“Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” (James 3:1-2).
People sometimes excuse failures with the defense, “But I’m not a pastor!” The idea floats around churches that God holds Christians to different standards based on their title or role in the church. Church members have almost no expectations, just don’t kill anybody or habitually sit in the wrong person’s pew on Sunday. Teachers should at least look over the Sunday School quarterly before Sunday morning and not be caught cheating on their taxes. Deacons should mind their language – most of the time – and keep their hands out of the offerings.
The pastor, however, lives by a different standard. He’s to dress the part 24-7, attend every child’s game, recital, or competition, be ready to receive visitors at any moment, recall everyone’s names and the important dates in their lives, and sample delightedly every offering at Sunday dinner. What’s more, the pastor, and his family, must uphold a standard of sinless perfection in attitude and behavior without fail.
Where does such an incoherent rationale come from? As with most misunderstandings and misapplications of Scripture, it comes from sloppy theology. To read the Bible through the lens of “What-it-means-to-me” will inevitably lead to the erroneous exegesis of a text. We are not, in ourselves, the starting point of proper hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation).
The place to begin to interpret Scripture is with Scripture itself. The Reformation principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture” is essential to getting it right in matters of interpretation. The Bible’s own commentary about itself is indispensable: “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). If God has breathed out all Scripture, then all of it is authoritative. We have to accept all of it. We can’t just pick and choose the parts we like best and leave the rest.
I’ve said it before: you’re Bible can’t beat up my Bible, and my verse can’t beat up your verse. When we reach a conclusion about a text that denies the plain meaning of another text, we’ve jumped to the wrong conclusion. We have to view Scripture in a way that allows all the related passages to say what they say and be right.
We saw this before. Paul argued that we’re justified by faith apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:28); but James argued that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24). How do we reconcile two apparent contradictions? By recognizing the context of each text. Paul was discussing the basis of our salvation before God, which is by grace through faith in Christ. James referred to works as the fruit of our faith in Christ – not the cause of it.
So, we’re justified before God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But then, the proof that we’re genuinely converted is manifest in our works. If I’m truly born again, the Spirit of Christ in me will be evident to others.
All that brings us back to James’ statement that teachers will incur a stricter judgment. He doesn’t mean that pastors and teachers are held to a different standard than others. God has only one standard of righteousness – Himself. We’re all to be holy because He is holy. We can only achieve God’s perfect standard of holiness in Christ. The idea of stricter judgment for teachers means that they are held more strictly to God’s one standard. They get less wiggle room. Period.
Why is that? Why does God hold teachers more closely to His standard of holiness than others? Since God has one standard of holiness for everyone in the body of Christ, the one who teaches should have reached a greater level of spiritual maturity and godliness in order to be able to help others reach that level. There’s the point: each of us is to help someone else grow in Christ as far as we have grown.
Someone said that every Christian needs three people in our lives. First, there’s Paul, the visionary leader who challenges us to go and grow and achieve in Christ. Next, there’s Barnabas, the friend who loves us and encourages us when the way gets hard to manage. Then, there’s Timothy, the younger saint into whose life we pour ourselves. We all need someone to push us beyond ourselves and someone to help us reach the next level in the faith and someone to whom we give ourselves.
Such an arrangement keeps the water of life flowing freshly through our spirits as we grow in the grace of our heavenly Father.