The word of the day is “teachers.” To grow in the faith and life of Christ, we need teachers to nurture and guide us. But the scriptures repeatedly warn of false teachers that are like wolves among us, the sheep. How do we know that we have genuine teachers who will nourish us with the word of life?
In today’s reading of James 3:1-10, the apostle writes, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment” (OSB vs. 1). From this short apostolic counsel, we will derive some signs of dependable instructors.
True Teachers Are Not Self-Appointed
First, we learn from our reading that authentic instructors should not be self-appointed. James writes, “Let not many of you…” (OSB vs. 1). Who is it that must allow only a few to be teachers? The Orthodox answer is that the church is governed by its hierarchs, those whom the Holy Spirit has called to the ministry of teaching.
On the other hand, the Lord warned against false teachers who would “come in His name” and say that they “are the Christ” (OSB Matthew 24:5). But the claims of deceivers to come with the authority of Christ and to represent Him are only their own delusions. These unholy pretenders have no authorization beyond themselves. Thus, as soon as we hear wild or unusual contentions, we should ask who authorized those who are spreading these speculations and suppositions.
True Teachers Have Pure Motives
Second, to expose fraudulent teachers, we should probe into the motivations of those who intend to instruct us. We should be aware that deceivers of the faithful covet the authority and esteem of the true teachers of the church.
The Lord Himself warned, “Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts (OSB Mark 12:38). They may pretend to be devout, but the mark of true piety is humility. Thus we can know truly edifying teachers by their humbleness.
True Teachers Show Restraint in Speech
Third, we gather from the Epistle of James that genuine teachers should show restraint, always matching their teaching to the comprehension and needs of their students. A sign of self-important and untrustworthy teachers is their talkativeness. The unreliable educator pretends to be an expert on everything and does not hesitate to give his opinion on anything.
Rather than such loquaciousness, the apostle writes, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (OSB James 1:10). This saying is especially appropriate for those called to teach. Wise teachers know that not everything that comes to mind is worthy of expression, especially when they are instructing the flock. Godly teachers are those who keep control over their tongue as a rider controls a horse with a bit in its mouth (OSB vs. 2). Accordingly, we can identify authentic teachers by their thoughtful consideration before they share the wisdom of answering our questions.
Our reading speaks to those who aspire to be teachers as well as to those who sit at their feet to learn from them. Yes, teachers have honor and influence. But the price of their high standing in the church is that they will receive a “stricter judgment” (OSB 1). Teachers will be held accountable for the understanding or misunderstanding of their pupils. They will be responsible for the fruit that their counsel bears, whether good or bad (OSB Matthew 7:16-20 and Corinthians 3:13-15).
But as pupils, we also have a responsibility to follow only those teachers who are Spirit-inspired. We should heed the warnings against the deception of false prophets. Therefore, we should ask the Spirit for wisdom to discern instruction from God or errors and falsehoods from human fabrication. Thus, the apostle in 1 John states, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (OSB 4:1). The insights that we have gleaned from today’s readings should help us “test the spirits” of those who would teach us to find those who would nurture and guide us in the way of Christ.