In the last post of this series, we took a brief look at the implications of a “slippery tongue” as James would define it. The implication being that having controlled speech indicates and further illustrates what James is speaking of in chapter 1 by referring to “true religion”. Though I took time to speak about the one who desires to teach, in this post, we will focus on whether or not the following verses (vv. 5-12) apply directly to the teacher or the general, corporate body to whom James was writing.
Though the applicatory aspects of the passage would remain rather similar, it is an important distinction to make simply because this chapter sets precedence to the imperative commands given in chapter 4. If the focus is upon teachers, then the remaining verses only have application to the congregation – however, if it is a general admonition to all, then we must see that the command is given to all believers to control the tongue for the sake of unity among God’s people.
Though many views are held on the context of the remaining verses of James 3:3-12, two are the most common; the first being that the vv. 3-12 speak specifically to the teacher. While these commentators do not ignore that there are applicatory aspects to the general problem of controlling one’s speech, they argue that the focus is directed specifically to leaders who are using the office improperly.
They couple this with interpreting “whole body” in verse 2 as a reference to the church, as we would find in Paul’s notion of “the body” being representative of the church. Thus, the argument would be made that the “perfect” teacher who does not stumble is the one able to guide the church well.
McCartney suggests several problems with this interpretation. In addition to suggesting that the readers would have had a hard time being clued in on “the body” as being representative of the church from the immediate context, he writes, “in 3:7-8 the tongue is said to be untamable and an unstable evil. If the tongue simply signifies an individual’s speech, then this is comprehensible (if hyperbolic), but it is unlikely that James, who classifies himself as a teacher (3:1), would say that teachers as a class are untamable and an unstable evil, even if he were speaking hyperbolically” (BEC James, 182).
Though in Pauline literature, “the body” is often seen as a metonymy representative of the church, this does not necessarily indicate that James uses this same device (especially since James is likely the first N.T. writing circulated in the early church). The only questionable proof that this could be what James is referring to in 3:1 is found in 4:1, using the expression “in your members”. However, given the context of chapter 3, we see a singular focus upon the individual desiring to become a teacher.
The second, and more favorable approach, then, would be the view that this warning to those who would desire to teach is a jumping off point to a more broad application. Note specifically that the focus of v. 1 is on those who would become teachers, not those already in this office. At this point, the application becomes one of general admonition to all, yet especially to those who would desire the office of teaching.
Furthermore, the remaining verses (vv.13-18) and chapter 4 seem geared specifically toward the singular individual as a member of the corporate church. Specifically, we see a general address to the collective gathering, for individual application in each member’s interaction with the collective gathering of God’s people. The church is taught in mind of corporate welfare, yet strikes at each individual who is in sin.
While all of these apply to the teacher, as they ought, the context does not seem to fit the bill that James is writing solely to teachers already in this office. Beyond this, those who would be in the office of teaching would already have been tested, proved, and instituted by the apostles who planted the church. This does not mean that such men could not creep in unawares in leadership, but to assume that this passage deals solely with teachers seems to supplant focus off of the corporate, yet general admonition to flee hypocrisy.
Beyond this, if we simply let the remaining context dictate application rather than set the tone for the imperatives given later, it can free one of certain obligations, and as we saw in the last post, the implications of being a man marked with uncontrolled speech. Namely, we are speaking of the genuine mark of one’s faith being exhibited through controlling that which speaks forth both blessing and curse. As James retorts, “My brothers and sisters! This should not be!” An interesting aside: if women were forbidden to teach in the early church, it would also seem odd for James to address them in this particular way if verses 5-12 applied only to the teacher.
During the next post, we will examine the importance upon the sin in speech drawn within James 3:5b-12.