Wanna teach? Get ready for criticism.

by K.W. Leslie, 21 June 2017

James 3.1-2.

Historically, the way Christians have chosen to interpret the following passage has been, “If you become a teacher, God’s gonna hold you accountable for every single thing you ever taught. And judge you harshly. If you ever taught the wrong thing, ever led anyone astray, God’s putting it all on you.”

What about grace? Nah; forget about grace; doesn’t apply to teachers.

That’s how we know there’s something screwy with this interpretation. So let’s look at it again. The passage du jour:

James 3.1-2 KWL
1 My fellow Christians, don’t become “great teachers,”
since you’ve known we’ll receive great criticism, 2 for everybody stumbles.
If anybody doesn’t stumble in the message, this is a mature man, able to bridle the whole body.

See, according to James, everybody stumbles. A mature Christian is gonna stumble way less than a newbie, but everybody stumbles. Including James, who wrote this book.

The perfect teacher—other than Jesus—who’s never ever gonna make mistakes? Doesn’t exist. At best we can have long stretches where we’re doing a great job of following Jesus, and make way fewer mistakes than average. We’ll get better and better at bridling the whole body, as James phrased it. But before we achieve perfection, we’re gonna need resurrection. Till our self-centered, sinful nature is finally deleted from our bodies, we’re gonna trip up.

If God actually judges his teachers as strictly as people claim—where every single mistake we make, means we’re in massive cosmic trouble—we are so screwed. And why should anyone bother to become one of the church’s teachers? Who’d dare to tackle the job of discipleship? We’d have even fewer instructors than we do now—and in a lot of churches there’s definitely scarcity.

I’ve seen plenty of churches where the pastor’s the church’s only teacher. In some cases that’s because the pastor wants to be the only teacher… ’cause whether he realizes it or not, he’s starting a cult. But a lot of pastors aren’t in that boat. They’d love to see teachers in their churches! It’s just they’re surrounded by unqualified people, who never bother to get qualified ’cause they know great knowledge means greater responsibility.

And if we continue to read this chapter with this idea in mind—that Jesus ordered us to teach new followers, Mt 28.20 and that though we should strive not to go wrong, if we do there’s still grace 1Jn 2.1 —we’ll start to realize this is actually a very different warning from James. That if you wanna be a teacher, go for it! But be prepared, not so much for the wrath of God, but the wrath of people.

Been there, done that. Didn’t come with a free T-shirt.

When James wrote, “we’ll receive great criticism,” Jm 3.1 y’notice he didn’t explicitly state who’d do the criticizing. Traditionally people figured it’d be God. But if you’ve ever been a teacher, you know from experience: God’s nothing but gracious. The Holy Spirit provides us comfort, encouragement, inspiration, assistance, kindness, support—you know, all the stuff he specializes in.

God gives me strength. Humans give me crap.

’Cause I don’t tell ’em what they wanna hear. I don’t repeat all their favorite traditions, so they can sit there passively and think, “Oh good; I already know all this stuff. I’m better than average.” Instead I question all their favorite traditions, like a scholar should… and as TXAB’s regular readers notice, I reject quite a lot of them. And some of these traditions are beloved. People definitely love ’em more than they love me. So they’re outraged.

People hate, hate, HATE to be told they’re wrong. Whether kindly or crudely, they just hate it. They figure they know God, and I’m telling them they don’t know him as well as they presume. And rather than be pleased how they now understand him just a little better, they’re pissed at me for puncturing their favorite theories, parables, loopholes, and alternative facts.

I get it from below, and I’ve gotten it from above. Pastors, fearful I might expose their laziness when it comes to bible study, don’t always want me to teach. One of ’em shot down any offer I made to teach a bible class, or pretended red tape got in the way. A few insisted on screening everything I taught, just to make sure I never embarrassed nor contradicted them. One pastor sat in on my every class just in case he needed to correct me. (No, this wasn’t because I’m such a loose cannon; he did it with everyone.) Like I said, certain pastors figure they’re the sole teachers of their church, and don’t trust the Holy Spirit to correct anyone. They figure that’s their job.

God hasn’t yet ordered me to step down from teaching. People certainly have. Some tried to get me fired or demoted. Some accused me (and still do) of being too difficult, too liberal, too conservative, too inappropriate, too dogmatic, too anything. Y’know, when I taught history and science, I never had to deal with this level of pushback. It’s only when I teach bible and theology.

Don’t get the wrong idea. None of this is because I’m righteous and they’re not; righteousness has nothing to do with it. When anyone dares to teach about the actual kingdom of God, they get opposition. Guaranteed. Comes with the territory.

Comes from “good Christians,” too. Who ain’t all that good.

So those people who assume James wrote about God’s judgment on teachers? Either they’ve never actually taught… or never taught anything worthy of opposing.

The spiritually mature teacher.

I said righteousness has nothing to do with opposition. It should, if I’m not being righteous. Teachers are part of a church’s leadership, and all Christian leaders should be people of good character. If we’re not, we need to be removed from any position of authority and responsibility. Plenty of churches overlook these character defects because they’re looking at the wrong criteria: College degrees, talent, personal charisma, or they’re related to the pastor.

But a mature Christian should be righteous. And any Christian teacher should be mature. New believers shouldn’t be teaching new believers. Inexperienced Christians shouldn’t be given questions that require an experienced answer. Yeah, iron sharpens iron, Pr 27.17 but butter can’t sharpen butter.

In a lot of bibles téleios/“complete” gets translated “perfect,” which throws people off in the very same way it does in Matthew:

Matthew 5.48 ESV
“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

But as I explained in my article on that passage, in that context téleioi means “egalitarian”—we’re to treat lovers and haters the same, like God does; family and foreigners the same, like God does. That’s the sense in which we’re to be “perfect,” and in James the “perfect man” is defined as one who has the self-control needed to “bridle the whole body.”

No, not the whole body of Christ. Their whole body. Which is why James immediately went off on a tangent about people who can’t control their bodies.

James 3.3-6 KWL
3 If we put bridles in horses’ mouths so they heed us, we steer their whole body.
4 Look also at ships: They’re large, and driven by strong winds,
steered wherever the urge of the pilot wants—by the smallest rudder.
5 Likewise the tongue: It’s a little body part, but claims huge things.
Look how it lights a big fire on a big forest! 6 The tongue is fire.
The tongue places an unrighteous world in our body parts, staining the whole body,
setting the cycle of creation on fire, set on fire by ge-Henna.

And so forth. I’ll discuss the tongue in the next article, but suffice for now to say James obviously had big problems with people and their tongues.

So yeah, the context of téleios is perfect self-control, a mature man (or woman, where appropriate) who knows how far to go, and when to stop. It’s not about sinlessness, although mature Christians oughta sin way less often than average. And mature Christians oughta admit they do still sin, instead of attempting to feign moral perfection, in which case they’re not fooling anyone—except themselves, as John pointed out in his first letter. 1Jn 1.8

A mature Christian is gonna have integrity. Gonna admit what they know, and where they need to do more study. Gonna avoid the common human foible of pretending we’re experts on everything, and faking knowledge when we don’t really have any—you know, hypocrisy. Sad to say, there are a lot of hypocrites among Christian teachers, who settle for looking knowledgeable instead of striving to know.

The trouble is, newbies assume if you’re the bible teacher, you do know all. And they’re mighty quick to stick you on a pedestal as their hero—especially when you don’t deserve it. I’ve had to correct more than one newbie: “I don’t know everything; I just know more than you do, but my goal is that you’ll catch up to me, if not go further. And yes, I sin too. I’m trying not to, but I do. Don’t put me on that pedestal. Nobody belongs there but Jesus.”

Hypocrites will accept the assumptions, accept the praise… and horrify many when they fall.

This is a subject lots of Christians won’t talk about ’cause they find the topic distasteful: One of the most common ways teachers fall is sexually. Students regularly get crushes on their teachers. Especially when they think we’re perfect. Some of ’em try to act on those desires, especially when they’re young and dumb and don’t understand, or care, about consequences. Teachers should be fully prepared to resist every advance without exception. If not, they’re gonna fall. ’Cause it happens all the time. It’s happened at every school I attended, and nearly every place I taught, schools and ministries alike. I’ve seen a lot of ruined careers and damaged students.

I don’t know that sexual temptation was what James meant by bridling the whole body. More likely he was speaking of generic sins we commit with our bodies: Going where we shouldn’t, making what we oughtn’t, acting where we mustn’t. James tended to be blunt, y’know. If he meant sex he’d have said sex. It’s possible, at the time James wrote his letter, his church hadn’t yet suffered any such scandal. But this warning applies to sexual scandals too; the Holy Spirit inspired James to cover this base.

We all stumble. Those of us who pursue maturity, integrity, and perfection shouldn’t be so naïve as to imagine scandal could never touch us. Or that if we do everything right, we’ll never face opposition. Jesus warned us it’s coming. Jn 16.33 People (not to mention the devil) will get jealous, try to trip us up, try to ruin our ability to minister in future, discourage everyone we try to help, and drive all of us away from church and Jesus. And as James pointed out about rudders and bridles, it won’t take much.

So if you wanna teach, this is what you’re in for: Criticism and temptation.

And tons of grace from God. You’ll need it. But be prepared.