James 3:1-18 – The Sins of the Tongue
Prominence and Position
It seems that this chapter begins by rebuking those who aspire to the office of teacher in the church. However, this is not the case. This is a firm admonition to those who assume the right as teachers to judge and rebuke others. When James warns his readers against becoming “teachers” in the church, he means that believers must not burden others with the yoke of man-made opinions.
What is the purpose of this letter? James desires to produce obedience to the royal law of freedom. The command in verse 1 is not the result of a man-made rule which holds that those who have great knowledge are subject to greater accountability. Rather, it is the consequence of the command that One is your Master, and you are all brothers (Matthew 23:8). Christ does not suffer his church to be deprived of its liberty by the dictatorship of men. Christ paid the supreme sacrifice for his people (1 Peter 1:18-19). The church must understand that it is obligated to Christ as sole authority and sovereign Head (Matthew 28:18; 1 Thessalonians 5:12). He must be honoured in every respect. We must submit to his word even in our conversation. Thus, when we speak, we may only speak the "words of God."
The Apostate Tongue
James supports his admonition in verse 1 with verse 2. By speaking we soon begin to be “masters”. In verse 5 it is said of the tongue that it "boasts of great things". Usually this is interpreted in an unfavourable way. Another translation renders this verse: "The tongue is a small member and yet speaks of great things". This translation gives us a better understanding of what James means. In the beginning the tongue was not "apostate". It was created good. The tongue was the principal member of the whole man, albeit a very small member. By means of the tongue man was able to answer God in an articulate manner. This dialogue between the Creator and his creature was good and beautiful in the beginning. But what happened? The tongue became apostate when man fell into sin.
The tongue which is not directed to the service of the Holy Spirit, nor in submission to the dominion of God's grace in Christ, becomes a snare for the church. We can call a tongue a “world of iniquity." (v. 6) By using two examples, James clearly shows how a small thing can direct and guide a large thing: the small bit in a horse's mouth and the small helm of a large ship. In the same way the tongue moves the whole. As a small flame it sets everything on fire. As a deadly poison, the adverse influence of the tongue penetrates the whole of life (visualized as a turning, ever-changing wheel). Man is able to tame animals and exert his will upon them, but man cannot "tame" himself, unless he humbles himself before the Word of God.
Controlled by Christ
In the Church, the Word of Truth reigns. It is only there, by the grace of Jesus Christ, that the apostate tongue can be subdued. The church must be aware of the deceitful philosophy of this world, for it aspires to turn the work of Jesus Christ into mere vanity. There is always the danger that we praise God, but ignore our fellow believers. The very people who have been slighted, or even cursed, are gathered together with us in the church. God desires to be served by everyone. When the tongue is used against our neighbour (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 43), our psalms, our offerings of thanksgiving, become mere outward show. No one has ever seen God, yet he comes to us in the brethren, whom he has placed beside us (1 John 4:20). The rules in nature (see the examples in vv. 11, 12) can and must also be applied in the church. James continues his admonition by saying that the tongue that both blesses and curses renders the worship and service of God worthless. (cf. Job 16:5; Proverbs 28:23; Jeremiah 18:18; Psalm 73:9; 1 John 3:18.)
The question in verse 13 relates to verse 1. James asks what the marks of a true master in the church are. They are wisdom and knowledge, says James. Wisdom relates to choosing a goal; knowledge relates to choosing the means to reach that goal. The church must show this in its conduct. Driving Christ, the only Master, out of the church is rebellion against the highest Majesty (Proverbs 8). He gave himself in complete obedience, and in his Word, has given us his wisdom and knowledge from above.
Therefore, the important question is: what controls the church and our life? Is it the obedience of faith in Christ? Do we seek the wisdom of God or the world? Wisdom from above or below? The tree is recognized by its fruit. If the wisdom is from below, bad fruit is the result (egoism, jealousy, contentiousness, quarrels, and envy). If the wisdom is from above (James 1:17), good fruit is the result (pure complete dedication to the service of the Lord, peace, modesty, humbleness, amenity, charity, impartiality, and sincerity: vv. 17, 18).
Questions for Discussion
- What does Matthew 5:11 teach us with respect to this discussion?
- Can Hebrews 5:12 and 2 Timothy 4:3 be used as proof that we may not seek the office of teacher?
- What are some of the spiritual dangers which can befall the church if its speaking (i.e. sermons and speeches) is not subject to the Word of God? Use examples from church history to illustrate.
- Why does James focus on the tongue? Isn't the heart more important?
- Using Lord's Day 43 of the Heidelberg Catechism, discuss the sins of the tongue.
- Today there is growing concern in the church that men are not aspiring to ecclesiastical office. Why does this happen?
- Should we be concerned about the development of a more powerful clergy in our churches? Is this a danger which has always been present in the church? Give some examples.
- What are some of the main principles in our church order? Which system of ecclesiastical government is used by Reformed churches?