There is a rising debate taking place in church in the West. It goes something like this: “Is the ministry of proclamation, the method of proclaiming the Gospel through trained preachers and teachers, the prescribed approach to missions and discipleship in the Bible?”
Although we can be sure the ministry of proclamation has been the predominate methodology of the church dating back no less than 500 years to the Protestant Reformation, the debate is catching new wind and attention. Church attendance and cultural respect for clergy is in decline alongside growing newsworthy stories of misconduct among those serving in pastoral or ministerial roles. Also, with shrinking church budgets and above average stress-related incidents among clergy with low returns on the fulfillment of the great commission in making new disciples of Jesus Christ, it might be time to ask a vulnerable question: “Is this the best way to reach the lost and spread the gospel?”
In his New Testament letter to the early religious believers, James (the brother of Jesus), sheds some wisdom on this debate. He offers a not-so subtle warning that might have gone against the traditions of his day: “Not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1, NLT). James doesn’t say that no one should be a teacher, but most should not. Those who do will be judged strictly — by God and by others. They will be cross examined, criticized, tested and watched for any and every sort of hypocrisy that will come from their mouths. Not might, but will come from their mouths. James continues: “For we all stumble in many ways” (3:2, ESV), and “no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8, NLT).
So what is James’ solution? How is the Church to grow in wisdom, righteousness and its love for God and others without an army of teachers and their “grand speeches” (1:5, NLT)?
Through the good works that come from living a life of wisdom as a disciple of Jesus. “If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom” (3:13, NLT). James says that it’s a heart of jealousy and selfish ambition that will cause our mouth to betray us and those we instruct (3:7-12). “Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic” (3:15, NLT), the very things that are antithetical to the gospel and righteousness.
James doesn’t speak against having teachers in the church, but cautions that evil and unrighteousness will inevitably be taught through our teachers. History is filled with theologians, teachers and early church “fathers” to whom we read and debate today.
For example, no two theologians are more debated and criticized in modern theological journals, books and classrooms than Calvin and Arminius — and they’ve been dead for 400 years! Also consider the modern pervasiveness of spiritual abuse, false claims to wisdom, dissenting theology, divisiveness and false gospels that have been preached, taught and spewed from pulpits, stages, bible studies, Sunday school classrooms, seminary lectures, radio broadcasts, books and social media from our “teachers of God’s word”. Not some, but all who claim such a title will be rightly judged “with greater strictness” for their teachings, perhaps even well beyond their death.
It’s almost as if James is saying: “For those who are crazy enough to endure the intense dehumanizing struggle, weariness, loneliness, suffering, hardship, humility, and constant examination by God and others by taking on the role of teacher in the church, know what you are getting yourself into. For the rest of you — to whom I encourage nearly all of you to aspire — become a humble peacemaker who serves others in love and mercy.”
Not surprisingly, James eludes to the fact that the Church does not grow because of our eloquent teachers and preachers in pulpits or behind microphones. Instead, the church of Jesus Christ expands through everyday believers who love God above anything else and seek His pure wisdom “from above” (3:17).
The fruit of perfect wisdom and understanding is proven through an honorable life that performs good works as an act of service, mercy and love (3:13). It’s this posture of the faithful followers of Jesus that is promised to bring about a worldwide restorative movement: “Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness” (3:18, NLT).
Is it possible this is what Jesus Christ meant when He commissioned His disciples to “go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt. 28:19)? Is it possible that what Jesus intended by teaching “these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you” (Matt. 28:20) is far more practical than it is about Sunday morning lectures that are more capable of setting a forest on fire (3:5) and “corrupting your entire body” (3:6, NLT) than being “full of mercy and good deeds” (3:17, NLT)? James seems to think so.
James stops short of suggesting there is no place for formal teachers in the Church. There is clear biblical evidence to suggest otherwise. However, instead of calling for more aspiring teachers in the Church, James suggests we need more practitioners of God’s love. It’s the role of every follower of Christ and leader in the church.
Through communion with God’s Spirit, wisdom is received, and that wisdom says: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8; Leviticus 19:18). Out of that love in the power of the Holy Spirit will come a promised exponential “harvest of righteousness”. Now that’s the everyday leadership required for an unstoppable movement of God.
Matt Till is a lecturer of Christian Ministry and Communications at Trinity International University in Deerfield, IL, lead pastor of Restoration Church in the Chicago suburbs, and a regular contributor to Ephesiology (ephesiology.com), an online community and podcast dedicated to the study of the early Christian movement. Follow and connect with him on Twitter, @MattTill1.