1. Let’s look at the first and last verses of this chapter. They serve as bookends.
“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check.”
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.”
The chapter is not about gossip and wagging tongues – although those things are not excluded from judgement. No, the chapter is about the power – good and evil – of the person who teaches and has a platform for instructing others. It is about the one who leads by example and words. That example can lead to righteousness or to corruption. It can steer a ship on to the rocks or to safety. It can set the woods on fire. It can show mercy and compassion or it can encourage those who hear to become hardened, bitter, resentful and consumed with anger. In a very real way, all leaders are teachers. Their lives instruct those who follow them. Their lives give people permission to be vile and destructive or to become humble and considerate. In spite of all the emphasis we have seen in the last decades on everyone learning how to be a leader there are very few, in fact. Most people are looking for something or someone to follow and the responsibility of that leader is heavy. They will be judged by a higher standard. That judgment comes sooner or later and it is often in the lives of those who follow.
One of the nightmares of teachers – and there are a few – is hearing from a student who made a bad life decision as a result of hearing us say something that was half-baked, spontaneous, said out of anger or rebellion. Worse, is the teacher who is gifted and influential but lives a ruined life – like Ayn Rand, the writer Hemingway, or the theologian Paul Tillich who was such an influence on my own seminary teachers.
As for his life, it was infamously licentious. He was a kind of rock-star academic, broadcasting his professorial charisma and harvesting dalliances and liaisons with adoring groupies. Many were sexual, some were long-term, and all were wounding to his hapless second wife, Hannah.”
Of course, judgment does not just mean condemnation. It means assessment. Sometimes we are given the gift of seeing the fruit of our good teaching and example. We see lives that have become productive and healthy and when a student – past or present – comes back to say “thank you” there is no greater joy. I was with a friend this week having lunch in Dallas. I asked him why he cared so much for education and he told me about his third grade teacher who had inspired him. She never knew what he had done with her inspiration. The course of his whole life was changed by her invisible contribution. Teachers and leaders have extraordinary power that they often do not understand.
2. The early church, like today, was filled with false teaching. There was no canon of accepted New Testament or Old Testament Scripture. That did not come until the second century for the Old Testament and the fourth century for the New Testament. We may find ourselves in a similar situation in the near future as people abandon orthodoxy and make their own versions of belief and hold up certain authors and thought leaders as inspired and authorities.
There were no seminaries or Bible colleges. No curriculum or resources like we have today.
There were little or no restraints on what was thought to be inspired or a word from God. It was a lucrative field for charlatans and others who could sway the minds of people with little knowledge or discernment. There were gospels circulating that had fantastical stories of Jesus that had no truth in them but they were popular.
There were favorite personalities that divided the churches. Some were for Paul, Cephas or Apollos.
The church has always lived in the tension between fixed doctrine and individual interpretation but the earliest years were not as much doctrinal as relational. The leaders were those who had been “with Jesus” and that is why there was so much controversy around Paul. He claimed to be an apostle but had not been with Jesus during his earthly ministry. There were no worked out statements of faith like the Apostles Creed or the Nicene Creed. Those did not come until much later – both in the fourth century. Imagine the Church today operating for hundreds of years with no guiding doctrines and everyone free to believe and practice what they thought to be true. On the one hand, it is hard to imagine but on the other it is easy to observe.
With so many false teachers and so few standards, how could you know you were following the right teacher? What are the signs of a false teacher and the characteristics of a true teacher? Was it just a matter of their saying the right things or the things we already believe and want to hear repeated? Was it a matter of also having a certain kind of life that embodied the truth of their teaching – even though that teaching may make us uncomfortable?
3. False teaching may be subtle so the true test is the effects on the life of the teacher and those around them. What does their life look like? What kind of people are around them? Here are some hints from what Scripture teaches.
False teachers are motivated by ambition and not humility. They are self-promoting instead of self-sacrificing. John Stott wrote that Jesus chose the symbol by which he wanted to be remembered. False teachers do the same.
They are motivated by gain instead of gratitude. They preach prosperity instead of righteousness. People like Creflo Dollar appealing to his followers for money to buy a new Gulfstream. I remember a quote from Gloria and Kenneth Copeland. “God knows where the money is and He’ll get it to you. Any time a worried thought about money pops up in your mind the next thing you do is sow. Stop worrying. Start sowing.” Of course, we all know what the direction of the sowing is to be and in whose field we are to do it.
They begin with boasting – re-touching, spin, self-promotion and improving the truth – but they end up denying the truth.
They want followers – not mature disciples. They want crowds – not committed individuals.
In the end they are people who set fires, corrupting themselves and those around them. They set the whole course of their lives on fire and, in the end, they are set on fire by a hell they create.
4. What are the characteristics of the wise and understanding among us? How can we know who to follow and listen for guidance?
Here are eight marks to look for:
A. Agnes – purity. I don’t think it means someone who keeps away from anything impure or retreats completely from the world. I like Kierkegaard’s definition. The pure in heart are those who are capable of willing one thing – their desire for God. He quotes James 4:8 “Draw nigh to God and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts ye double-minded.” For only the pure in heart can see God, and therefore, draw nigh to Him; and only by God’s drawing nigh to them can they maintain this purity. And he who in truth wills only one thing can will only the Good, and he who only wills one thing when he wills the Good can only will the Good in truth.
Oswald Chambers yesterday wrote
“After sanctification, it is difficult to state what your purpose in life is, because God has moved you into His purpose through the Holy Spirit. He is using you now for His purposes throughout the world as He used His Son for the purpose of our salvation. If you seek great things for yourself, thinking, “God has called me for this and for that,” you barricade God from using you. As long as you maintain your own personal interests and ambitions, you cannot be completely aligned or identified with God’s interests. This can only be accomplished by giving up all of your personal plans once and for all, and by allowing God to take you directly into His purpose for the world. Your understanding of your ways must also be surrendered, because they are now the ways of the Lord.I must learn that the purpose of my life belongs to God, not me. God is using me from His great personal perspective, and all He asks of me is that I trust Him.
B. Irene – a place of safety for people. That means no sarcasm or belittling. It is providing a safe place to stretch and grow without being intimidated. Think of it as a gymnasium for the mind and spirit. I’ve told you before about my first day of teaching 7th graders. I told them what the rules were and then asked them what rules they had for me. It took a moment but they said, “Do not make fun of us. Do not be sarcastic.” That was it. Everyone, young and old, wants a place of safety.
C. Fair – Not partial to people – for or against – or influenced by our own whims and emotions.
D. Ready to obey – They put themselves under the legitimate authority of others and are not rebellious. They resist the temptation to be independent as that is almost always destructive in the end. It is the reason we follow the curriculum and not follow our own. It took years for us to get rid of the stigma of being “those people” who thought themselves special – and I contributed to that.
E. Compassionate – A true teacher is not cynical or hardened by the dark realities of the world. The Greek word is “eleous” and is the word from which we get our word “alms”. It is one who can keep feeling for people. It is a decision not to be hardened by the pain in the world. I always send out a blog about this time of year about what Jim Parnell taught me about karate. I asked Jim how he hardened his hands for competition. It seemed simple enough. Set up a five-gallon bucket of white rice and punch your hands in it 10-12 times in a row five times a day. When that no longer hurts use a five-gallon bucket of dry beans for several weeks and then graduate to five gallons of sand. While it takes time to become hardened it is a simple process. Jim cautioned me “Be careful. The process is irreversible once the calluses are there….and you could really hurt someone with them.” Compassion is not blind to the brokenness of the world but chooses not to become hardened by it. I like this quote by Frederick Buechner: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.”
F. Agatha – A good life. Not a perfect life but a life that is consistent with their teaching.
G. Not hypocritical – Literally, without a mask. They are not on stage as an actor but teaching out of who they really are. “The more noise a straw makes the emptier is the glass.” I’ve told you before about the pastor who told me that years of being on a stage had led to what he called the “cavitation of his soul.” As you know, cavitation is the process of a rock being hollowed out and while it appears to be solid from the outside it is empty on the inside. Boulders have been known to float away in a stream having been hollowed out by the stream flowing underneath it.
H. Finally, their life brings order and not disorder. Peace and not divisiveness. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” Peace is not merely tolerance. It is not choosing to sweep everything about which we disagree under the carpet. It does not mean we have no disagreements. It does mean we do not have allow disagreements to create discord and fire that destroys us all. Remember what he says immediately following this. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight.” As we saw last time, Paul puts it even more graphically in Galatians 5:15, “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” The divisive world in which we live only encourages us to do this. We are egged on to bite and devour each other. We are hyped up to anger and James tells us where that leads eventually. Anger does not produce righteousness. Just the opposite. Anger is a major source of moral filth and evil that is so prevalent. We live in an angry culture. We are almost literally devouring each other. That is different from simply killing each other, isn’t it? Devouring means we are turning each other into food for our out of control anger.
The true and the false develop over time – sometimes a lifetime and more. They are not instant and they both produce fruit for generations. We can read about the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13. “Let both grow together until the harvest.” There is some false teaching we can separate without uprooting the wheat but some of it will just co-exist as much as it frustrates those of us who want to see what we consider to be false teaching exposed and eliminated. I think our time is better spent growing what is true than always looking to expose what is false. All of us as teachers, to some extent, are a field of wheat and tares. Unintentionally we have taught out of our own immaturity. That is not false teaching. It is immature teaching. False teaching is a life on fire and a life that sets others on fire.
James held himself to his own standards. Acts 15 and the Council of Jerusalem is a good example of that. The early church would have split over personalities, traditions, culture, theology or outside forces but he held it together by his own example.
In the end that is the test. Is it true in my life?