A Retake On James Chapter Three
This is a recap of this morning's pastor's class at Christ Lutheran Church, entitled: A Retake On James Chapter 3.
One can understand James 3 as an general admonition to the baptized on the use of the tongue; or as a specific admonition to the clergy of the church that James addresses. I take it as the latter, and then analogically also the former. Why?
If one reads Scripture as an ecclesiastical "document" v. an abstract theological work, or database of doctrine, it becomes clear.
When we hear James we are hearing either the sermon when it was actually preached by James to this congregation; taken down in writing and preserved. Or possibly a version of it that was so treasured that it was preserved and became Scripture for the church. One can safely ignore any talk of antilegoumena. It may have meant something very early on, but it has meant nothing since the NT canon was made official ca. 367 AD. James is a bona fide "book" of the bible, and inspired by the HS.
Now let's take a look.
The teachers referred to here are the church's clergy, what in other places are called bishops, presidents/presiders and prebyters. And what we call today in Lutheranism: pastors. They were not living up to their work, as we learn from the wrong notions introduced in the first two chapters. No surprise. The Office is always bigger than the man who occupies it. Don't forget that.
Then as now, everyone wanted to be pastor. Everyone wanted to wear the collar, and wield spiritual power and authority. But James warns them against this, for pastors will be judged with a stricter judgment.
Note that he addresses the congregation, the laity, as brothers. As I've said many times, this is a eucharistic term in the NT, not a collegial title. It means the baptized who are in eucharistic fellowship at the altar, in divine liturgy.
James repeats what we learn in Hebrews13:17 that the clergy must give an account to God for every word spoken in the church. In my parish I have two emeritii, very good men. And two SS teachers, both good people. But they are not responsible to God for their labors at CLC. They are responsible to me. And I am responsible to God for everything they say and do; as well obviously as for all that I say and do.
In v. 2 James says that we all stumble in various ways. Yes. Again the Office is bigger than the man, and in Paul's words our competence comes from God.
"If any man does not stumble in what he speaks" that is, any clergyman, "the same is a 'telios anir'" A mature pastor, a man like unto The Telios Anir Jesus Christ. And he is "able to bridle his whole body" say our English translations. Except for one problem. The word "his" is not present in the Greek.
Rather we should understand James as speaking of the body / Soma tou Christou. The church! If a clergyman is a mature and formed man, he will keep the church within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith, practice and life. If he is not, he won't.
In v. 3 James gives an example. If we put a bridle into the mouth of a horse to reign him in, the whole body of the horse is guided by the bridled mouth. The same of the pastor who is in line with the Truth, he keeps the whole body / soma / church well guided.
In v. 4, thus with ships. The HS is the Pilot in this case, and the mouth of the pastor is the rudder that directs the whole ship / church into safe waters.
In v. 5 James continues his full court press. Though the tongue of the church's teacher is a small "member" (think Paul here) of the soma / body /church, one among many if you like, it ignites a whole forest.
When we hear tongue in this verse and the next, think Pentecost. Without the Spirit teaching, sanctifying and guiding the tongue all is lost. No one is competent to be a messenger / angel of the Almighty. But the Spirit manifested himself as a "tongue" of fire. Not as a finger, or a hand, or a foot, but a tongue of fire. (also think Isaiah 6 here).
The tongue of the church's teacher can ignite great faith and love, or the fires of hell. Think of all the wrong morality, doctrine, practice and presentation of the holy Christian faith forwarded by those who are clergy. Think ELCA with homosexuality and its many other errors; Evangelicalism with decision theology and the trashing of the sacraments. Think social gospel preachers. Think back in history to Arianism which raged as a hot war for 250 years in God's church.
All by the tongue of the less than telios anir / perfect man per v. 2.
In v. 6 James uses ecclesiastical language again, "tongues of fire", "members" "body / church." These tongues can baptize people with the HS and with fire. Or they can raise hell, and send people to hell by "false belief, despair and other great shame and vice" per the Small Catechism.
Verses 7 & 8 should be read in the same ecclesiastical light. No one can tame the tongue. Unless the Spirit makes the church's teachers competent they will never be ambassadors, or ministers or angels / messengers. But will start sects of their own and tickle men's ears with strange doctrines etc. All deadly poison.
V. 9 is further ecclesiastical. Where do we bless God? In church of course. Away with abstract enthusiasm. We bless God in the house of God with God's people on the Lord's Day. Not by abstract happy thoughts of blessing God.
And how can the same tongue that blesses God. That leads God's people in holy worship. That speaks the Verba over the bread and cup, also curse man by igniting the fires of hell in them, with their wrong-headed leadership? But it happens. Look around, it's not far from our doors. Maybe in our doors.
These things ought not so to be! says James.
Now, can these words apply equally to the tongue of every Christian? Without doubt. And to apply them thus one isn't wrong. But to leave out what I contend is the primary context as stated above is to miss at least half of the point. And why should we leave money sitting on the table, as they say. Rather let us hear the whole counsel of God.
The greatest use of the tongue is to confess the One, True God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. This occurs in the church's worship, and especially we when confess Christ by receiving him on our tongues in holy communion. For this is to fulfill the admonition of Romans 10: to believe with the heart the eucharistic presence of the Lord Jesus, and to confess him with the mouth's open to eat his body, and drink his blood for the remission not of cancer, but of sin! God grant it. Amen.