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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The General Theme: Humility (3:1-2)
The General Theme: Humility (3:1-2)

With his now familiar and kind address my brothers, James begins with a specific instruction that not many should become teachers. His concern is not to give career counseling. Rather, he is addressing those who aspire to positions of authority in the church. Church leaders are his primary focus now. And what is on his heart is a sin to which leaders are vulnerable—the sin of pride. The NIV reflects this emphasis by rendering the words "become teachers" as "presume to be teachers." James's point in the last half of 3:1 (that teachers will be judged more strictly) is driven home in the first part of 3:2 (reminding them that everyone is vulnerable because we all stumble in many ways). It is a warning not to think one has attained an unassailable spirituality. It is a serious reminder to be humble.

Further discussion of the role of teachers in the church will begin in 3:13. The fact that James mentions teachers here but does not specifically return to the topic until so much later does not have to mean this is a later addition to the text, as Davids allows (1982:135). A continuing flow of thought makes sense here. James has been prescribing humility implicitly and explicitly in 1:5, 1:9-11, 1:13-15, 1:16-18, 1:19, 1:21, 1:26 and 2:13. Nor is this to be the end of the matter. The reader can glance over chapters 3—5 and find, in the diverse applications, the unifying intent to warn against arrogance and instruct in humility. James evidently saw those in authority to teach as being particularly in danger of spiritual arrogance, which would be expressed in impure speech. He therefore introduces his address to teachers and then proceeds to develop his message with care and detail.

All of this is immediate confirmation that in his emphasis on deeds in the preceding passage James is still realistic about the persistence of sin and is not expecting perfection in holiness. It is also confirmation that the theme of humility, especially as expressed in speech, is fundamental to James's teaching about Christian living. Humility is a trait we must examine, search out and cultivate if we claim to take this book of God's word seriously.

As the foundation for this particular character development, James confronts us with two inescapable facts of life: judgment and failure. These are the two facts, therefore, that an expositor of this passage should establish in order to disciple young Christians in humility. James has already warned that we are not to judge (2:4) and that we will be judged (2:12). Now he adds these two points.

First, there is a greater strictness of judgment for ones who teach. This could be based upon Jesus' statement in Matthew 7:2. It means that a teacher is obligated to teach what is true and then to live up to what is taught. God expects more from church leaders and holds them accountable for what they teach his people. This biblical principle is exemplified in Ezekiel 34:1-10, where the unfaithful leaders of the nation are condemned for being neglectful and abusive shepherds of God's people, and God declares that he will "hold them accountable." See it again in Matthew 5:19 and 18:6, where Jesus gives warning to anyone who teaches others to sin. See it repeated in Luke 12:42-48, where Jesus' parable is about a manager "whom the master puts in charge of his servants to give them their food allowance at the proper time." The Lord's instruction culminates in this principle: "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."

Second, there is failure by all of us. This failure James describes with the verb stumble (ptaio, used before in 2:10). This verb has the literal meaning of "stumble" or "trip," but it is used as a figure for making a mistake or sinning. (James will repeat the verb in the last half of 3:2; Romans 11:11 and 2 Peter 1:10 are the only other New Testament uses of this verb.) James is saying, "Remember, you are subject to judgment even more if you try to teach others; and you are highly vulnerable in that judgment because we all sin in many ways."

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