“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” – James 3:1
If you are a pastor – or an aspiring pastor – you are most likely familiar with a number of passages relevant to the ministry. You’ve likely poured over 1 Peter 5:1-5 several times, Acts 20:28 is probably high up on your “Significant Pastoral Scriptures” list, and higher still are probably 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9.
But this little verse in James is quite possibly the most infamous. “We who teach will be judged with greater strictness” makes the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. And it should, but probably not in the way it does most of the time.
The epistle of James has this nasty reputation of contradicting all of the beautiful gospel-truths that Paul taught; as if a civil war is perpetually being waged inside the pages of our Bibles. But such a reputation is unwarranted, and we can chalk it up to bad exegesis. James doesn’t contradict Paul, and we don't need to try and rescue James from heresy, as is the habit of some. Typically this happens when expositors and commentators shove Paul’s letter to the Galatians into the epistle of James, ignoring the fact that the two letters were written to two entirely different audiences who found themselves in two entirely different circumstances.
We don’t have to reconcile the two because they aren’t in conflict with one another. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The question at hand is this: what does “stricter judgment” mean for the pastor who has been saved by grace alone through faith alone, not of works?
The Pastor – Justified
This question is important because the fidelity of the gospel depends on how we answer it. All throughout the New Testament, we find a juxtaposition between works and faith – righteousness, or lack thereof, that comes through the law versus the imputed righteousness that comes through Christ (Galatians 2:20-21, 3:10-14, Ephesians 2:1-10, Philippians 3:8-11). This juxtaposition is at the heart of the gospel.
The longer we work to justify ourselves, the deeper the hole we dig for ourselves. But, when we are united to Christ by faith, all of our would-be-justifying, condemnation-inviting works are nailed to a cross which was erected on a hill called Calvary 2,000 years ago, and are buried in an ancient Mediterranean grave. And then, as if it wasn’t already sweet enough, by virtue of the same union that took our self-vindicating flesh to the grave, we are resurrected in the God-man, Jesus Christ; only now, not only are we lacking the pitiful works that reek of death, we are counted as having the perfect works of Jesus Christ.
Just like that, and our accounts have thirty-plus years of perfect, sinless, holy, righteousness credited to them! When every human being reaches the end of time, each one will be judged in Adam, or in the second Adam; the former will receive the wage of eternal and perpetual death, the latter will receive the gift of glory.
Now, this is true for the pastor as well as the laymen. He has no other justification. The pastor is saved by the same gospel message he proclaims to his flock, and by no other. The man who has been united to Christ by faith, and has been appointed by God to shepherd his divinely blood-bought Church, need not flinch at reading words like these from Jared Wilson in his book, The Pastor's Justification:
Herein is the justification for the sin-prone pastor (by which I mean “pastor”): because of Christ’s perfect work on your behalf, your failure, your daily anxiety, your unwillingness, your stress, your sin, your brokenness, your ineptitude, your ignorance, your awfulness, your regrets, your pride, and your arrogance are not match for the deep and abiding grace of God given to you before time began and now and forevermore.
The Pastor – Judged With Greater Strictness
All this being the case, we come back now to our question: what on earth does James 3:1 mean for all of this free grace? Thankfully, we actually have a James 3:2, and a James 3:3, and a James 3:4, and… you get the idea. Let’s take a look at the verse in context:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.
How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. (James 3:1-12)
So how does James 3:1 affect the pastor’s justification? Answer: it doesn’t. If we pull off our evac mission to drag the single verse out of its context, it’s very natural to theologize ourselves sick, imagining all sorts of controversies where there are none. But if we simply let him speak for himself, we learn that James is very practical here. He’s on a plain that is entirely different than the lofty theology that justification rests on. He’s saying, “Look, everyone sins with their speech because the tongue is a wily thing, but pastor’s sin with their speech publicly, so not many people should take on that unnecessary headache.”
The stricter judgement that James is describing is not an eschatological second tier at the great white throne. The stricter judgement is the ruthless critical note-taking of the know-it-all bible college student at his parent’s country church. The stricter judgement is the unforgiving gasp that silently thunders in the sanctuary when the pastor accidentally says “crap” from behind the pulpit. The stricter judgement is the disappointed sigh that you make when you read about a morally compromised pastor halfway across the country; though you have never met him, he is receiving your judgement. Why? Because he is a teacher. Perhaps he has sinned the same way your next door neighbor has, but your next door neighbor doesn’t have the influence that halfway-across-the-country-jabroni-pastor has had.
An adulterous husband injures everyone in his sphere of influence. The same is true for the adulterous pastor, but his sphere of influence is significantly larger, which means the injuries he hands out are far more numerous. When a seminary student plagiarizes in a paper, he fails his course, disappoints his family, and possibly gets kicked out school. When a seminary professor plagiarizes in a book, he pays a fine, loses his job, and gives his institution a great big academic black eye; a shiner that will remain for years to come. You get the idea. The teacher’s stricter judgement is palpable. It’s present. You can see it active in real time. The stakes are higher. More is on the line right here and right now; the ripple effects of everything the pastor does reach further than those of his congregants.
Liberated for What?
Now, lest I give off the impression that since the pastor’s stricter standard in no way undermines his justified verdict it must therefore mean that it’s somehow not serious or weighty or lasting, let me end with this: the two – greater strictness and justification – are not unrelated. Despite the fact that they do not alter in any way our station before God the Father in Christ Jesus, there is at least some correlation between our works and the honor God bestows on us. Luke 19:11-27 is in the Bible. We will have to give an account to God for what he has placed under our care, and where more is given, more is required. Honor does correlate with faithfulness, and faithfulness correlates with stewardship. But the good works that we are given, as stewards of God, are given to justified people. We are saved to good works. Gospel liberty isn’t the freedom not to do good works. No, gospel liberty is the freedom to do good works as someone who isn’t justified by them!
In principle, there is no difference between the stewardship of good works that belongs to the laymen, and that which belongs to the pastor; both carry out their good works from the point of justification. The difference is in the weight of responsibility between the two. We all play with live ammo, but pastors have bigger guns, which means more possible damage. We are, after all, talking about God's divinely inspired, inerrant, authoritative Word. If you’re not hit with a cold, sobering slab of humility and fear as you ascend the pulpit, you don’t really know what’s going on. You can’t have the greater responsibility without the stricter judgement; it’s part of the package.
Someone who hasn’t been appointed to this vocation by God should be scared senseless at the prospect of becoming a pastor; he should not even dream about stepping into that role. This kind of responsibility cannot be assumed presumptuously. And yes, James 3:1 should still make the hairs on the back of the called pastor’s neck stand up, but not in the “I’m about to take a test I haven’t studied for” kind of way. More like the “I’m about to ski down this triple black diamond route” kind of way. It should be sobering. It should be weighty. The risk is higher. But man, what an exhilarating privilege!