I’ve often been intrigued by James 3:1. Here is a rather literal translation of the verse from the New King James version:
My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (Jas 3:1 NKJV)
The question that intrigues me is this: who are the ‘we’ who shall receive a stricter judgment? The ESV and NIV both add an interpretative phrase “we who teach”. This resolves the ambiguity; it assumes that God will judge Christian teachers (e.g. James) more strictly than non-teachers (such as the majority of James’ readers). This isn’t an unreasonable assumption, given that James is clearly speaking about teachers in the first half of the verse. However, it is still an assumption. The words “who teach” are not in the original text. The NKJV (and some other translations) follow the original more closely by simply stating that “we shall receive a stricter judgment”. I want to suggest that the ESV and NIV are wrong in adding the words “who teach”, and that the ‘we’ who will receive stricter (or literally, a ‘greater’) judgment are not teachers, but Christians in general.
The first reason is the immediate context. In verse 2, James gives the reason for verse 1: “For we all stumble in many things”. He then goes on to speak about the dangers of speaking, seemingly for all Christians.
The second reason is that every time James speaks about ‘we’ or ‘us’ or ‘our’ in his letter (1:18, 2:1, 2:21, 4:5, 5:11, 5:17), he seems to be including all his readers. So it’s less likely that ‘we’ in 3:1 refers to some group other than his readers.
And the third reason comes from a brief survey of what James teaches about judgment in the rest of his letter:
[H]ave you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? (Jas 2:4)
So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (Jas 2:12-13)
Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one Lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy. Who are you to judge another? (Jas 4:11-12)
Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! (Jas 5:9)
But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath. But let your “Yes,” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No,” lest you fall into judgment. (Jas 5:12)
There is a pattern that quickly emerges from this brief survey: almost every reference to judgment in the book of James teaches us that God will hold all Christians accountable for the way we speak. In the gospel, we have been given new birth into God’s pure and perfect will (cf. James 1:18-20). This gospel word is a message of mercy and forgiveness. But it also gives us a greater standard for behaviour. Gospel living is not just about external obedience to the law, but about honouring God’s word in every area of life. And this is particularly shown in the way we speak. We must speak with mercy, as those who have been shown mercy. The gospel reveals that God cares deeply about the way we speak to one another.
It seems that James is echoing the teaching of Jesus, such as we find in Matthew 5:21-22:
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matt 5:21-22)
Doubtless you can think of a number of other sayings of Jesus that teach that our speech is very important to God.
In this way, the gospel gives us a far greater standard for behaviour than a Pharisaic interpretation, for example, that emphasizes external obedience. Forgiveness and mercy are central to God’s word in Jesus, and the flipside of this is that we must now speak and treat others with forgiveness and mercy. And God will hold us accountable to this greater standard.
So when James says that ‘we’ shall receive stricter judgment, he is not simply saying that teachers will be judged more strictly than non-teachers; he is saying that Christians will be held to account for the way we respond to the standard of behaviour revealed in the gospel—which involves our speech and our attitudes, and which is far deeper than even the standard of beheaviour required by external conformity to the law of Moses.
This explains why the passage immediately following James 3:1 is about the awesome and often destructive power of the tongue, rather than instructions to teachers specifically.
The upshot of all this is that the application of James 3:1 is wider than is often assumed. It’s not only a verse with application to Christian teachers, or those considering taking on such a role. Certainly, the first half of the verse contains a word to potential teachers. But why, according to James, shouldn’t many of us become teachers? Not because teachers will be judged more strictly than non-teachers, but because, through the gospel, all Christians have a far greater standard of behaviour than just external conformity to the law: we will all be called to account for every little word that we speak. Teachers have greater opportunity to speak, and greater power to influence others for good or evil when they do speak, and so it is a huge responsibility that must be considered with great care. However, this doesn’t let ‘non-teachers’ off the hook: all of us will be held to account for the way we speak to one another, and for the way that we have allowed the gospel of mercy to influence our attitude to others.