Summary of the Text
No matter how much we might wish it weren’t the case, the perception others have of us is directly connected to the words (and actions) we use throughout our lives. Most of us go through our lives using words without even thinking about it. Whether it be gossip, conversations with our neighbors, or, dare I say it, social media, we rarely carry the kind of intentionality that James seems to be advising leaders in the church to take when it comes to the word.
Our passage this week is relatively straightforward and continues James’ major theme of “pure religion” (Ja 1:27) that followers of Christ are to strive for in their lives. At its core, it is about the dangers of our words, with special attention given to those who are in leadership roles.
At the outset, an important question must be answered? Is this message just for leaders/teachers/pastors. The answer, I believe, is “yes” and “no.” James is clearly speaking to those in the church who have been called to teach and have a central place in the life of the church. Those who have been called ought to take very seriously how their office shapes those around them, and whether their words (and actions) match the message they proclaim.
If they preach one thing, but do another, the inherent hypocrisy can lead to disastrous effects in the life of the church. Our actions ought to flow from our beliefs, and when they don’t, the result is often to question the value of either the belief system or the individual. Of course, this has to be counterbalanced with the foundation of our faith: grace in Jesus Christ—the one who makes us holy not by our works but by His work on the cross. Nevertheless, as teachers/leaders, if our actions don’t point to the transforming work of Jesus in our lives, then serious reflection should be considered. But getting back to the application of this text, there is a sense in which we all need to acknowledge the weight and importance of our words.
And we find this answer interestingly enough in modern leadership studies. Leadership teacher John Maxwell argues that “leadership is influence-nothing more, nothing less.” If that is true, everyone who has an influence over another person’s life is a leader.
Everyone is a leader. Leadership is influence-who do you have influence over? This would be a great question to ask in the sermon. It may just get your listeners to begin answering the question in their own lives.
And just as importantly, how do our words shape those with whom we influence? Do we choose words that cut others down, that fester insecurity, or do we choose words that encourage, that build others up? The truth is, the words we use say much more about the state of our hearts than they do the ones to whom we are speaking. If I (Stu) say something sarcastic or biting to one of my children, it’s usually because something is off in my heart, not in them. That of course reflects outwardly in all my relationships. What words do I choose for those I want to influence, or those I don’t? Do I approach each person with humility, care, and empathy? Or do my words change significantly based on what the other person can do for me?
These are important questions to ask, and perhaps could be asked in the sermon itself.
You may notice that so far in this guide, I have used “teacher” and “leader” interchangeably, and the reason for that is based on the original context.
When James says to his readers in verse 1, “not many of you should become teachers” (NIV), an important question might be to ask, what exactly does James mean by “teachers?” When most of us think about teachers, our minds harken back to our grade-school days, but as we consider this for just a moment, that is definitely not what James is talking about. As Doug Moo articulates in his commentary on James, the author probably has in mind something akin to a rabbi (remember, the closest translation of rabbi is “teacher”). Someone who not only conveys information but has a religious and moral influence over a community of faith. There would be significant social status inherent in such a position, and anyone who is called to such a path ought to carefully consider why they desire to proclaim the gospel. This may be a bit different these days.
Many bemoan the collapse of christendom and its related benefits: instant social and religious status in a given community. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is no longer the case in most western contexts, although of course that is not the case in other areas of the world.
Nevertheless, while a teacher of God’s Word may not have the same level of influence on society as they used to (in the West at least), they continue to have a significant influence within the communities in which they preach, teach, and live. In this way, they are perhaps more similar to early church leaders than to their colleagues from recent generations. These early church leaders would have had little to no outside authority, but significant authority within their churches. When considering our motivations for church leadership, passages like Jeremiah 17 can be helpful, “the heart is deceitful above all things.” In other words, we never fully understand our motivations and often mistake self-glory or self-salvation projects for altruism. Of course, we will never be fully altruistic, but bringing a sober-minded approach to both our desire to preach/teach and others is a healthy process. A question we might ask of ourselves and our communities might be, “Have I ever asked why someone wanted to become a pastor? Lead a Bible Study? Join the elder board? Is there a healthy self-awareness in the person, or do they simply charge ahead? These questions reveal just how helpful James’ advice can be to the church, 2,000+ years after it was written.
And where exactly does the immature leader go wrong? “We all stumble in many ways,” James tells us in verse 2, “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect.” In other words, you have to be perfect not to sin with your words. Our tongues tend to be the first place we stumble, and while some people may struggle with one sin and others with another, all people (minus our Lord) sin with their words. Doug Moo describes just how dangerous is the tongue to our spiritual health: “So difficult is the mouth to control, so given is it to utter the false, the biting, the slanderous word, so prone to stay open when it were more profitably closed, that the person who has it in control surely has the ability to conquer other, less unruly, members of the body.” (might want to add the illustration about monks fighting here)
In order to demonstrate this, James uses a number of illustrations, drawn interestingly enough from the Hellenestic world. Each analogy articulates the principle that while it is such a small part of the body, the tongue has the ability to lead the entire body astray. Just as a bit in a horse’s mouth will lead it one direction over another, so the tongue leads the body in one direction, either towards life… or death Proverbs 18:21).
James compares the tongue to a fire, which begins small, but can become a life-consuming conflagration. Just as a fire starts in one small place and expands quickly and without warning, so too does the evil that begins with the tongue and spreads to the rest of the body. James describes it as “a world of evil among the parts of the body.” (vs.6) While perhaps a bit simple the children’s game “telephone” provides a helpful reminder of what can happen when gossip is spread from person to person. The kernel of truth is quickly distorted and the message is out there regardless of the truth of the matter. When I (Stu) preached this text, it happened to be in a part of the U.S. that had regularly experienced significant and devastating wildfires. If that is the case where you live, you have a built-in illustration of the same devastating power the tongue has.
Next James takes a moment to contrast the discontinuity that happens when a follower of Jesus uses the tongue to curse others. The two simply should not go together. James gives us this image of a freshwater spring, how could salt water come from it? How can we whose identity is in Christ produce such foul actions? James says it shouldn’t be possible, just as a freshwater spring cannot produce salt water, or a fig tree produces olives.
To live in Christ, to practice the “pure religion” of Jesus’ gospel means we take our words seriously, dead seriously, as James is willing to put it.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
One who undertakes to lead others in the faith must be careful that his own life reflects what he is teaching.
Tyandale Comentary: James, Tyndale Press,
St. Francis of Assisi
It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.
Leaving the Right Words Behind
I am not a mountain climber, but a few years ago I had the idea that I might want to climb seriously, so I started to read and to train. I’ve climbed a few glacier-covered mountains in the northwestern United States with professionals. One of the things that you learn from professional climbers is the discipline of packing well.
Tools are helpful when you climb. Your sleeping bag provides warmth, your lantern provides light, and your gloves provide protection. Lose your footing and your ax can save your life. Every tool has a purpose, and almost any tool can be helpful. Every tool also has weight. Standing at sea level, an ax in your hand feels like a feather.
At twelve thousand feet, hours from the summit, an extra pound in your pack feels like an anvil. In the same way, words have value. The right words can right your balance. The right words can light your way. But words also have weight. In our life and work, we have to carry what is essential, and leave much of the rest behind.
Eric Greitens, Resilience: Hard-Won Wisdom for Living a Better Life, HMH Books, 2015, pp. 12-13.