James offers much practical counsel in his letter, including this stern warning: “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (James 3:1, NKJV). The reason that not many should become teachers is that those who teach incur a stricter judgment. Those who teach ought to know better than those who don’t. Teachers are claiming to know the information and ideally to have mastered it, so they are especially accountable for the content they are teaching.
The scribes and Pharisees were not righteous (Matthew 5:20), even though they were claiming to be and teaching about righteousness. Jesus chastised them for being blind guides (Matthew 15:14). One of the Pharisees, Nicodemus, came to discuss things with Jesus, and Jesus held him accountable as a teacher of Israel. When Nicodemus couldn’t understand what Jesus meant by saying that Nicodemus needed to be born again, Jesus chastised him. Jesus questioned how Nicodemus could be a teacher of Israel and not understand the things about which Jesus was talking (John 3:10). A teacher of spiritual truth should know spiritual truth. This is why James warns his readers that not many should become teachers (James 3:1). Those who teach are held accountable for what they are teaching. If a teacher is teaching incorrectly, then he is causing his listeners to stumble. If a teacher fails to walk in a manner worthy of his teaching, then he is a hypocrite and worthy of further judgment.
James understood that we all stumble in many ways, particularly when it comes to controlling what we say (James 3:2). This is another reason why not many should become teachers—teachers say a lot. He explains the power of the tongue with two illustrations: a bit is small in the mouth of a horse yet directs the whole horse, and a rudder is a small part of the ship but directs the whole ship. In the same way, the tongue is a small but supremely influential part of the body (James 3:3–5). No one can tame the tongue (James 3:8). Because we all stumble in many areas—in the use of our tongues, for example—we all have to be cautious about teaching others, lest we be guilty of hypocrisy.
Paul challenged all believers to be teaching each other, but he recognized that, in order to do that, we need to let the word of Christ dwell richly in us (Colossians 3:16). Only then can we teach well. Paul reminded that we should do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus (Colossians 3:17). That is how we avoid being hypocritical in our lives and in our teaching. In James’ warning to not let many of you become teachers, we find a reminder that we need to be who God designed us to be. We need to walk according to His design before we think about telling others how they should walk.
In another context Paul challenged his readers who had confidence in their ability to guide others. He spoke to those who were confident that they could light the way and guide the blind (Romans 2:19) and to those who believed themselves to be correctors of the foolish and teachers of the immature (Romans 2:20). Did those who teach others also teach themselves, Paul asked, and did those who preached against stealing actually steal from others (Romans 2:21)? Those who spoke against committing adultery—did they commit adultery (Romans 2:22)? Did those who boasted in the law dishonor the Lord by breaking the law (Romans 2:23)? Paul was showing in this context how everyone is guilty in one way or another. James makes a similar point. All are guilty, and there is a stricter judgment for teachers.
Teaching is a serious business, and we need to be careful what we are teaching and even more careful of how we are living. Like Paul cautioned Timothy, guard yourself and your teaching (1 Timothy 4:16).