1Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because we know that we will receive a greater judgment. 2For all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in word, that’s someone who is a mature person, able to hold the whole body under control. 3Now if we place a bit in the mouths of horses, so that we can bring them into submission to us, we thus also bring along the whole body. 4Note also that ships, which are so big and driven along by strong winds, are guided by the smallest rudder wherever the whim of the steersman desires. 5Thus also the tongue is a small part (of the body) and it boasts of great things. See how great a forest a little fire can kindle. 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of evil, is placed amongst our body parts, and stains our whole body, It lights on fire the whole of human experience, being lighted directly from hell. — James 3:1-6
Last night I led a discussion of this passage and we got into discussing just how we can be led around by the tongue. Saying something, or writing it puts our egos on the line. If we just think about it, and come to a private conclusion, we can change our minds, but once it has been spoken, it takes on a life of its own. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly enjoy being wrong, and I don’t particularly enjoy admitting it. But I’ve had to do so many times in my life.
So what do you do about being wrong? In our passage we’re warned that teachers will be judged more rigorously. The verse is talking about God’s judgment. God expects his teachers to be careful about what they say. Greater influence means greater responsibility. But even though the verse is talking about God’s judgment, those who teach and preach know that they get judged here and now with greater rigor.
What I say as a teacher can come back to haunt me. A dinner table comment influences just a few people. A comment made in a sermon can impact hundreds. You can’t haul those words back in.
So what do you do? Some people might say, â€œDon’t teach!â€ Others of us are pretty much addicted to talking so let’s consider some points.
- Be open to the possibility that you’re wrong. If you don’t admit the possibility, no amount of evidence will convince you that you are wrong. If you never realize your mistake you can never correct it.
- Try to be clear about your fallibility. There are those preachers and teachers who try to portray an aura of infallibility. There are congregations who expect such a thing. But I would suggest people are better off led and taught by real, fallible people. Think of it this way: Our friends, students, church members, and colleagues need the practice of correcting our mistakes!
- Readily admit the possibility of error, examine the evidence, and then admit you were wrong if, and only if, you are convinced you were wrong. Sometimes we confuse fallibility and humility with being wishy-washy. You don’t have to be blown about by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:14) in order to be teachable. I have had quite a number of people inform me that I’m not teachable right after I rejected some point of which they tried to convince me. Now I’m not perfect. It’s possible in each case that I did not properly consider their evidence and stubbornly rejected their viewpoint. It’s also possible that they were either wrong, or did not yet have adequate evidence to convince someone else they were right.
- Endeavor to let people know when you’ve changed your mind. I don’t feel an obligation to hunt people down in far countries who might have heard me express a wrong opinion, but I do like people who may have been influenced by something I said to realize I’ve changed my mind.
- Don’t get stressed over being wrong. Notice how inclusive James is. He uses â€œweâ€ about teaching, and about being fallible (vv. 1-2). Yet he’s not afraid to write the letter with its teaching. God’s grace is available for the errors of teachers as well.
Even though James says not many of us should be teachers, most of us will say or do something that influences others every day. These principles can help us all, not just those who carry the title, â€œteacher.â€