"My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation." (James 3:1 KJV)

I suppose the only good thing about this translation of this verse is that it might have dissuaded a few antebellum Christians from becoming slaveowners if they were sitting on the fence! 

The word rendered "masters" in Elizabethan English, however, is correctly rendered in all modern translations as "teachers." But of course that raises major questions for people like me. Did James really think that all teachers, or at least all teachers in the church would be condemned? Surely not. Lest there be any doubt at all, James includes himself as one of the teachers involved, but it would be strange theology (and history) that viewed James as condemning himself, especially when condemnation in the Bible usually refers to hell!

Again, modern translations rectify the problem by typically rendering the final words in accurate twentieth or twenty-first century English as "judged with stricter judgment" or "judged more strictly." But I'm still not entirely assuaged by being told that those who teach God's word will be judged more strictly, especially when I see some commentators still trying to relate this to degrees of reward in heaven. Of course, I decided a long time ago that Martin Luther had the better side of the Reformation-era debate over that disputed doctrine in denying differences in believers' status or state in heaven beyond the inevitable differences they would experience as they stood before God on Judgment Day. I even wrote an article published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society way back in 1992 to that effect (long before anybody made digital copies, I might add, just in case somebody might be hoping that I could e-mail them one).

But then what is the stricter judgment of which I should beware? The larger context of James 3:1-12 is all about the power of the tongue for both good and evil. Teachers in James' day, even more than in our own, relied on speech. In fact, what typically distinguished the teacher from other forms of leaders or speakers was that they were responsible for passing on a fixed body of catechetical tradition related to the subject at hand. Many times this information was carefully memorized and students were expected to memorize it as well. The rabbis often argued that until you had a passage of Scripture committed to memory you could not discuss it because you might misrepresent it. Ah, if we could reinstate that in our churches ... :-) But it won't happen, I know.

The point is that teachers were committed to a higher standard of accuracy than others because they were the bearers of the tradition. But teachers were also expected to practice what they preached. In ways not nearly as frequently true in our modern, Western world, students were meant to observe their teachers in every situation of life, so that they could learn how to act in all those situations, including those in which a person sinned and had to repent. So the second way in which teachers could incur stricter judgment was in the poor choice of words they spoke (or in the way they spoke them) in contexts outside of rote memorization. Teachers, both ancient and modern, inhabit settings in which they experience virtually every kind of temptation to speak sinfully: "arrogance and domination over students; anger and pettiness at contradiction or inattention; slander and meanness toward absent opponents; flattery of students for the sake of vainglory" (Luke Johnson, The Letter of James, 263).

Why are these sins more serious when committed by teachers rather than by other people? (1) More people may be affected. (2) A closer relationship of trust may be violated. (3) The very person who should be the student's best model fails in that capacity. (4) The resulting hurt may be greater. Apologies can be made and errors can be corrected but the damage from untruthful or unloving words may not be able to be fully eradicated. Forgiveness may, in some instances, come quickly, but trust always takes longer to be re-earned. The stricter judgment against which James warns may, therefore, at least in large part, have to do with negative consequences of the teachers' sins in this life.

This election campaign has involved some of the most vicious rhetoric I can recall in my lifetime. No, not primarily by the candidates, but often by Christian leaders and teachers anathematizing one of the candidates and anyone who would vote for them. The blogworld, on just about any topic, seems to bring out the worst in people, including Christian leaders and teachers, perhaps because of the impersonal and distance-creating nature of the medium. People say things and say them in ways they would never say to someone's face. E-mail and Facebook create the same temptations. The non-evangelical world already thinks far too many of us are far too combative. Let's take James 3:1 to heart and work hard at a much kinder, gentler character.