We need better speech from our leaders more than we need to talk people out of being leaders. James warns that not many should be teachers, but the real point of this passage lies in the importance of how we use our speech. As Scot McKnight notes, “Not once does James bring up again how many teachers there are; instead, he is concerned with the impact of speech patterns in the community, and here particularly with the crucial role teachers play in such a community. His concern shifts from the number of teachers to the impact of teachers.”
It’s often said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but James offers a slightly different rendering; the tongue is more powerful than the fist.
At a couple points in the hit musical, Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton and George Washington clash because Hamilton wants to fight, but Washington realizes how adroit Hamilton is with a pen. The musical also includes the song, “Hurricane” in which Hamilton lists the various points where he “wrote his way out.” One stretch is particularly poignant:
I wrote my way out of hell [his poverty in the Caribbean]I wrote my way to revolution I was louder than the crack in the bell I wrote Eliza love letters until she fell I wrote about The Constitution and defended it well And in the face of ignorance and resistance I wrote financial systems into existence
Now, as the musical and Hamilton’s own life go on, he tries again to save himself with words in the face of a moral transgression (an affair) that comes to be known as the Reynolds’ Pamphlet in which he explains he didn’t hide or steal money, but rather was paying off blackmail. His rise and legacy take a turn with this revelation, demonstrating once again that what is said or written matters often as much as what has happened.
In the scheme of texts to preach, the message of this passage is pretty straightforward—watch how teachers use their gift of speech because the tongue is powerful! One challenge facing the preacher is to make sure that the message is accurately interpreted without leading the bulk of the congregation to see this text as “not about me, but for the preacher and church leaders.”
One angle that might be worth exploring is the way that we encounter these rudder, spark, and bit moments in life. For example, I can recall one conversation I had with a church member years ago when I was pastoring in Milwaukee. I said something that I thought was just small talk and he thought it was an accusation. Because of my role as a teacher in that congregation, it was especially hurtful to him. That moment was almost a spark that undid years of ministry with him. Fortunately for me, he confronted me about how my comment was interpreted and we were able to move forward. Just this summer, I got to return to my old congregation and reminded him of how important his maturity to confront me was. Too often, as leaders, we say something that we shouldn’t or we say something that is interpreted in a way we didn’t intend.
What we say (and write) is of great significance as leaders, but that goes for Christians across the board. This passage is addressed specifically to teachers, but there are lessons for us all. (I mean who isn’t teaching someone?) Just watch a child in your congregation to see that all the adults are teachers, and any older child is probably a teacher too.
I find the distinction between biblical points of description and prescription helpful on many fronts. Here in this passage, James is dealing with these different aspects of speech also. There are many verses that help describe the realities—be careful taking the role of teacher because the stakes are high. Many have trouble using their tongue well (nearly all fall short of perfection). But, verse 10 reminds—this should not be so. Our mouths shouldn’t be worshipping God and cursing people God created and loves.
And that, finally, I think is the task and opportunity for you, preacher, as you unpack this text. Help your congregation to see the importance of forming and reforming their speech so that our most powerful muscle—the tongue—can be used for Good. That might mean helping to cast a vision of how we habituation ourselves to speak in a manner pleasing to God. Or it might entail focal instances of people whose tongues got them in trouble and how they worked through the fall out. I don’t think you have to spend a lot of time talking people out of being teachers—the passage is more deeply concerned with teachers recognizing the stakes, and more importantly understanding the way that what is said is crucial. Our mouths should be tools for declaring God’s love, not harming and wounding through willful or flippant curses (or tirades).
If you choose to preach this passage this week, you’ll have the opportunity to help your congregation see the importance of their words—to imagine the ways that they are able to move more towards what God desires, than to live out the normal reality of speaking both blessings and curses.
 McKnight, Scot. 2011. The Letter of James. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed July 29, 2018).