Connections 09.16.2018: The Danger of the Tongue

James 3:1-12

The pastor of my growing up years, the legendary Preacher Bill Coleman, liked to brag back in the 1970s that he hadn’t spoken at a Wednesday night prayer meeting in several years. The reason was that he put a sheet on the bulletin board in the church foyer on which anyone who wanted to speak could sign up to do so. Lots of people signed up. No vetting took place. We heard some pretty interesting messages.

I was thirteen years old the first time I signed up to speak on a Wednesday night. I worked hard on that talk (I’ve always referred to it as my first sermon, but that requires taking considerable liberty with the meaning of the word). I practiced it over and over. I even timed my presentation. But for some reason, my talk that lasted twenty minutes in rehearsal took only five minutes to deliver. Time seemed to speed up in the pulpit. I guess I was a little nervous.

I kept my notes from that message for over forty years. When we moved to our present house a few years ago, I decided to throw away all of my old sermons, including that one. But I still remember the title: “The Danger of the Tongue.” James 3 was my text. I focused on verses 5b-6a: “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

My message consisted of my listing every bad use of the tongue that I could think of and condemning folks for making such use of it. I came down hard on gossiping, which I evidently regarded as a plague in our congregation. I was probably right about that. I also read some of the lyrics from the song “Jesus Christ Superstar” from the rock opera of the same name (I got them from a copy of Hit Parader magazine, which was the source in ancient pre-Internet times for such information) and condemned such blasphemy. I was wrong about that, as I later learned when I attended the show and listened more carefully to the songs.

Forty-seven years have passed since my first “sermon,” and I’ve been preaching and teaching ever since. I’m even more aware now than I was back then of the danger words can pose. I’m also more aware of the importance of reading the words of Scripture in context.

It’s important to read a passage in its immediate context. In the case of this week’s lesson text, we should note that it begins with, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (v. 1). So while James’s teachings about the proper and improper use of words apply to all of us, they especially apply to teachers. We who teach the Bible have a special responsibility to use our words in helpful and not hurtful ways.

It’s also important to read a passage in its Christian context. What I mean by that is that we should always read and teach Scripture in light of God’s revelation through Jesus Christ. This Sunday’s lectionary Gospel passage (Mk 8:27-38) includes Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. This story reminds us of the danger of saying the right words about Jesus but not embracing them with our lives. When Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” It’s a good answer. Peter says the right words. But when Jesus explains that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again,” Peter rebukes Jesus. This leads Jesus to rebuke Peter back. It also leads him to explain that if we are to follow him, we must lay down our lives too.

When we put all this together, we can conclude that it matters that we live in ways that reflect our following of a crucified Lord, because such living enables us to speak about Jesus and about Scripture with integrity. This is true for all of us, but it is especially important that we teachers recognize how vital it is.

One of the greatest dangers of the tongue these days is that people who speak in the name of the Lord do so in ways that reveal little knowledge of who Jesus is, of what Jesus said, and of how Jesus lived and died, as well as little embrace of the kind of life Jesus calls his followers to lead.


1. Why do you think James says so much about the proper and improper use of words?
2. The church needs teachers. Why does James discourage “many” (v. 1) from becoming teachers?
3. James says, “No one can tame the tongue” (v. 8). On the other hand, his words really encourage us to try to do so. How can we go about it? What practices can help us use words to help rather than to harm, to build up rather than to tear down?
4. Why do we practice the kind of hypocrisy James addresses in verses 9-12? How can we develop a spirit that will move away from such hypocrisy?

Research Shelf

Earlier James has characterized worthless religion as that marked by an unbridled tongue (1:26), whereas “pure and undefiled religion” in God’s sight is “unstained from the world” (1:27). Here, James pictures the untamed tongue as an enemy agent, placed among the parts of our bodies with the potential to stain them all; the tongue is a microcosm of the sinful world (3:6). Its spark is kindled by Gehenna; it seems nothing
in creation is fireproofed; all is scorched by its
flames (3:6). The human experience in taming
“every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea
creature” (3:7) reflects confidence in the creation
mandate to exercise dominion (Gen 1:26, 28;
Ps 8:6). Yet the tongue is untamable, restless,
and venomous (Jas 3:8). The tongue
lacks integrity, blessing God all the while
cursing those fashioned in God’s image (3:9; cf.
Gen 1:26-27). James views such a lack
of integrity as unnatural as several examples
show. Springs do not pour forth fresh (literally
“sweet”) and brackish (literally “bitter”) waters
from the same mouth (Jas 3:11); yet the same
mouth can speak sweet doxologies and bitter
anathemas. Trees are known by their fruits—fig
trees do not yield olives; grapevines do not yield
figs (3:12)—each produces according to its own
kind (cf. Gen 1: 11-12); yet double-speak does
not clarify whose fruit we are (cf. Jas 1:18). 
Again, salt pools do not produce fresh water; 
similarly, it is unnatural for some to bless God
and curse God’s likeness encountered in one’s
neighbor (3:9-10). Earlier, James has accused
the rich of a perverse ‘integrity’: they both
oppress community members through the courts and blaspheme the name of Christ (2:6-7); their bitter deeds are consistent with their hateful speech. Some in James’s community want to have it both ways: they want to confess faith in Christ as Lord yet practice discrimination against the community’s poor (2:1), the Lord’s chosen ones; they want to confess monotheism yet neglect God’s call to do mercy (2:19,13). Here, they want to bless God whom they, like Jesus, acknowledge as Father (3:9) yet curse God’s other children, who bear God’s family likeness. Though James does not identify those here accursed as the poor, such a connection is attractive. The stain from world (1:27) is in part conformity with the world’s negative estimation of the needy and inaction in the face of their affliction. Here, the tongue spouting curses (3:9) is the “world of iniquity” (3:6) encamped among the members of the body.

Christopher Church, “James,” Hebrews-James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 373–74.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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