James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” This verse is sandwiched between James’ instruction about the kind of faith that produces good works and his warnings about our words, so we should view it within that context. Those who aspire to leadership within the church are held to a higher standard than other believers because of the great influence teachers wield. Their works and their words carry a greater weight than those who are not teaching. If teachers fall, they can take many people with them; therefore, God will judge teachers of the Word according to the kind of impact they had on those they aspired to lead.
First Timothy 3:2–10 sheds more light on God’s expectations for those who would lead by teaching. That passage gives a list of qualifications that elders must possess before being entrusted with the care of God’s church. One of those qualifications is that he is “able to teach” (verse 2). Elders are teachers, and God says that they will be judged more strictly due to the seriousness of their responsibility.
The “judgment” spoken of in James 3:1 refers to the various levels of rewards teachers will receive. While a believer’s salvation is guaranteed through the grace of God, future rewards are earned through faithful service (Luke 12:33). All Christians will stand before Christ to have our works tested with fire (1 Corinthians 3:11–15). Christ will reward us according to what we’ve done for Him (Matthew 10:41; 16:27; Ephesians 6:8). Teachers who have been faithful to proclaim truth and demonstrate godly living will receive rewards according to the fruit of their work. They will hear their Master say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Luke 19:17). But those who desired to become teachers because of selfish motives or those who used their positions as a source of manipulation will realize they’ve already received their reward on earth—fleshly gratification (see Matthew 6:2–4). Such teachers will be judged more strictly and will stand empty-handed before their King.
On the judgment day, every secret thing will be brought to light (Luke 8:17–18). The motives of our hearts will be exposed, and there will be no more pretense or spiritual deception. Teachers of the Word will be judged more strictly. Those who have not been faithful in their calling and have led others astray will be exposed. Sadly, many of those teachers will be found to be lost themselves. Their desire for influence and power motivated them to pose as pastors and Bible teachers while denying the very Christ of whom they spoke (see Romans 1:21–22). Paul speaks of false teachers who view “godliness as a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:5). Their judgment will be harsher because of the people they led astray. Many of these false teachers populate the airwaves, spreading lies and flaunting ungodly, selfish lifestyles. They would do well to look closely at James 3:1.
God has blessed the church with many teachers, and He expects those teachers to develop and use their gift to advance His kingdom (1 Corinthians 14:3; 2 Timothy 4:2). Teachers should voluntarily hold themselves to a higher standard, knowing that they will be judged more strictly. Teachers should follow the counsel of Galatians 5:13, which says, “Through love serve one another.” Faithful teachers willingly give up personal rights in the “gray areas” in order to set themselves apart from anything questionable. If we are unwilling to limit our own freedoms out of love for those we teach, we may not be ready to assume the role of teacher (see 1 Corinthians 8:9–13).
Given that teachers will be judged more strictly, there are probably many who have assumed a teaching role within a church who have no business doing so. They are neither gifted to teach nor morally qualified. It is those teachers to whom James 3:1 is addressed: “Not many of you should become teachers.” Before anyone aspires to the role of teacher, he or she should ask themselves the following questions:
1. Am I continuing to learn? Good teachers are good learners. Those with the gift of teaching also love to continue learning. The best teaching arises from the heart of someone who is passionate about what God is teaching him or her (2 Timothy 2:15).
2. Has God called me to teach? Many churches, desperate for volunteers, will place anyone who doesn’t say no in a teaching position. While everyone should pitch in at times in a variety of serving positions, such as the nursery, serving meals, or collecting the offering, no one who is not gifted and called by God to do so should accept the role of a Bible teacher. We can recognize His calling by an incessant nudging in our hearts toward a particular ministry. That calling will be confirmed by leaders who recognize that gifting.
3. Is my personal life free from besetting sins? While none of us will be completely free from sin while in these bodies, we should have victory over besetting sins—those faults that stem from overt, overwhelming, and ongoing temptations. Alcohol or drug abuse, sexual immorality, and anger problems are examples of besetting sins that need to be dealt with before a teacher assumes the role. Besetting sins are those that can easily cause another to stumble (Luke 17:1). A teacher with ongoing, besetting sins will be judged more strictly because of the influence of those sins.
“We must all stand before Christ to be judged” (2 Corinthians 5:10, NLT), and our rewards will be based upon how faithfully we persevered in this life to the glory of God. The Lord knows what He has entrusted to each of us and expects a return on that investment (Matthew 25:14–46). Teachers will face a stricter judgment on that day of reckoning. Those who abused their position or distorted the gospel message will be judged accordingly. Those teachers who persevered in truth and love and served where God placed them will receive His blessing, reward, and the joy of hearing from Jesus Himself, “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21).