An example of my naiveté lies in the domain of biblical teachers. James 3:1 rebuked my ideas. The Jubilee Bible translates it: “My brethren, make not unto yourselves many teachers, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.”
Piecing the meaning together required time, because I had not considered anything beyond the surface. Many classes and commentaries taught me that this was merely a statement of warning for teachers, and I accepted it because it did not conflict with anything I already knew to be fact. This was my interpretation of it: “Be careful about becoming a teacher because you will be called to a higher judgment.” A warning for teachers to be prepared and to take their work seriously, the prohibition was never technically explained as a prohibition. In fact, I largely ignored the fact that it is an imperative.
Today, as I look at it intently in the light of previous contexts and ask the probing questions of Bible study, patterns emerge which question my interpretation of the verse. Realization developed and I understood the significance that this verse is neither opinion nor warning, but a “middle imperative”.
In Koine Greek (the Greek of the New Testament), a middle imperative is a command that is given in which the command involves the one engaging in the activity to do it to himself. It is a strange concept in English, but the Greek could convey the idea in one word by adding various endings to modify the meaning. Therefore, the ancient Greek might say one word, “guard”, and we would translate it in English, “You all must guard yourselves.” The Koine Greek language is fascinating and difficult to translate sometimes because of interesting difference such as this.
The imperative in the verse at hand (“becoming”) is also negated (“not becoming”). Considering the middle imperative and the fact that it is negated, and adding the word “many” that is there, the literal translation is something like, “You all must not to becoming many teachers”. I am sure that Greek scholars would give all kinds of explanations for the meaning, but looking at translations of the Bible in English, this is conveyed in different ways. (Incidentally, the word “many” should also be considered, but I am not going to get into that in this post.)
- “Let not many of you become teachers…” (NKJV)
- “Be not many masters…” (KJV)
- “Do not be many teachers” (LITV)
- “Not many of you should be teachers…” (ERV)
- “Not many of you should be teachers…” (ESV)
- “Be not many of you teachers…” (ASV)
The issue and determining the correct meaning
There are two nuances of translation here that I considered.
- This is simply a warning that teachers must utilize the proper work ethic in preparing for lessons because they will be judged more strictly. They face higher responsibility since people will learn from them.
- This is a command that they stop becoming “many teachers”. This would place a limit on the number of teachers who work in a congregation.
My interpretation has always revolved around the first explanation.
As a result, I had largely ignored it in reference to other passages like Romans 15:14. There Paul stated that he knew the whole church was able to “admonish one another”. Along with Ephesians 4 and other passages, I had developed and maintained a theory concerning the growth of the church that pressed every person into some capacity of teaching and leadership. The idea formed into a systematic approach toward several passages of the Bible that related to teaching and growth.
I developed a plan and taught that every person is responsible for bringing others to a closer relationship with God. Everyone must learn how to lead others in some way. The mantras exclaimed, “Lead them to where you are now.” “Teach now what you know now.” I encouraged everyone to teach someone, and I encouraged the church to create an atmosphere that would allow such to happen.
You might shake your head at my ignorance, but I acted with sincere intentions and with hope in my heart that the members of the congregation were capable and trustworthy. I interpreted their seeming lack of effort in that area as a sign that they were never granted the opportunity or encouraged to grow into the role. [You also might not understand my ignorance, and in that case, please read further as I attempt to make it more clear.]
I largely ignored Ephesians 4:11 where Paul said that Jesus gave some “to be teachers”, explaining that it was a passage dealing primarily with elders (with heavy emphasis on the word, “some”). I would explain that, of course, only some men were given that capacity, and in context those men were elders, but we should not believe that only elders can teach. And that is technically true. Other men and women are capable and allowed to teach in their own contexts and roles. But my dismissal with the wave of a hand did not consider that there were alternative interpretations that should be considered. (In my own defense, it is not that I refused to accept other views; I did not conceive of any, nor had I heard any clear explanations that would counter what I thought and provide new ideas.)
As with all false concepts, mine contained an element of truth. The Bible does support the idea of being a guide or help to others, but I cannot ignore James 3:1 because it specifically and directly contradicts the main thrust of my previous idea. At least, it contradicts if I accept the second interpretation above as the correct one.
But how do I know which interpretation is correct?
Can’t they both be proved with other passages? Indeed, I can make a strong case in support of either, but there can only be one correct interpretation.
In problems related to a passage, the first place to begin unraveling the problem is the immediate context of that passage. So consider it.
We’ve seen in earlier posts that James is telling us not to reject God’s word, but to use it to make the decisions that relate to life. When we face challenges and temptations, we must look at the root cause of sin, find those needs and desires, and determine a way to meet those needs in a godly fashion. It is not enough to choose to avoid sin, but in order to build a living faith, we must find those relevant elements of the Word and apply them to the situation so that the choice leads us to be more godly (acting like God), not just more morally pure.
James urged us not to reject the Word with anger or wrath when we hear it, but to accept it. He also reminded us not to reject it through our tongues, talking ourselves out of good or into sin. We must not convince ourselves that we are full of faith by repeating the argument often enough that we come to believe it. We need to understand the power of our words.
So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. (James 2:12)
With that in context, James (with no surprise) begins the next chapter writing about the tongue. “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” Here we notice a transition between what we tell ourselves related to sin and righteousness in chapter 2, and what we tell others in chapter 3.
Do we honestly believe that someone who has convinced himself that his unrighteous or faithless lifestyle is acceptable will be able to convey accurately the importance of holiness when he teaches others? Do we believe that someone who has not overcome temptation so that he is made “perfect” or “complete” (James 1:4) will be able to teach others the path of righteous living?
No one should suggest that we must be perfect in order to teach. That would exclude all of us and defeats the point. James used the word that is best translated, “complete” or “mature”. A Christian who is still struggling to overcome sin is not yet complete or mature. How could he be placed in the position of instructing others concerning righteousness? How can that man teach anyone how to be mature and complete?
Based on this context, I am inclined to interpret James 3:1 as a command–that the church stop hoisting up as teacher anyone and everyone who desires the position. This interpretation stands opposed to the idea that it is a personal plea to the individual to consider carefully whether he wants to teach in light of the judgment. It is more accurately an admonition for the church to stop becoming for themselves “many teachers”.
A church ought to carefully examine a teacher before offering the position. We are certainly not helping someone if we assign him to teach simply based on the desire to teach. Teachers will be held to a stricter judgment. For their own sake, as well as their hearers, the church must choose her teachers wisely.
You may have concluded such long ago. I understood that we had to be selective, and for a long time I tried to balance that idea with the idea of everyone becoming a teacher. I took it as a challenge to spend more time training people to become teachers, thinking that it was my duty to help every member find his or her place as a teacher. I was misguided. Whether I understand the reasons behind the fact that I was misguided is not the issue. I have theories that will continue to develop. The important thing here is to admit that the reason I know that I was misguided is because the Bible stood directly opposed to what I thought. According to James 1, my only alternative is to admit that my ideas and “wisdom” are nothing compared to God’s and fall in line with what He teaches instead of becoming defensive, angry, or talking myself out of it.
James 3:1 spoke against me when I studied it carefully. Certainly we must continue to train men and women to become stronger, more faithful Christians. That would include selecting qualified people and encouraging them to teach. It would also include training people so that they would one day be ready to fill that role. But James commands that we exercise caution in that selection process and not be hasty.
I suppose this is a minor point to concede. I am not doing anything brave or outstanding to admit I was wrong about such a minor point, but it certainly illustrates something I hope you will notice. We ALL must learn and grow and admit wrong when we find it. And that can only come when we are honest with the Word and study it thoughtfully and systematically.
See you tomorrow!