With this verse James begins a new topic—or does he? It is possible to read the verse in connection with what has already been said, as though James is warning the church, and especially his interlocutor of 2:18ff., of the dangers of being a false teacher. But it seems more likely the beginning of a new section, as signalled by the words, “my brothers and sisters” (adelphoi mou; ἀδελφοί μου—cf. 1:2, 16, 19; 2:1, 5, 14), and perhaps one in which he is addressing those who would be or are presently, teachers in the congregation. But this, too, is somewhat problematic, since in verse two James begins a long argument for control of the tongue, with reference to teachers disappearing altogether. In the latter half of the chapter he deepens the discussion by considering the character of true wisdom and suggesting that only those who display the characteristics of the ‘wisdom from above’ may be considered truly wise. Again, there is no explicit reference to those who teach. The first verse, then, appears to be a fragment, the apparent commencement of a new section in the letter yet isolated from what follows. We have at least three options concerning how to interpret the verse:
- As a single-verse admonition, disconnected both from what precedes and what follows it.
- As the commencement of a new theme in which verses 2-12 are particularly directed toward would-be and actual teachers.
- As connected more particularly to Vv. 13-18 which also addresses the leadership of the community, so that vv. 2-12 are viewed as a (not unrelated) digression, but with a more general intent than applying only to teachers.
It seems best to adopt the third option. James addresses the whole community, even in verse one, and not merely teachers alone, though what he says across both major sections of the chapter and especially the second, is relevant also to those who seek this ministry.
“Not many of you” (Mē polloi; Μὴ πολλοὶ), says James, “should become teachers” (didaskaloi ginesthe; διδάσκαλοι γίνεσθε). Of the whole community, only few should ‘become’ teachers. The idea of becoming a teacher in the early Christian communities could well be desirable: in a world with few opportunities for advancement, especially for those of the lower classes, the role of teacher promised increased status and reward (Davids, 136).
Was this a role to which anyone could aspire and so take to oneself? Or was one called to the role by God, with this call being recognised by the community, with the result that one was appointed to the task? The answer is probably both–and. On the one hand, Jesus, Paul, and presumably the other apostles recruited followers to learn the ways of the Christian life and ministry, and who were thereby equipped and appointed for service in the churches. On the other hand, in 1 Timothy 3:1 Paul makes a ‘trustworthy statement’ saying that anyone aspiring to the office of an overseer desires a fine work. It is possible, then, and even legitimate, for a person to seek such roles within the Christian community. It is noteworthy, though, that Paul qualifies this aspiration by noting first that it is the work more than the office itself, which is sought, and second, by listing the characteristics suitable for those who would serve in this way. Perhaps James intends something similar in this chapter; that is, by detailing the character, ethos, and practices of mature spirituality he provides a criterion for the community by which they might recognise those suitable for the role of teacher, and also a standard for the would-be teachers themselves.
The New Testament makes clear that while many people sought to be teachers not all were suitable. Some were accused of being ‘false’ teachers intent on leading others astray, others of having poor motivations, still others of having inadequate knowledge. As we shall see, James 3 suggests that there were those in his communities who were seeking this role within the churches for reasons other than the wellbeing of the people of God.
According to James, those who teach can expect a stricter judgement: “for you know (eidotes; εἰδότες) that we . . . will be judged with greater strictness” (hoti meizon krima lēmpsometha; ὅτι μεῖζον κρίμα λημψόμεθα). This reminder should serve to give pause to those intent on seeking a teaching ministry. Moo (119-120) suggests that the teacher will be subject to a closer scrutiny of both their doctrine and their life, for those who presume to teach are thereby claiming greater knowledge of Christian truth. The teacher has responsibility both for the content of their teaching and for their life which is to illuminate and exemplify what is taught. The content of the teaching is presumably, the word of truth (1:18), the perfect law of liberty (1:25), and the contours of ‘pure and undefiled religion’ (1:27). James does not reference either the gospel per se, or the ‘word of Christ,’ though his own reliance on Jesus’ teaching would suggest this. In broader canonical sense, however, one would have to speak of faithfulness to the apostolic witness, to the gospel, to the message of the New Testament. Not only must the teaching be sound with respect to knowledge and doctrine, but the teacher is to embody the message; their life is to display a congruence between word and work.
Jesus, too, in Mark 12:38-40, warned of a stricter judgement for those who abuse their positions of trust. Those who use their position as a vehicle to honour and personal advancement, or who use it exploit the vulnerable will “receive greater condemnation” (lēmpsontai perissoteron krima; λήμψονται περισσότερον κρίμα; cf. Luke 12:47-48).