteous use of the tongue from some brethren, such as gossip.

Our metaphorical fountains, fig trees, and vines must produce what is proper.  If our fruit is good, our trees (we ourselves) are good because “the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.”  Therefore we will be judged by what we say (Matt. 12:33-37) because what we say and how we say it proves the worth of our religion (James 1:26).

— Jon

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