an image of the first page of the letter to James in the Bible

An Overview of James Chapter 3: Maturity in Speech

In his letter, James covers ways we can mature as Christians. The first two chapters cover growth through trials by knowledge of God’s word, by putting that knowledge into action, and by letting go of worldly prejudices. Chapter 3 adds another layer to our Christian maturity by talking about how we use our words in how we teach and in how we generally speak to or about others. The quality and contents of our speech reveals how much we have let godly wisdom truly mature in us.

I’m working from the Christian Standard Bible.

Verses 1–2: A Warning to Teachers

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body.

James 3:1–2

Between his warnings against prejudice and about speech, James sandwiches a small admonition that we should be cautious about teaching. We understand from passages like Matthew 28:19–20 that we are all called to teach. Sharing the gospel is part of how we show love to the world. Here, I believe James is talking about those who take this role on more formally. These days we might call them preachers or ministers — those people who make a profession of teaching God’s word and, in turn, receive respect and a certain amount of authority based on their position.

James says to be cautious about taking on that role, for we all have faults that can undermine the message. In the previous chapter, James talked about the way prejudice can undermine God’s message, and he’s about to launch into an exploration of the way we use our words. In the formal role of teacher, both of these will be tested often. Maturity is a key quality for those who would be the face of the gospel.

Verses 3–12: The Power of the Tongue

Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

James 3:3–6

James minces no words when he describes the power of the tongue. Nothing else has destroyed marriages, ruined friendships, and launched wars like the tongue. Yet it is also capable of great good. As powerful as the tongue can be to produce harm, we must also realize that the opposite is true. Through it we can accomplish great good. We must be mindful of Christ’s words in Matthew 15:18: “But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart…”

Today, we could also say that what comes out of our keyboards comes from the heart. I’ve known Christians who would be perfectly kind and respectful to my face but would only interact with me online to insult and attack me. This is not how we are supposed to behave. When we let online anonymity lull us into a sense of safety to the point where we become harsh and abusive with what we post, then we have let our words become a raging fire and a world of unrighteousness. We should hold our online interactions to every bit as a high standard as we do our spoken conversations.

We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?

James 3:9–11

We need to understand that the way we use our words with each other affects the nature of our praise to God. God no more accepts words of love and devotion from a mouth full of insults and hatred than we would accept drinking water from a polluted spring.

Verses 13–18: Living True Wisdom

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.

James 3:17–18

James uses wisdom as a segue between his thoughts on our words and teachings about humility in chapter 4. Are you mature in your wisdom? Then it will show in your conduct, your gentleness, and your mercy. These qualities will be evidenced by your lack of prejudice, by how you use your speech, and in the humility you show toward others and God. Make no mistake: an uncontrolled tongues is a sign of foolishness in God’s eyes.

In any given situation, are our words gentle? Are they full of mercy? Do they resist prejudice? Do they encourage peace? If they do, then our words reveal a heart full of our Savior’s goodness.

Miscellaneous Thoughts and Conclusion

  • I acknowledge that Jesus, Paul, and Peter did, on occasion, use strong words. However, a handful of isolated events over the course of multi-year ministries do not give us an excuse to ignore passages like this and delve into abusive language on a regular basis.
  • One of the best ways we can prevent ourselves from trying to praise God with an unclean mouth is to simply stop listening to others who act this way. I’m not talking about movies with bad language here; I’m talking about radio, television, and online personalities who frequently devolve into yelling messages of hatred and anger. Their bad company can corrupt your good intentions.

James 4 will speak about maturity in the context of humility.

hands visible above a wooden table as two people are engaged in a discussion

Teaching in Love

Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body. Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.

Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.

James 3:1–10

We teach because we love other people, but it’s also important that we approach our teaching in a loving way. James 3 offers a warning about our teaching — that it matters howwe speak to and about other people. This is an increasingly challenging topic in our modern culture. Our ability to instruct and discuss things in a civil and kind way is steadily deteriorating. As ambassadors of God’s word, we cannot blind ourselves to the way this kind of discourse influences us, and we have to be self-reflective about the way we talk about our faith and beliefs with others.

Am I Teaching or Arguing?

The first thing we need to think about is whether we are discussing God’s word or arguing about it. The easiest way to do this is to look at our own motivations: Am I trying to win, or am I trying to help someone on their journey? If it’s the latter, then we will watch what we say and how we say it. That’s being loving toward that person. On the other hand, if I just want to win, then I’ll treat the other person however it takes for them to back down and let me feel validated. If I’m in a discussion for myself — even if it’s about spiritual topics — then I’m not teaching in love.

This was one of the challenges the Pharisees had in the First Century. Matthew 16:1, Matthew 22:15, Matthew 22:23, Mark 8:11, Mark 10:2 — these are just a sampling of passages where religious leaders come to Jesus to antagonize, argue, or try to paint Jesus into a corner. Those who should have been the most intimate with God’s word used it as a weapon instead of a tool, sought technicalities instead of truth. This is what it looks like to argue instead of teach. If love is our motivator, then we’ll take the sword out of our words and humbly lean on the sword of truth.

Seasoning Our Words

Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.

Colossians 4:5–6

Theres’s a whole article at The Atlantic about how Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhoodfame) was incredibly intentional about how he used language with children. We should be so thoughtful about the words we use to teach or correct others. Galatians 6:1 and 2 Timothy 2:25 both emphasize the importance of gentleness in correcting one another. It’s when we believe that someone else is wrong that we let our guard down and become verbally harsh. We don’t have to be defensive to defend the truth.

That’s not to say there is never a place for a sharp rebuke, but the overwhelming message of Jesus and His apostles is that when we teach, we should do so with an attitude of gentleness, humility, and love.

But What About That One Time?

There are indeed times where we find Christ and His apostles using stronger words to correct or rebuke. Galatians 2:11 – 14 contains a record of Paul publicly rebuking Peter for hypocrisy and prejudice. 2 Timothy 2:16 – 18 has Paul comparing a couple of false teachers to a disease that needs to be removed. In Matthew 12:33 – 37, Jesus calls the Pharisees in his audience a group of vipers. And there are certainly a few more examples where Jesus or an apostle does use harsh words in their instruction.

The thing to keep in mind with these is that they are an exception rather than the rule. That Jesus used harsh words a handful of times over the course of His three-year ministry is not justification for nightly online tirades or frequent mean-spirited arguments. That we see Paul publicly rebuking Peter once for public sin does not mean we need to turn every disagreement into a spectacle. Proverbs 16:32 says, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.”

Conclusion

Our love for the world and our fellow Christians will drive us to teach; it will cause us to instruct, correct, explain, and even rebuke when needed. Whatever the need, we should fulfill it with love. We have to fight the urge to let misunderstanding or misapplication of God’s word drive us to angry or mean-spirited conduct. We need to avoid tools like sarcasm and insults. We have to be better than that, and we can be if we first fill ourselves with the same love Christ had when He went to the cross. If that’s our starting point, then we can approach our opportunities to teach with love and gentleness.

Photo by Nik MacMillanon Unsplash

3 Reasons To Regularly Get Others To Preach

J. A. Medders: 3 Reasons To Regularly Get Others To Preach

Preachers love preaching, but they shouldn’t love it too much. A potential idol for preachers is the act of preaching. You can crave the pulpit too much. And while we preachers can talk to the sheep about not finding their identity in their work but in Christ, this is a word we preachers need to preach to ourselves.

We are not our preaching. We are not our sermons. We are disciples before we are pastors.

A congregation that helps and encourages its members to fill the pulpit is a stronger congregation.

Speaking Truth While Teaching the Truth

I recently linked to an article from Sojourners regarding the recent political climate having an adverse affect on honesty in Christian conversation. The truth is, however, that this is not a new problem. Recent events have perhaps exacerbated the problem, but we’ve historically demonstrated a rather tenuous relationship with the truth when it comes to making sure things fit our personal narratives of how we perceive the world.

Getting Things Right

One example comes from a congregation we were recently visiting. The preacher was leading a series about other Christian faiths, and that day’s lesson was on Catholicism. At one point in the lesson, he said something to the effect that the Catholic Church sells indulgences so that people can buy their way out of Hell or make early payment for future sins. Both of these are flatly untrue. I can’t say I fully understand every detail of the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, but I do know these are myths.

Anecdotes, misconceptions, urban legends, and myths — when preached or taught as truth, these undermine the greater truth we are trying to spread. They become obstacles to others coming to the truth of God’s word. This is one of the reasons James writes, in the beginning of James 3:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 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. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, 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 things.

Sweating the Details

If someone listening to my preaching can’t trust me to rightfully discern between factual and fictional information, how can they trust me with the bigger truths of God’s word? If someone hears me misrepresenting what they believe, how can they trust me to rightly explain what I believe? If I can’t be trusted to do my homework on secular illustrations or doctrinal explanations, how can I be trusted to study and rightly divide scripture?

II Corinthians 8:21 mentions that we aim to be seen honorably both to God and to our fellow humans. This means we should get things right, even if they aren’t part of scripture. We need to check to see if our lessons that touch on science are relying on outdated or debunked information. We need to make sure that the stories we share as true actually are true. While we defend our own doctrines, we have to get the doctrines we attribute to others right. That’s being truthful in all things.

Practical Application

I have to apply this to myself as well. I’ve occasionally shared a story about African missionaries and neckties that I think is true — but now I’m not so sure. I tried to track it down to the source I thought it came from but have been unsuccessful. It’s a humorous anecdote that I think well illustrates the challenge of unintentionally teaching culture-specific values alongside the gospel. But I have to stop using it as I don’t know if the story is true, and the illustration loses all power if it’s not.

Do all illustrations have to be true stories? Jesus certainly allowed himself to use fictional illustrations in his use of parables, so no, I don’t think every anecdote and illustration has to be true. Fiction is fine as long as our audiences know we are speaking in fiction. If we are presenting something as real, as truth, we need to be sure it is. We always have to make sure that we are telling the truth while we are speaking truth.

Why I Quit Inviting People To Church

Why I Quit Inviting People To Church When Jesus made disciples he met them where they were. He healed them. He fed them. He brought them back to life right where he found them. I’m afraid personal responsibility to go make disciples has been replaced with something I’ve heard called “congregational evangelism” which is really […]