I am slowly memorizing the book of James in the Bible. Right now I am focusing on chapter 3, which opens with this statement: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers” (ESV). The humor here comes from the fact that James himself is clearly performing the role of a teacher throughout his letter, with his terse tone in which love for his audience competes with exasperation with them, his frequent questions and illustrations, and his short sentences, after which I can almost imagine him pausing to make sure his students are tracking with him. I would personify James’s narrative voice in this letter as a high school boys’ Sunday school teacher standing in front of a whiteboard alternating between outlining serious theological concepts and keeping an eye on the cutups in the back of the room. “Really, guys? You can be better than this.”
If James himself is a teacher, why is he warning others to pause before following in his footsteps? The second half of the sentence explains: “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” This makes me think of two of the great sayings of James’s brother Jesus: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36) and “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). All of us will be judged on the careless words we speak, but the more people who hear the careless words, the weightier the judgment. James is talking about influence.
If James were writing his letter today, he might say, “Not many of you should become influencers.” I think nearly all of us are at least a little bit allured by the idea of having a large platform with a large audience, whether it consists of book readers, podcast listeners, or social media followers (or all of the above, if you’re branding and marketing yourself as you should be). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having those things, and I don’t think James would either. He is just saying: Before you take on that kind of responsibility, count the cost. Make sure your words have a firmer basis than your impression of what will sound wise or hip in the moment. People are listening.
James is talking specifically about teachers of the word of God, and I could write a whole series of posts about how influencer culture has…well, influenced the Church in the 21st century. But this blog is written for and by a different kind of teacher, and James’s principle applies to us too. Our students are listening. Preschool and elementary teachers realize this when they hear their students repeating their words and then wonder, “Yikes! Did I really say that?” (Most parents have had this experience too, I think.) I am always a little freaked out when one of my graduate or upper-level undergraduate students cites one of my course presentations in an assignment. [Fun side note: Now I’m starting to see my married name in citations: (Martinus, 2021).] My first reaction, even before I feel flattered, is a little bit of fear: “Oh, they’re actually paying attention. I need to be careful what I say!” I remember how cool and smart I thought my college professors were, especially those in my major. (And I should add, in case any of them read this, that they really were cool and smart!) I took their words very seriously. And I know I probably have some students now who think I’m cool and smart and who take my words very seriously. “Everyone to whom much was given, of [her] much will be required.”
Nobody is exempt from this principle, of course. We are all influencers. Some people have a wider (e.g. Instagram celebrities) or more intense (e.g. parents) influence than others. But no matter who you are, someone is hearing (or reading) your words and watching your life. You are a teacher. This is a great and a fearful honor. Yes, there is grace for when we make mistakes. But hear James’s warning whenever you are tempted to speak a careless word. Someone is listening.