Teachers and the Tongue

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We sometimes miss the context of the oft-repeated teaching of James concerning the sins of the tongue. In the fifth verse of his third chapter, he shows us how the words of the tongue are a small spark that can create a forest fire, burning down a great wilderness. But he began that section by saying that not many should aspire to be teachers, because teachers will incur a stricter judgment (v. 1).

One of the most obvious things about a teacher is the tool he uses – speech, words, sentences, little flames of fire. An auto mechanic uses far less dangerous tools, as does a copier repairman. The same even goes for a logger with his chain saw. But a teacher makes his livelihood with words, and James says that this should make people think twice about the vocation.

An ordinary gossip spreads poison to one to three people at a time. They in turn spread it around, and a good deal of damage can eventually be done. But what about a teacher with a loose tongue – in a classroom, or from a pulpit, or with a television ministry? In such a case, the damage done by thoughtless or malicious words is instantaneous and can affect thousands at a time. A gossip has to meet or phone his carriers, but for a teacher they all assemble at the appointed time.

At the same time, teachers are frequently in a position where they are “above reproach,” not in the honest biblical sense, but in the sense that no one can talk to them about what they are doing. They are like Nabal – so hard-headed that no one could question him (1 Sam. 25:17). They have no functioning accountability. Everything is going well for them, at least in their own minds, as measured by the crowd assembled. The foolish teacher sees in all the numbers a mandate for his ministry; James sees a dry forest with great destructive potential for a conflagration. The teachers themselves see nodding heads, affirmation and encouragement to go on; James has that worried Smokey Bear look.

As we consider the verbal interconnectedness of the world around us — the “where do you want to go today” Internet, interactive television, satellite links between Paris and Hog Creek, Idaho — we need to remember that in this “information society” we are all trafficking in words. And words are not concrete items, like hammers or rocks, taking up space with mere existence. Words are either true or false, slanderous or not, godly or ungodly. It used to take quite a while for lies to get around; now we have cyber-lying. We used to have to labor industriously to spread misinformation; now we just click on send.

Just as a teacher in front of a great congregation can fall victim to the optical illusion presented to him by his successful ministry, so our information culture is falling victim to a much more grievous error. Our ability to get our words anywhere in the world within seconds, our ability to hit the remote when we are tired of what is happening in London and want to go to Hong Kong, our ability to see the world at a glance, creates an illusion of omniscience. This is strong wine for weak heads.

Now of course secularism, by definition, thinks that man is god. And this is why, as far as secularism is concerned, anything that helps to create or advance that illusion is likely to be most welcome. There should be no surprise when this sort of thing is whooped as though it is the greatest thing since sliced bread. The problem is absence of wariness within the Christian church. We are those who were warned about this sort of thing by James, and yet we have been in the forefront of applying information technology without sober reflection. When it comes to our own hearts, we are not suspicious enough of our motives. James says that not many should strive to be teachers, but we did not hear him – too busy building web sites, developing Christian talk radio, and in various other ways scrambling to get to the microphone. We push to become teachers, not knowing what spirit we are of.

At this point it is necessary to issue a disclaimer. None of this is said in a Luddite desire to avoid a godly use of information technologies in the propagation of the gospel – any more than James was trying to eliminate teachers. But he was urging wisdom and humility, characteristics that are still in short supply in the evangelical “information world.” James gave his warning, a perennial ethical warning, at a time when none of this technology existed. And since that time, the principles have not changed; what has changed that the forests are bigger – and drier.

The problem with this kind of social critique is that we can rapidly become discouraged. As we look at the infoworld exploding around us, it looks as though all the monkeys are out the cage. If we are to have any hope of catching up, if we Christians are to present the gospel effectively in the twenty-first century, doesn’t this mean that we have to go with the flow? No. God remains the only omniscient one. The application is the one suggested by James — think twice. When we remember his pointed concerns, this is emphatically one case where we must not fight fire with fire.

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