Craig Blomberg: "Not Many of You Should Become Teachers?"
“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1 TNIV).
An old line I first heard in a college education class claims that if a person can’t do anything else, at least they can teach. And if they don’t have any specific subject they can teach, they can at least teach teachers! Growing up in a family of public school teachers, I knew that to be profoundly untrue, but it obviously reflected one segment of our culture’s perception of the teaching field, perhaps fueled by personal experiences with bad teachers.
James, our Lord’s half-brother, also recognized how false the line I learned long ago is. From God’s perspective, fewer in James’ churches were to aspire to be teachers of divine truths than were currently wanting to have that label. In the largely Jewish-Christian circles in which James operated, a teacher, like a rabbi (a Hebrew word for “my teacher”), was deeply respected in the community, much more so than is usually the case in North America today. Probably too many people were wanting to become teachers for the wrong reasons, hoping to improve their status and the way in which others looked at them and treated them.
A teacher in the ancient Mediterranean world was not necessarily the same thing as a preacher or a philosopher or an orator, though any given individual could of course wear more than one hat. The teacher was the person responsible for passing on a fairly fixed body of knowledge to those who had become initiates in a new religion, guild, club, symposium or some other kind of public group. Usually via repetition to create rote memorization, the teacher would pass on the “catechism” of the group in question to those who needed to learn it.
In a predominantly oral culture, in which the majority could not read and write (and even those who could do so typically could not afford to own more than a few scrolls, if that many), it was crucial that this knowledge communicated by word-of-mouth was transmitted exactly accurately. If people untutored in the requisite knowledge, or unable to pass on with word-for-word accuracy what others needed to know, became teachers, they could misinform or mislead others without the requisite checks and balances that would often be in place today. No one could quickly google information to confirm a teacher’s accuracy, nor even pull an encyclopedia off of their shelves!
A rabbi was also expected to teach by example. A rabbi’s disciples spent their time 24/7 with their master during their period of training. The story is told of a rabbi having sex with his wife hearing a noise under their bed. When he investigated, he found it was one of the younger men he was discipling. What on earth was this fellow doing there? The answer came back that if disciples in training were to learn from all of their master’s actions, then this man wanted to learn the proper way to have sex as well! The ploy didn’t work, but it illustrates the principle that teachers were expected to be role models in every walk of life.
The KJV translates the last part of James 3:1 as “knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.” This can’t possibly be the correct translation, or no one would ever become a teacher! James’ use of the first person plural shows that he was including himself as a teacher and he would scarcely have condemned himself! The TNIV, like almost all modern translations, more correctly speaks about being “judged more strictly.” If a teacher disseminates that which is factually inaccurate, personally harmful or motivationally misguided, the damage it can do grows exponentially with the number of people affected.
Still, as the illustrations that form the rest of James 3 show, the tongue can be an instrument for great good as well as horrible evil, so that we should pray and work for it to function in the former rather than the latter fashion. It can be like the bit that steers the horse or the rudder than turns the ship, exercising great power for good (as well as bad) over very large entities and numbers of people.
If it’s terribly wrong to say that people who can’t do anything else should go into teaching, it’s probably a helpful barometer to insist that those who do go into the field should be people who just can’t see themselves doing anything else professionally, at least not with the same degree of satisfaction or as the best stewardship of their gift mixes. Do those of us who teach in Christ’s church recognize the high calling we have been given? If our first love is doing something quite different than teaching, either inside or outside the gathered communities of God’s people, then that’s probably what we should go do! “Not many of you should presume to be teachers.”
Craig L. Blomberg (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He is the author of 16 books, including James (co-authored with Mariam J. Kamell, in the Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series) and 1 Corinthians in the NIV Application Commentary series.
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