Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
This is church life not as we know it. Where we find ourselves desperately trying to persuade a fellow member that maybe they have a calling, or at least a responsibility, to fulfil a particular role or office in the congregation, here we find James warning off those who are eagerly enrolling for the next vocations conference. “Not many of you should become teachers!”
Presumably the young church has taken up the synagogue tradition of showing a particular respect to teachers. Its members recall how Jesus himself was addressed as “teacher”, and gathered crowds who hung on to his every word. It’s easy to see how keen believers, sincerely wanting to follow in his steps, persuade themselves that they too have a calling to teach – and it’s also easy to imagine that some, attracted by its prestige, aspire to the post for the wrong reasons.
James, it seems, is a teacher himself – which is just about the only thing we know about him. He knows the challenges and understands the frightening responsibilities – which today are as great as ever. Following the collapse of Sunday Schools, and in a time of general religious illiteracy, any new would-be followers of Jesus desperately need good sound teaching. The contents of our faith are not simply going to rub off on them.
The verses that follow are perhaps a little confusing, but make the point that those of us who have something to say always need to be on our guard. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing – whether in haste, or out of ignorance. With James we know that we all get things wrong: we’re none of us perfect. Usually we look for the right words to encourage people in their calling: how strange to think that a discouraging word might sometimes be better!
Teach us to say the right words that help us and help others to discern where you are leading us that we may build up the church and further your purposes of good revealed in Jesus our teacher and our friend.
The Rev’d John Durell, retired minister, member of Waddington Street, Durham