Formations 03.12.2017: Think Before You Speak

James 3:1-12

Fred Berger, producer of La La Land, foreground center, gives his acceptance speech as members of PricewaterhouseCoopers and a stage manager discuss the best picture announcement error (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP) (Associated Press)

I must admit I wasn’t watching the Academy Awards last month when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway accidentally announced the wrong winner in the Best Picture category. Apparently, Beatty had been handed the wrong envelope—the one for Emma Stone’s Best Actress award for La La Land. Upon reading the card, it’s obvious Beatty didn’t know what to do. After an awkward hesitation, he showed the card to Dunaway, who announced La La Land as the winner for Best Picture.

As the presumed winners mounted the stage, a representative from PricewaterhouseCoopers (the firm entrusted with the envelopes) stepped forward to announce there had been a mistake and, in fact, Moonlight was the true winner of the Best Picture Oscar.

I can’t say what I would have done in Beatty or Dunaway’s shoes. There was clearly something wrong with the card, but what does that mean? Am I reading this correctly? Should I just forge ahead? Should I call “time out” and see if someone can clear up my confusion?

That single phrase “La La Land,” was not spoken with the intent to deceive. It wasn’t said to belittle or manipulate. It wasn’t hurled in anger at an enemy. From Faye Dunaway’s perspective, it was a simple, honest mistake.

And yet, what a firestorm that simple phrase has caused! The accountants responsible for the error have been permanently booted from working future Oscars. The entire fiasco has become fodder from endless jokes at everyone’s expense.

Nigel Currie, a branding specialist, called the error “as bad a mess-up as you could imagine.” He says, “They had a pretty simple job to do and messed it up spectacularly. They will be in deep crisis talks on how to deal with it.”

All of us have spoken when it would have been wiser to keep silent, if only for a minute! After all, the tongue has been the downfall of many. James warns his readers about the dangers of an unguarded tongue. Like bits in horses’ mouths or rudders on ships, the tongue is a small member that has a powerful influence over the whole body.

Pan Pylas, “Oscars Mistake Puts Consulting Firm’s Reputation in Jeopardy,” The Washington Post, 27 Feb 2017

“The Oscars Fire the PWC Accountants Behind Best Pic Fail,” TMZ, 1 March 2017


• What are some other examples of words spoken in innocence leading to disaster?
• Why do people so often speak before they have all the necessary information?
• When have you seen words spoken to deceive, manipulate, or belittle cause damage?
• What sorts of “fires” have we ignited with our words?
• Why is it so difficult to tame the tongue?
• How can believers today take James’s warning to heart? Specifically, what steps can we take to begin to bring our tongues under control?

Reference Shelf

Teachers in the Bible

Two biblical words address the scope of teaching—Torah and didache. Torah, often misunderstood as equivalent to “law,” correctly describes all that has been revealed of God’s nature, god’s purpose, and God’s expectations. Law encompassed part of that, but the story of God’s gracious acts established the context through which the divine will was revealed and people’s obedient response anticipated. In the family and in the synagogue, Torah was studied, taught, and proclaimed. Its invitation was: “Hear, O Israel.” It offered the learner identity with the past, guidance for the present, and hope for the future.

Didache carried a similar meaning in the NT. Though gradually institutionalized in formal theology and in the church office of teacher, didache provided instruction and exhortation in various aspects of Christian life, thought, and practice. It represented both the vehicle through which revelation was carried as well as the content of that revelation.

Teaching was the major role of the rabbi and, of course, the teacher. It was a principal activity of Jesus in his ministry. On occasion the prophet was a teacher. through teaching, the people of God reaffirmed their identity and drew direction and strength for their mission.

Michael Fink, “Teaching,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 876.

Having It Both Ways

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.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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