What does it mean that teachers will be judged more strictly (James 3:1)?
James 3:1 says, "Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness." Prior to this verse, James talks about faith that leads to good works. James follows this sentiment about teachers with a warning about watching our words and the power of the tongue. Teachers within the leadership of a church or ministry will be judged more severely than those who are not teachers. This is because of the place of influence they hold.
Spiritual teachers need to exemplify the good works of faith and keep a careful watch over their words, as do all believers, but especially so because they have the eyes of others looking to them as an example. In 1 Timothy 3:2–7, Paul provides a list of character qualities that elders, leaders in the church, should have—one of which is the ability to teach (verse 2). Elders are also called to be "above reproach" (verse 2). Those who would teach God's Word to others are held to a higher standard, or judged more strictly, because of the role with which God has entrusted them.
To use a more natural analogy, you would not want to be in a class taught by a teacher who was not well-versed in the subject matter. As a student, you would want to learn from someone who has the knowledge and experience to help you as you learn and grow in the subject. The same holds true for a spiritual teacher. Spiritual teachers should be "rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2:15). They need to know what God's Word says and be able to accurately convey that to others. But spiritual teachers do not just disseminate knowledge, they should exemplify what it looks like to "observe all that [Christ has] commanded [us]" (Matthew 28:20).
God has given certain people the spiritual gift to teach and He intends for them to steward that gift for the purpose of advancing His kingdom (Ephesians 4:11–12; Romans 12:6–8; 2 Timothy 4:2). Teaching is not intended as a means to manipulate others to serve oneself. Rather, teachers should generously serve others and help them to grow in their faith and knowledge of Christ and what it means to follow Him (Galatians 5:13). The position of teacher is not one to be taken lightly.
Teachers need to walk above reproach and not use their position for personal gain (1 Timothy 6:5). Unfortunately, there are false teachers who may be "having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power" (2 Timothy 3:5; see also 2 Timothy 4:3–4). When listening to a Christian teacher, observe the fruit of the Spirit present in their lives and ministry. Does their teaching line up with the Word of God? All that is false will one day be exposed (2 Timothy 3:8–9).
While salvation is by grace through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8–9), the good works that we do here on earth store up treasures in heaven for us (Luke 12:33; Matthew 6:19–21; 10:41; 16:27; Ephesians 6:8). A Christian leader may have a devoted following, but God is the one who will test the eternal purity of their works (1 Corinthians 3:11–15). Things done selfishly or out of a posture of manipulation will not be rewarded by God. Such works will not be able to endure God's purifying fire and come out on the other side, but will instead be consumed. The only rewards those who do good things seeking to be noticed, or teaching seeking to gain popularity, receive will be here on earth (Matthew 6:2–4). All believers, whether in a teaching position or not, should have their goal be to hear God say, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:23). We do well when we steward the gifts He has given us, faithfully serving as He gives us capacity and opportunity (Matthew 25:14–30).
Some of the responsibility for the teachers in a church lies with the church overseers or pastors who placed them in that position. Sometimes churches are so in need of teaching that they will place people in positions of teaching or leadership for which they are not qualified. Rather than just filling a vacancy with someone who is available, it is important for church leadership to seek God for wisdom on whom to trust with an open leadership role within the body. For both the teacher and for the church, it is important to have leadership in place who have a proven track record of godly character and good stewardship of their God-given gifts, especially knowing that they will be judged more strictly according to James 3:1.
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