James 3 opens with a statement that often makes me squirm: “Not many of you should become teachers.” Often this passage is used to say that Christians shouldn’t teach until their theological opinions are without error (“Your questions are welcome at our church, but if you want to become a leader, you need to have [our] answers instead of [your] questions”). I’ve had people question whether I should be teaching. I’ve been criticized for sharing my raw ideas on this blog before they are fully developed. My nomination for a ministry leadership role in college was challenged because I didn’t interpret Genesis literally. I’ve had people tell me I’m not preaching the gospel because I didn’t reduce it to Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws. What’s really interesting though regarding James 3 is it actually doesn’t say anything about theological correctness. Not that obedience to the truth is unimportant, but James is exhorting his readers in this context not to be Christian teachers unless they can stop badmouthing other people. And that is tremendously hard to do in our social media world where meme-spinning is so addictive and nothing is more tempting to a blogger trying to get hits and build a platform than to write a blistering, controversial hit job that can “set a great forest on fire” (James 3:5).
A teacher is always teaching because people are always watching what you do and say when they identify you as their teacher. I am so bad at remembering this. It’s especially hard in the strange anonymity of the social media world where it’s so easy to rant and rave like a loud-mouthed teenager in a noisy cafeteria without seeing the furrowed eyebrows and other body language that keep you in check when you start behaving like an adolescent in live conversations with other adults. In social media, grenades get retweeted and “liked”, while blithe, wholesome speech usually gets ignored.
I genuinely feel like the Lord puts thought-provoking ideas in my head that I’m supposed to blast out to the world. But I feel so called out by James’ words: “The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell” (vv. 5-6). I’m totally seduced by the prospect of setting a great forest on fire, making it viralize all over the internet (Oh, how I lust for that letter “K” to appear in the number of facebook likes on a blog post that means I’ve crossed the thousand “like” threshold). And it is so easy to get sucked into firing off ignorant and presumptuous comments about what other people write in order to put them in their place and make myself feel brilliant. But that’s terrible teaching. No learning happens in a conversation where napalm is catapulted back and forth.
Learning happens when there is trust and vulnerability between the teacher and student. Or at least the teachers I’ve learned from and taken the most seriously were the ones who didn’t put on a front of confident togetherness with me. I tend to listen more closely to people who are meek in expressing their opinions than those who seem too big for their britches. I’ve found as a teacher that there’s an art to being vulnerable. It’s not an undisciplined emotional neediness which is of course damaging and inhospitable to any student; rather it’s being transparent about my journey, questions, and struggles in order to walk side by side with the person I’m teaching especially if it means that person can teach and encourage me for the sake of their empowerment and self-discovery. A friend who studied under Henri Nouwen once told me that he carried himself with an “intentional naivete” in his conversations with his students so that they had space to be beautiful and smart themselves. In any case, I’m much relieved to see that James 3 in its context has nothing to do with doctrinal certitude since being candid about my uncertainty is one of my most important teaching tactics.
The issue for James is not certitude; it’s dignity. If I’m going to teach God’s truth in the pulpit, then everything I say outside of the pulpit needs to be dignified. When that is not the case, I have poisoned my own well: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?” (vv. 9-11). It’s really embarrassing to me as a pastor to see how many celebrity pastors think nothing of making snarky, inappropriate comments publicly, particularly about politicians on the other side of the proverbial aisle from them. When they do that, the people who are under their influence think it’s appropriate and those who are turned off by what they say are turned off to the legitimate teaching they have to share as well. I know that I have often fallen on my face in this regard too.
In any case, one of the biggest problems with American discourse is the way that we acknowledge no distinction between knowledge and wisdom. Knowing all the right facts about God even down to the tiniest nuances and intricacies does not make you wise. Check out what James says to those of us who idolize knowledge: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (v. 13). People who are wise don’t win arguments because they aren’t invested in showing how smart they are. Wise teachers can certainly win others to the cause of wisdom, but when you are wise, you know that you cannot teach through logic alone; you win others to wisdom through patient love, through letting them discover what God has shown you as well as things that God wants to teach you through them. James writes that “the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere”(v. 17).
Notice that the word correct is nowhere in that list. Our wooden, logical, objective account of knowledge in American modernity is so utterly foreign to Biblical wisdom. This wisdom is so much richer and more textured than technical, cognitive facts. It has to do with dispositions of the soul, the degree of warmth that you emanate towards others; it is mostly about the character with which you carry your knowledge. People with knowledge can tell the truth without error, but people with wisdom can make the truth beautiful. Wisdom happens when comfort with God’s mystery replaces the anxious insecurity that masquerades as certitude. We need wisdom way more than knowledge. Those who have knowledge but lack wisdom should not be teachers (or bloggers for that matter).