James is masterful in his ability to communicate to his first century reader. He will use a form of argumentation common for his time both in the Jewish culture and in the Greek culture. In addition and as we have already seen, he will weave into this rich cultural tapestry the word of God from the Old Testament. “The picture of James that emerges is of a reasonably well-educated Jew who knows his Old Testament and who is well acquainted with Hellenistic-Jewish culture, language and literature” (Moo 119). James has already touched on the words we speak: in 1.19 he exhorts his brothers to be “slow to speak” and in verse 26 an aspect of pure and faultless religion is bridling the tongue. Some even suggest that chapter 3 is a continuation of faith and works with the works being the words the Christian speaks. A Christian’s speech is a major indicator of their maturity. So we see the importance of the tongue.
James 3.1-2 (ESV)
1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
2 For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.
Teacher was a favorite expression used to address Jesus in the gospels (cf. Matt 22.36; Mark 9.17; Luke 7.40; John John 1.38). As we reconstruct the first century church from what we read in the New Testament, it is evident that many participated in the worship service. From this situation, one can infer that many of those participating during worship sought to put themselves forward as teachers. “’Teachers’ does not mean ‘elders’ in the pastoral office; it refers to members who arise in the meetings in order to instruct their fellow members” (Lenski 599). Some suggest that quite possibly there were selfish purposes and some of the brethren sought prominence, position, and power (see Diotrphes, 3 John 9). Others suggest that perhaps they just wanted to be like the Lord who was known as Teacher. Still others suggest that this is a carry-over from the Jewish culture with their rabbis (these Christians still met in synagogue, 2.2). Whatever the case, there apparently were those who were abusing this role in the church. James has to exhort his brothers (term of endearment) concerning the nature of teaching.
Strictness in Condemnation (v.1). James says that these Christians should stop becoming teachers. The force of the command is shocking. “There is thus a clear complaint that too many of the Jewish Christians were attempting to teach what they did not clearly comprehend” (Robertson). As will be seen in the verses to come, wisdom is needed in teaching (v.12). So this is a call for wise teachers, not for foolish ones. Not everyone is mature and has wisdom. Hence, not everyone should become a teacher. Nevertheless, those who are wise among the brethren should teach. James includes himself in this group (“we”). But every Christian should know the sobriety that goes with this role in the church.
Apparently there were several in the church who were assuming the role of teacher too hastily and so James reminds his brothers of a truth they already know (Gk oida). The teacher “will receive the greater judgment.” This is one reason why not everyone should assume this role. There are eschatological implications. When incompetent teachers assume this mantle and disseminate their folly to the rest of the church disaster awaits. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4.6). “Many wish to be teachers who have more need to learn” (Clarke). Paul identifies this same principle: not everyone has the same gift. In fact, among several other rhetorical questions, Paul asks, “Are all teachers?” (1 Cor 12.29) The expected answer is “no.” Not everyone is a teacher and the reality is that while every member is a gifted person, not everyone has the gift of teaching. Those few who have the gift should not be dissuaded by James; rather, they should all the more use their gift since they are so few.
Stumbling in Communication (v.2). Scripture regularly compares the Christian life to a walk (Eph 4.1; 5.2; 1 John 1.7). To walk closely with God and make it your habitual practice to do what is right is to walk uprightly. When we fail to do what is right (sin), we stumble in our walk. Some even fall and refuse to get up or walk in a completely different (wrong) direction. The word James uses (Gk ptaio) captures the idea of the Christian who sins – he is said to stumble. And James recognizes the frailty of our human condition and even includes himself in this struggle: “We all stumble in many ways.” Contrary to come translations (RSV), this is not addressing how profusely one may sin but the variety of avenues in which we fail. James then gets specific that it is the mouth which he has in mind and the things we say.
This verse is explanatory of the first verse (postpositive gar). James is saying let me tell you why there is stricter judgment for the teacher. The reason is because the mouth or tongue is so difficult to govern and control. In fact, if a man can so guard his mouth that he does not stumble (sin) in what he says (Gk en logo, lit. in word), James says that man is a perfect (or mature) man who can govern not only his mouth but his whole body. The teacher uses his mouth constantly to communicate the word and will of God. This is a grave and sober experience which is not intended to be diminished or taken lightly. In short, not everyone should assume this mantle. Is there a sense in which all Christians are teachers? Certainly. But that is not what is in view here with James.