Meditations in James: 27 : The Maturity of Teachers
Jas 3:1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.
We have often commented in these meditations that it is important to note the context and catch the thought pattern of the writer. When we come to chapter three, if we are not careful it could seem as if James is jumping to a new subject, but he’s not. If you scan back over the previous chapter you’ll see again that James has been concerned to emphasise to these scattered Christians the importance of living out practically, the Christian life, a life of faith. Earlier, at the end of chapter one, he had cautioned us against letting our tongues run away with us. In the second verse of chapter three, which we’ll consider in detail tomorrow, he says, “We all stumble in many ways.” In other words James is wanting us to look at our lives to see that they conform with God’s expectations as seen in the New Testament, but at the same time realize that we all fall short and miss it sometimes.
In those days, the height of having become someone who had mastered life, was to become a teacher. A teacher wasn’t just someone who imparted information, they were considered to be those who were mature and wise and who could impart truth from a life that showed by its fruits that it had grown in self-control and wisdom. Now of course James is speaking to the church and this applies doubly so. As he has been saying for a large part of this letter so far, we are called to be those who cope with the trials of life (1:2-18), those who DO what God has said (1:19-25), those who can control their tongue (1:26,27), those who do not have wrong assessments of people (2:1-13) and those who live out their faith in real and practical ways (2:14-26). Now if you can say you’ve got on top of all these, he implies, then you can be a teacher of others, to lead them also into these things.
In fact, the way he says it comes with a warning. You really don’t want to be a teacher unless you have got it all worked out, because if you stand before others, telling them how to live, and actually haven’t done it yourself, then God is going to hold you accountable. You will be in trouble! In a sense this is just a further call to self-assessment. That is what this letter is really all about. He is saying, look I know you have been scattered into the world, and so you are having to learn to live in the world without the strength of Jerusalem upholding and encouraging you, so I want to remind you of what you have been called to and I want you to check yourselves out against that. Don’t think too highly of yourselves because, probably there aren’t many of you who will have reached such maturity in these things that you can become teachers of others.
We also have to see these things in the wider context of the whole New Testament. Jesus scolded the teachers of his day who loved being acknowledged publicly for what they were (Mt 23:7). He looks for humility in such people. That is a first thing to note. With maturity comes humility that does not seek for position. Indeed a teacher should be a servant: “Nor are you to be called `teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt 23:10-12). So a teacher is to be a mature person who does all that James has been speaking about, so that maturity will bring wisdom with humility, to act as a servant of others, not as one who lords it over others. With all these warnings against being a teacher, one might think that the New Testament teaches against becoming a teacher, but the contrary is true.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:19). His implication is that after practice comes handing it on to other people. Indeed Jesus’ closing instructions at the end of Matthew’s Gospel were to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19,20). Teaching, or imparting to others all that Jesus had taught, was to be a very real part of the life of the church.
The writer to the Hebrews expected people to mature and to become teachers: “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Heb 5:11,12). Now there is a challenge to the church where most people are happy to sit back and do little. No, says the teaching of the New Testament, the role of the leaders is to bring YOU into a place of maturity so that YOU can do the work: “It was he who gave some to be ….pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may …. become mature” (Eph 4:11,12). So James’ call is a call to self-assessment, but it is not an excuse for immaturity. Our call is to become mature and to impart the truth to others. May it be so!