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I recently had the privilege of preaching at Western Theological Seminary on the second day of the new academic year. The lectionary text was James 3:1-12, a daunting text for a visiting preacher, seminary students, faculty, and staff alike. The following is shortened version of that sermon.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Welcome to seminary. Perhaps after reading such a passage, it would be wiser to sit in silent prayer and self-examination. Who wants to preach or teach after that? Who really dares to begin a journey toward ordained ministry? There’s a reason that the great Patristic theologians preferred the monastic, listening life. Gregory of Nazianzus (who helped formulate basic Trinitarian theology); John Chrysostom (who became known as the “golden mouthed” preacher); and Gregory the Great (who eventually became Pope and wrote the single-most influential text on pastoral care in church history): they all resisted and ran (sometimes quite literally) from ordination. “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes.” And our mistakes have to do with our speech.
As Christians, our spiritual lineage is pock-marked with vitriolic discourse. Patristic theologians “anathematized” one another—they invoked evil upon one another. Catholics and Protestants assailed one another during the Reformation, resulting in more than a century of religious wars. The names Martin Luther called the Pope are not fit for this pulpit! Mainline denominations today are divided by rancorous speech, and the same is true of the many congregations torn apart, not by conflict in and of itself but by the way Christians speak to one another in the midst of it.
If there is one thing that we in the church clearly witness to, we witness to the truth of James’ words: the tongue is like a smoldering fire that, in a short amount of time, can sweep through an entire forest, leaving only charred remains in its path. The venom of the serpentine tongue infects, paralyzes, and kills. The tongue can contribute to dissension or peace; it can wound or heal; it can create distress or comfort; it can destroy faith or inspire faith. Too often it does the former.
Like the entire wisdom tradition of the Bible (and like Jesus, who is our wisdom), “James understands speech as a barometer of our spirituality” (James, Word Biblical Commentary, 120). Public Christian leaders who fail to harness their mouths deceive themselves. Purporting to be faithful, our sweeping, moralistic evaluations of others prove otherwise. For we cannot, on the one hand, praise God and then, on the other hand, condemn those who are made in God’s image and those in whom God dwells. To do so is to live a performative contradiction. “It ought not be so.”
Likewise speaking flippantly about significant matters and taking little thought for the accuracy of our theological claims is not only foolish but also spiritually, emotionally, perhaps even physically harmful. Four years ago John Piper, who has his own following in Reformed circles, published an online video series, his biblical responses to a series of questions, one of which was: “Should women submit to abuse?” Piper chuckled, as if this was a light matter; he made a bizarrely out-of-context suggestion that if a husband wants his wife to have group sex she shouldn’t “do that because it would be sin”; and then proceeded to say, “If it’s not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season and she endures perhaps being smacked one night and then she seeks help from the church.”
Recently Piper has semi-corrected his position, but one wonders, how many people have endured verbal and physical assault instead of receiving God’s healing and justice? How much fear was struck in the hearts of onlooking children? How many others missed out on the possibility of specialized training that might, by the grace of God, lead them to repentance?
“How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire.”
Seminary education prepares Christian leaders speak in ways that correspond to Christ’s ministry of healing and reconciliation in the world. Three years of imbibing wisdom distilled from the communion of saints; three years of learning how contribute to peace not dissension, to participate in healing not wounding, giving comfort rather than creating distress, inspiring, not destroying, faith. Learn how to guide your speech and you guide your whole life. In fact, guide your speech and that will carry you through turbulence in relationships with family, friends, colleagues, and church members. Guide your speech and you will accompany Christ’s guidance of his body.
Of course, this is no small task, especially in seminary. For here we learn to talk theologically—to discern, interpret, and proclaim God’s ministry in the world—and with that comes a particular set of dangers. Narrow assertions emerging from our favorite theologians rather than the broad witness of the communion of saints; rigid, inflexible adherence to particular beliefs; church factions replicated in classrooms through the use of labels, like liberals or conservatives; questioning the legitimacy of our colleagues’ call to ministry: these patterns of speech lurking in the halls of seminaries “ought not be so.”
But here’s the good news: “we all make mistakes”—the Patristic theologians, Luther & Calvin, Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and all the rest of us who dare to say “yes” to God’s call. In this life, we may not be able to completely tame the tongue, but nevertheless another way is set before us—the way of wisdom. After he warns us about destructive power of the tongue, James writes, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom?” (James 3:13) When we guide our speech, our lives become marked by gentleness, peace, generosity, kindness, and epistemic humility. By the power of the Spirit, we set aside our enemy images of others. We pray that God might empower us to speak in correspondence Christ. When our tongues suddenly turn us in a direction that we are loathe to go, we lament and mourn and confess our sins to one another, so that we might, with our words, bless God, one another, and the world.