Frequently Misused Verses: Not many of you should be teachers

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. – James 3:1

Like many of these Frequently Misused Verses, this quote sounds pretty easy to understand.  What could we possibly have misunderstood about this one?

Here’s the catch: it isn’t misunderstood, it’s ignored.

Poke around the internet blogs, scroll through your Facebook feed, and look at how many Christians out there are sharing their opinions on all sorts of matters of biblical interpretation, theology and doctrine, Christian living, not to mention a plethora of other subjects.  So many of us are eager to share “what we know” with others – perhaps in the hopes that they’ll affirm our views, perhaps in the hopes that they’ll come to agree with us, or whatever the motivation.

Walk around the church classrooms during the Sunday School hour.  Tour the Bible Studies and the Womens’ groups and the Men’s fellowships, and however many other programs out there.  Every classroom has a teacher, every study group has a leader (or more than one!), every fellowship group has a speaker (or, most of them do).  Sure, there are probably a lot of repeats when you count up the teachers, but there are still a lot of them out there.

Now, the fact that there are a lot of teachers around is not necessarily a bad thing.  The issue isn’t with numbers, but with training.  As our verse from James’ epistle explains, the number of teachers is not a problem in itself, but rather, the fact that “we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Teachers will be judged

What this means is a tricky question.  Does it mean that on the Last Day, teachers who mess up too much might find themselves going to Hell even though they believed in Christ?  Not exactly; there is an aspect of final judgment that has to do with our works, and although different traditions of Christianity explain that in different ways, we can all agree that James’ warning of a heavier judgment on teachers is akin to Jesus’ warning, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more” (Luke 12:48).  A number of his parables repeat this message: the more a steward is entrusted with, the more they have to answer for.

Teaching the faith is serious business.  If you make a mistake in teaching theology, it’s not like you just got a math problem wrong.  When we accidentally call a sin acceptable, or condemn something acceptable as sinful, we are injuring our students’ ability to know and approach God Himself.  Some mistakes are worse than others, of course.  If your church teaches that drinking alcohol is sinful, that’s a pretty lame mistake compared to a church that teaches that Jesus wasn’t really God.  In the first case, the Christian faith survives, only slightly hampered by unnecessary rules.  In the second case, the Christian faith completely falls apart and turns into a different religion entirely.

Elitism or Anarchy

There seems to be a great push, in many churches today, of encouraging more and more of their members to speak in front of groups, lead Bible Studies, teach Sunday School to the kids, or otherwise ‘try out’ leadership and teaching roles.  There is a very good intention behind this: giving people opportunities to lead and teach are excellent ways to help people grow and deepen in faith and knowledge and love of the Lord.  This is how new leaders are born.  The downside is training – or lack thereof.

A number of churches, including the one in which I grew up, have a yearly tradition of a ‘Youth Sunday’ in which various High School or College -age students lead every aspect of the worship service.  There is a youth band for the music, various students lead the prayers, read the Scriptures, and so forth, and one student preaches a sermon.  This is a great idea in many ways, providing young adults with the chance to “own” the regular worship service in a special way.  And because it happens every year, everyone expects it, and knows that things are going to feel and sound a little different, so if anything goes wrong, it’s not a huge deal.

For special days and events like that, I don’t think that’s violating the idea that James is warning us about.  Rather, it’s when you take those untrained young adults (or older adults!) and say “good job on your first-ever sermon, let’s get you on the preaching rotation!” that problems arise.  Unless a new teacher is trained in how to be a teacher (or preacher, or group leader, etc), you are putting that person (and their students) in spiritual danger.

Part of the motivation to push new people into leadership positions is a larger cultural movement that is rejecting a previous generation’s tendency toward elitism.  There, only a seminary-trained individual is qualified to preach and teach, and everyone should hang on everything he says and never question him.  This is a caricature, admittedly, but the tendency toward over-professionalism (or clericalism) has given way to an under-appreciation for academic training and education.  In our efforts to get away from elitism, we push dangerously close to anarchy, where nobody is effectively in charge.

Striking the balance

Obviously some sort of balance between these extremes is needed here.  Not every Bible Study leader, Sunday School teacher, or small group speaker needs a full MDiv degree from an accredited seminary.  And while (I believe) it is desirable that regular preachers and large-scale teachers should have an education along those lines, it still is not absolutely necessary.

But there are other ways to train up teachers and leaders.  The best way, probably, is for people who have received such education and training to invest in the lives of a few individuals at a time to give them particular leadership training.  St. Paul’s letters reveal that he did this especially with Timothy and Titus, and we can infer from the book of Acts that he did so with a number of other nameless people throughout Asia Minor and Greece.  Even our Lord Himself, despite having hundreds of disciples throughout his ministry, invested in twelve of them specially.

One example that I’ve seen in action is an informal program called “Priestcraft.”  The various clergy of one church would have a monthly meeting with a group of people who were interested in the ministry of the Church and getting more involved, and/or discerning a call to ordained ministry.  Each month they’d focus on a different topic of ministry or church life, and share their knowledge and experience.  There was a general curriculum of topics to cover, and it rotated through them every couple years or so.

However we do it, we should be careful to heed the warning of St. James, “not many of you should be teachers,” and be sure that we pursue proper training for the roles we are given.  As for the realm of de facto teachers on the internet, we need to re-learn a spirit of humility, and learn when and what we are able to teach, versus in what cases we should allow those who are duly qualified and called to speak instead.

For God is not a God of confusion, but of peace. – 1 Corinthians 14:33a

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About Fr. Brench

I'm a Priest in the Anglican Diocese in New England interested in spiritual formation, theology, and the growth of God's Kingdom.
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