Masters and Mouths
© 4/18/2020 C. O. Bishop
James seems to address two ideas here: Masters and Mouths. But, the admonition is directed to “My Brethren:” to believers. So, since both ideas are addressed to the same audience, and the one leads directly into the other, we will approach them as if they were one idea, simply having a wider and a narrower focus.
The general focus is “how we live,” especially in the case of leaders. Remember that in chapter two that was also the primary focus, where faith had to result in actions. Hypocrisy was ruled out by genuine faith, leading to the “practical” holiness of life which God requires.
“Be Not Many Masters”
1 My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
Bear in mind that I am quoting the King James Version…which, in its original form was from 1611. In modern English, especially in the US, we no longer often use the word “master” to mean a teacher, but that was a very common usage, two centuries ago, even in the US. A school-teacher was called a schoolmaster, a person who went from town to town teaching young people the arts of ballroom dancing (once considered an important part of education) was called a “dance-master,” etc. The word for teacher in Spanish is still “maestro,” and such usage is common in many languages. This passage is not a warning to not be an employer, nor even a caution against the (then-common) practice of slave-holding. It is an admonition that one not be over-eager to become a teacher (specifically, teaching within the church…teaching scripture, feeding the flock, equipping the saints, etc.) Why would James extend such a warning? Over in 1st Timothy 8:1, it says that “if a man desires the office of a bishop (“overseer”…same person as an elder, pastor, shepherd, presbyter,) it is a good work he desires.”
The issue is one of being held accountable: see Hebrews 13:17. We elders are going to be held accountable for the results of our ministry, at least so far as it is a direct result of what we did or failed to do. Ezekiel 34:1-10 spells out the job description of the shepherds, and specifically emphasizes their ultimate accountability to God. If you read that passage, and it does not make you think very seriously about the consequences of ministry, for good or bad, then something is wrong with how you approach God’s Word. He makes it a truly serious issue.
The warning here, about “masters” (teachers) bearing a greater condemnation, also could be in reference to the fact that our human observers will more harshly condemn a failing teacher or preacher than they will one who does not hold such a position. (Consider how the news media love to report any failure in pastors, Sunday-school teachers, etc.) And the warning is clear, that we should not be “in a rush” to gain that status, knowing that the risk is there.
But…it is also a warning that God demands more of a teacher or a shepherd. We are held to a stricter standard. The qualifications for leadership in 1st Timothy 3:1-8 and Titus 1:5-9 are quite clear, and they definitely lay out God’s standard for Church leaders. They do not say that all Christians have to meet those criteria. On the other hand, they definitely are all character-traits that should be emulated by those who follow. Paul said (1st Corinthians 11:1) to the Corinthian believers that they were to follow him as he followed Christ. Elders, deacons and other leaders are to lead by example, so that others can do as they do, without fear of being led astray. Peter said (1st Peter 5:1-3)that the elders are not to serve as “lords” over the flock, but to be examples for the flock.
The danger of failure looms for everyone, but the results of failure in a shepherd’s life can be disastrous, as others are certainly following. A pastor who winks at worldly thinking will be held accountable for the sin into which members of the flock will certainly be drawn. He taught them that it was “OK.” The failings in the teachers will be lived out in those they teach. So James addresses the most common failing, here: the mouth…the tongue. And he reminds us that we all fail in this area, so it is especially vital to guard against this nearly universal failing.
2 For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.
The Importance of the Tongue
This sounds like an exaggeration, but James says that if a believer can completely solve the “mouth problem”, he is fully mature—“perfect,” in the sense of the ability to walk with God. James says that if you can control your tongue, you can control everything else, as well, because, evidently, that is the greatest challenge. Then he goes on to illustrate how the tongue is at least indicative of where the whole man is headed.
3 Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.
4 Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth.
5 Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!
James uses, as illustrations, a bit in a horse’s mouth and the rudder on a ship; they are examples of how something relatively small can have a huge effect. In a way, it is an “inside out” analogy… in both those cases, the small thing (bit and rudder) are used to physically control, from the outside, a much larger thing (the horse or the ship.) But the tongue is primarily an indicator of what is going on in the heart. Jesus said (Matthew 12:33-35) that a good man brings forth out of the good treasures of his heart that which is good; while an evil man brings forth out of the evil treasures of his heart, that which is evil. He said that “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaketh.” Interestingly, this is also the passage where the scripture teaches that “by their fruit ye shall know them”. He was referring to false teachers, and the “fruit” was their teaching; their words. What comes out of our mouths is indicative of what is in our hearts.
6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.
We need to consider the ultimate source of what is coming out of our mouths: Does it originate with God? And, if not, from where else might it originate? (“…set on fire of hell?” Is this literal? Or figurative?) Jesus said (Mark 7:15-23) that a man is not defiled by what he puts into his mouth, but by what comes out, specifically because of the source. The evil that comes out of our hearts, and bears fruit through our words and actions, is what brands us as sinners. Paul said, (Romans 8:7) that our sin nature is literally untamable—that it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can it be brought into submission. So, if my sin nature is the source of what comes out of my mouth, it is guaranteed to be unprofitable, if not downright destructive. Remember that the Holy Spirit is the Author of all of the Bible, through the various human writers. So James, by the same Holy Spirit, confirms that the tongue (because it bears the fruit of the inner man…the heart) is untamable, too…and that it reflects our old sin nature (which, in turn, is ultimately fueled by the Evil One, as we see in Ephesians 2:2, 3) Not much fun to consider, is it?
7 For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind:
8 But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison.
The issue is the heart: Jeremiah, over 600 years earlier had said, (Jeremiah 17:9) that “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked…” So, even in a believer, who is possessed of a new nature which is created holy and righteous (See Ephesians 4:24), the old sin nature, unchanged and untamable, is still there, waiting and yearning to take over and make us a curse to all around us instead of a blessing.
9 Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.
10 Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be.
The contrast between blessing and cursing is stark, and very clear: What other kinds of things does God label as “sins of the lips?”
Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers.”
So the classification of “what to say and what not to say” could be narrowed to “What, in this flow of words, could minister grace to the hearers?” (By the way, I try to maintain the consciousness that, even “in private,” there are hearers, and watchers. Consider the fact that we are a testimony of God’s Grace and Wisdom to the Angelic hosts, not just to humans.) How is this edifying to anyone? How does it build up someone in their walk with God? Or, conversely, does it actually do the opposite? This is serious stuff, if you consider the potential consequences.
Ephesians 5:4 says, “Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.” (KJV)
- NASB renders the same passage, “and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.”
- NIV renders it “Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.”
In these passages, Paul lists some things that are simply seen as being inappropriate for believers to say or discuss. We may have a variety of opinions about what those subjects may be, but I am guessing that the things to which he refers, here, are conversations that either make light of, or glorify sin or immorality. He goes on to say that “it is a shame even to speak of those things done of them in secret.” (Ephesians 5:12) Such things should not be comfortable for us to discuss, and there has to be a very good reason to even broach these subjects, let alone dwell upon them. I have had young believers insist that “swearing can be a good thing” in certain circumstances. I am not the judge: Jesus is. But Jesus is the Living Word of God. How can I rationalize obscenity, off-color joking, or the like, when the Written Word of God tells me it is to be abandoned?
What other kinds of things does God list as sins of the mouth? One he hits on in many places is deception: Jesus labeled Satan as being the author of deception, saying “…he is a liar and the father of it.” (John 8:44) Give that some thought, when you are tempted to shade the truth.
In Proverbs 6:16-19 He lists:
- A lying tongue
- A false witness that speaketh lies
- He that soweth discord among brethren.
I’m not sure that I understand the difference between the first two items, as both seem to deal with lying. But the third one can refer to someone who spreads negative information, even if it is true. Proverbs 10:12 says that “hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins.” 1st Peter 4:8 echoes that idea, saying that “…love covers a multitude of sin.” It is possible for us to tell the truth, and still be in the wrong, as we have become a “talebearer.” Proverbs 11:13 says “A talebearer revealeth secrets, but he that is of a faithful spirit concealeth the matter.”
Our mouth can be a source of trouble even when we are telling the truth…when the matter simply should not have been discussed. Proverbs 10:19 says, “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin, but he that refraineth his lips is wise.” Wisdom is the thing we want controlling our words. Proverbs 31:26, referring to a virtuous woman, says, “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness.” Those are the things we want to characterize what comes out of our mouths. Wisdom and Kindness!
Incidentally, if we have wronged someone by talking behind their back, and they know it, then we owe them confession and apology, as well as the same to all those to whom we gossiped. But if the “victim” does not know, and we run to them to “clear our conscience”, then we have only burdened them with the knowledge that we have wronged them, and then left them to worry about the potential long-term results of our sin.
That is not a kind thing to do, nor does it undo the damage we have done: instead, it adds to the damage. So, while we do have to go and confess our gossip to those to whom we gossiped, it is very questionable motive that would drive us to also go let the victim know that their reputation has been sullied by our loose mouth, unless there is a real chance they would learn of it anyway, and this might somehow protect them from the potential damage.
One must consider what “Agape” love means: It requires doing things for the benefit of the recipient, without regard to the effect on the doer. That is what Jesus demonstrated at the Cross. If my “confession,” meant only to “unburden my soul,” is going to cause further damage to the victim of my loose mouth, then that is not a loving thing to do. We need to examine our motives, and consider the potential results. There may be times when the only one to whom I can confess is God himself.
It is not Random: It is a Choice.
James goes on to finally compare our speech to a fountain or a fruit tree:
11 Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter?
12 Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.
Nature doesn’t hold very many anomalies like the human mouth. A spring would not normally alternate randomly from salt water to fresh, and back again, though I suppose a seasonal change or a tidal change might produce such a phenomenon. But it is certainly not considered normal, nor would it ever be considered a good thing. It would make that spring unreliable to any creature who needs fresh water.
A fruit tree will never “randomly” offer a completely unrelated fruit, though grafting can produce some rather unusual combinations. But there is nothing random about it, and usually, it is considered a desirable thing, where grafting is involved, because someone went to a great deal of trouble and care, to produce that successful graft.
But our speech does swing wildly from very good to very bad, sometimes without warning. It’s an unfortunate truth, but it is a reality that we can (and must) learn to deal with, and, thankfully, one from which we will eventually be free.
In the meantime, we are exhorted to be aware of the danger and to deal wisely in the things we say and do. The words we use and the way we conduct relationships tell the people around us more about the reality of our walk with God than any overt “piety” we may try to display. People need to
- See a consistent walk that emulates the Savior, to
- Hear kind, gracious, wise speech,and thereby to
- Smell (metaphorically speaking) a consistent aroma of the fragrance of Christ, not the reek of the old nature. The words we speak will accomplish either the one or the other.
To leaders, this is an especially serious warning, of course, but all believers need to be aware that we are affecting someone, whether we know it or not, and for better or worse. Choose daily to consider what effect you are having, and allow God to change your thinking and your words.
Blessings upon you all. I trust that we will soon be together again in the building the Lord has provided. Until that time, please try to maintain contact with one another by telephone, and maintain contact with God, in the Word, and in prayer.