Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body. Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell.
Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.
James 3:1 – 10
We teach because we love other people, but it’s also important that we approach our teaching in a loving way. James 3 offers a warning about our teaching — that it matters how we speak to and about other people. This is an increasingly challenging topic in our modern culture. Our ability to instruct and discuss things in a civil and kind way is steadily deteriorating. As ambassadors of God’s word, we cannot blind ourselves to the way this kind of discourse influences us, and we have to be self-reflective about the way we talk about our faith and beliefs with others.
Am I Teaching or Arguing?
The first thing we need to think about is whether we are discussing God’s word or arguing about it. The easiest way to do this is to look at our own motivations: Am I trying to win, or am I trying to help someone on their journey? If it’s the latter, then we will watch what we say and how we say it. That’s being loving toward that person. On the other hand, if I just want to win, then I’ll treat the other person however it takes for them to back down and let me feel validated. If I’m in a discussion for myself — even if it’s about spiritual topics — then I’m not teaching in love.
This was one of the challenges the Pharisees had in the First Century. Matthew 16:1, Matthew 22:15, Matthew 22:23, Mark 8:11, Mark 10:2 — these are just a sampling of passages where religious leaders come to Jesus to antagonize, argue, or try to paint Jesus into a corner. Those who should have been the most intimate with God’s word used it as a weapon instead of a tool, sought technicalities instead of truth. This is what it looks like to argue instead of teach. If love is our motivator, then we’ll take the sword out of our words and humbly lean on the sword of truth.
Seasoning Our Words
Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.
Theres’s a whole article at The Atlantic about how Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fame) was incredibly intentional about how he used language with children. We should be so thoughtful about the words we use to teach or correct others. Galatians 6:1 and 2 Timothy 2:25 both emphasize the importance of gentleness in correcting one another. It’s when we believe that someone else is wrong that we let our guard down and become verbally harsh. We don’t have to be defensive to defend the truth.
That’s not to say there is never a place for a sharp rebuke, but the overwhelming message of Jesus and His apostles is that when we teach, we should do so with an attitude of gentleness, humility, and love.
But What About That One Time?
There are indeed times where we find Christ and His apostles using stronger words to correct or rebuke. Galatians 2:11 – 14 contains a record of Paul publicly rebuking Peter for hypocrisy and prejudice. 2 Timothy 2:16 – 18 has Paul comparing a couple of false teachers to a disease that needs to be removed. In Matthew 12:33 – 37, Jesus calls the Pharisees in his audience a group of vipers. And there are certainly a few more examples where Jesus or an apostle does use harsh words in their instruction.
The thing to keep in mind with these is that they are an exception rather than the rule. That Jesus used harsh words a handful of times over the course of His three-year ministry is not justification for nightly online tirades or frequent mean-spirited arguments. That we see Paul publicly rebuking Peter once for public sin does not mean we need to turn every disagreement into a spectacle. Proverbs 16:32 says, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.”
Our love for the world and our fellow Christians will drive us to teach; it will cause us to instruct, correct, explain, and even rebuke when needed. Whatever the need, we should fulfill it with love. We have to fight the urge to let misunderstanding or misapplication of God’s word drive us to angry or mean-spirited conduct. We need to avoid tools like sarcasm and insults. We have to be better than that, and we can be if we first fill ourselves with the same love Christ had when He went to the cross. If that’s our starting point, then we can approach our opportunities to teach with love and gentleness.