“Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers and sisters, knowing that we will experience greater condemnation. For we all stumble in many ways.” (James 3:1-2a my translation).
In James 3:1-2a, James gives a warning to those who are or would be teachers. One should be careful because teachers will be held to a stricter standard. As I teach biblical studies, I take this passage very seriously. James has in mind teachers within a church setting. The role of teacher, mentioned in Acts 13:1 alongside that of prophet, would have been a role that brought honor socially, much as being a professor in most disciplines does today. Apparently people, both fit and unfit, sought the role of teacher. James elaborates on the primary issue for teachers in James 3:2b-12: the tongue. Teachers have significant influence through what they say. There are at least two spheres in which this warning from James is important to me: the church and the classroom.
As a scholar, I need to know the issues regarding approaches to interpreting the Bible, and knowledge of the issues for reading specific books, such as Isaiah or Acts.
In a church context, such as an adult Sunday school class or small group, my audience typically has little or no background knowledge of any of the issues that I have labored to learn, nor prepared to properly evaluate material from those who take an antagonistic approach to the Bible or Christian faith. In this context, my words have to be measured carefully, not saying anything that would cause someone to doubt her faith or make him think that some book of the Bible is wrong or irrelevant for faith and practice. I need to offer a response that is properly nuanced but also useful. Usually, members of my church don’t want to know that there are at least twelve ways to interpret the Sermon on the Mount. What is needed is a reply “on the fly” that does not require Greek exegesis to help the person understand a passage better without leading anyone astray.
In a classroom, I have more freedom. As in any other discipline, it is appropriate to help students understand and grapple with the differing positions taken on biblical texts. When dealing with issues that matter, like what we can know about Jesus, I cannot imagine not offering some evaluation of the differing perspectives. My tongue, what I tell students, will be evaluated by God one day.
I do not know what this would look like in a different discipline. I don’t suppose James’ words relate to explaining the circle of fifths correctly in a music theory course. So how would Christian faith affect teaching about critical theory or ethics or biology? It matters from a Christian perspective. I had a long-time friend who went through college and seminary with me, but who abandoned his faith due to his doctoral studies at Vanderbilt, and then tried unsuccessfully to find his faith again through the “Yale school.” What we as teachers say affects real people who make decisions about how to live for or without Christ. That is quite a responsibility, and if we affirm that “all truth is God’s truth,” it applies to all the disciplines.
What are areas in your discipline that directly affect worldview questions?
How does being a Christian affect what you say to students?
Lord, when we stand in front of students, we pray for divine wisdom. May our tongues only produce good fruit. Knowing that we will have a stricter standard applied to us, help us by your Holy Spirit to teach in ways that will not point students away from you, even when we have to talk about issues that could. In what we say, and in all the ways that we interact with students, help us to be diligent in presenting our discipline well and modeling what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in academia. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Kenneth D. Litwak has a Ph.D. In New Testament studies. He teaches as an online adjunct for Asbury Theological Seminary, a computer programmer, and continues trying to find a full-time teaching position in biblical studies.