James 3:1-12.
Speaking with Love

Copyright © 2009, American Journal of Biblical Theology
www.biblicaltheology.com   Scripture quotes from KJV

The book of James is referred to as one of the "Catholic Epistles," that is, it is written to the church community at large rather than to a specific church.  Because of a misunderstanding of James' theological terms, some have considered the book as a weak member of the canon.  Martin Luther referred to it as a "gospel of straw." During the time of the writing, the church was under persecution, the church in Jerusalem that he had been so integral a part of had been scattered.  The people in the church were crying out against their mistreatment at the hands of those in power.  James writes an encouraging letter that illustrates the good work that God is doing in this experience.  He also points out that, just as they are complaining against those in power, much of their persecution is coming from within their own community.  Like caged animals that fight for the amusement of their captors, the church is internally embattled while the evil world looks on.  They are treating each other as badly as they are being treated by the Jewish authority.  In the previous chapters James has been discussing the presence of spontaneous spiritual gifts in the life of a true believer.  In this passage he focuses in on the gift of Spirit-led self-control as applied to the words we say.  Just as spiritual gifts demonstrate love, the words that are said by a Christian should demonstrate that same love.

Surely, the modern church never sees any infighting or the sound of words spoken in anger, haste, or pride?  Since a healthy church should be a refuge among people who love and trust each other, such behavior is dramatically more hurtful to its members when it originates from within the body.  James has already laid a framework in this letter that describes true Christian faith as one that produces fruit of love.  It is a faith that generates spontaneous works of agape love, characterizing its members in this manner.  In verses 1:19 and 1:26, James has already mentioned that true faith is characterized by a controlled tongue.  This chapter deals in far more detail with how Christians are to communicate with one another.

James 3:1.  My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.

The Greek word used here for masters (teachers, NIV)  refers to more than just a simple teacher.  It is one who uses words and actions to communicate the good news of the Kingdom of God to others.  Who falls under that definition?  This can include many members of the church as they teach one another and as they present the gospel to the lost world.  It certainly refers to the ministers, pastors, teachers, and leaders.  This letter is written to all of us, not just Sunday School teachers or preachers.  Why would all Christians, who know the Truth, be judged more severely? With knowledge comes responsibility to use it wisely.  James concludes this chapter by pointing this out.

Simply stated, those who have taken positions of authority in the church are subject to a higher standard of judgment, and when they abuse those positions, the consequences are significant.  Pastors, deacons, and teachers should be particularly aware of this statement as they observe their own motives and actions within the church body.  The word translated "condemnation" in the KJV is a harsh interpretation of the Greek krima, which refers to the final decision made by a judge upon hearing the complete case.  Our modern English tends to imply condemnation as separation from God, an inappropriate application in this verse.  A Christian will not be condemned to hell for any action, spoken or otherwise, as their salvation is secured by the Holy Spirit.  However, Christians are responsible before God for their words and actions, and there is much scripture to defend the argument that God is in a position to discipline his children.  Just as parents must make judgments pertaining to the actions of their young children that lead to reward or discipline, God makes those same judgments on his children.  Just as an older child is held to a higher level of expectation than a baby, a teacher or preacher is held to a higher level of expectation, and should not be acting like a spiritual baby any longer.  At this point James is turning the attention of the reader to the impact that their behavior is having on one another.  In particular, he is referring to the ways in which our communication with one another can be destructive.  What we say in our words reveals a lot of who we are.  When one is living a false faith, it is evident when words do not match actions.  A false faith is exposed when the words from an individual contradict God's Holy Spirit of love.  A false faith as described in the previous verses may be exposed as one is conceited and judgmental (magisterial) with their words.  Even those with true faith are subject to err in the same way.  We are warned against a dictating, censorious, or mischievous use of the tongue.

We are not to use our tongues so as to lord it over others.  Jesus is to be the Lord of the church, not us.  Likewise, we must not make our own sentiments a standard by which to try all others.  If the unity of the body of believers comes from Christ, then any effort to destroy that unity is evil, and church members who would disrupt that unity in order to attain their own ends are only agents of the evil one, and James would wonder about the integrity of their statement of faith.

Here we find an implication of responsibility that each Christian carries:  a responsibility to demonstrate spiritual leadership rather than personal leadership, and failure to do so will bring hurt and disunity to the body, and condemnation by God.  Listen to the Spirit before you utilize your authority as a pastor, teacher, or deacon, etc.

James 3:2.  For in many things we offend all.  If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body.

The grammar used in this sentence forms an explanation for the previous one.  The primary tool of the preacher and the teacher is the voice, the tongue.  It is with the tongue that most of the teaching and preaching takes place.  The Greek word for "offend" refers to a sin of stumbling, rather than an egregious act of rebellion.  If anyone can manage his life such that he never commits such a sin of the tongue, that person demonstrates a level of self-control that, in turn, can bridle the entire body.  This argument implies that the tongue is the most difficult part of the body to control, and few would argue with that. 

Consequently, if one can control their tongue, they can also control the rest of their "body", or the rest of their life.  It will be evident that James is very adamant about the power that the tongue has to destroy the work of the Spirit in the congregation of believers, and the need to bring it under control.

James 3:3.  Behold, we put bits in the horsesí mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body.  I said, "I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth as long as the wicked are in my presence" (Psalm 39:1).

The 'bridle' of verse 2 refers to the bridle that is placed on a horse or other beast of burden.  James goes on to give some examples of what it means to subject something to a bridle.  A horse is a large and powerful animal, capable of causing brutal injury if left to its own devices.  Consequently, there is a need for the horse to be bridled, so that it can be guided, giving its power a useful purpose.  A bridled horse is no less powerful than one that is unbridled.  The difference is that the power of a bridled horse is focused as it serves its master as it serves a meaningful and positive purpose.,  The unfocused power of the unbridled horse is simply expended in random acts of self-will and violence.  The bridled horse is following the lead of one who is guiding it with superior knowledge and wisdom.

The works of the tongue follow this metaphor closely.  A tongue that is unbridled by God's wisdom as taught by His Word and the Holy Spirit's promptings is like the untamed horse, full of random acts of self-will and violence.  When the tongue is brought under the Lordship of the Spirit, its power is focused by one with superior knowledge and wisdom, allowing the speaker to be a useful participant in God's kingdom.

James 3:4.  Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. 

A second example of bridling is the influence of the rudder on a boat.  The rudder is a small, movable, part of the boat's tiller, a blade that cuts through the water beneath the rear of the boat.  When the rudder is turned, a small amount of water is pushed to the side, turning the boat.  Just as the rudder is a small part of the boat,  the tongue is also a small part of the body.  Governing a tiller properly provides control over the ship in the greatest of storms.  How does this correlate to governing the tongue? The tiller of a boat defines its direction.  The tongue defines the direction of the person who wields it.  When one listens to another person's words in a variety of situations, it does not take long to see the true direction in which that person is heading.  Just as we can "see through" the hypocrisy of others by the things they say, others will see through our own hypocrisy.

Like the bridle on the horse, the rudder does not stop the progress of the ship, but simply guides it on its appropriate course.  Likewise, the tongue that is brought under the control of the Holy Spirit can be guided to good purpose.  There is no other source of guidance that is appropriate for the Christian.

James 3:5.  Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things.  Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth! 

We are taught to dread an unruly tongue.  Compare:

Eccl.  5:6, "Do not let your mouth lead you into sin."

What are some examples of damage done by the unruly, self-centered tongue?   People are misled and hurt.  The affairs of the church are often thrown into confusion.  Relationships are damaged or broken, and the testimony for Christ is lost.  Entire congregations can lose their testimony to the lost world when they are characterized by vocal infighting.  Such churches will gain few members and see few conversions to the faith.

Why is the tongue so dangerous and powerful a weapon?  The tongue is our primary means of communication.  It is a representation of who we are, the authority that we have been given, and the influence we have in the community.  Words have power to change other's behaviors.  If I am walking down the street and see you walking ahead of me, what will you do when I shout your name?  You will turn.  I just influenced your behavior.  Some ancient cultures did not reveal their names to strangers because they felt to do so was to give this power away.  The tongue can produce great damage.  James goes on to develop the metaphor of the fire of the unwise tongue.

James 3:6.  And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.

What is it that starts the largest of wildfires?  Usually, it is a single, small spark.  That spark ignites a small amount of dry tinder that, in turn, ignites larger twigs, branches, bushes, trees, and large structures.  When such a wildfire starts, the only appropriate action for man or beast is to flee.  As you would dread the devastation of such  fire and flames, you should dread the consequences of contentions, revilings, slanders, lies, and every thing that would kindle the fire of anger in your own spirit or in the spirit of others.

What causes the tongue to be so inflammable?  For many of us, the tongue seems to be tied to our personal will and emotions, and we tend to use it without thinking of the consequences of our words.  It is easily driven by our basic nature, a nature of sin, and just as the rest of our person must come under the Lordship of Christ, so should our tongue.  Somehow, many Christians fail to understand this, and though they profess faith in Christ, they use their tongue to promote their own self-will, and like a raging fire, destroy the very relationships that God is desiring that they develop.  Only Satan wins when our basic sin nature is empowered by our tongue.

The consequences of our words is rapid.  They can elicit a prompt response before the talker considers those consequences.  Words cannot be taken back.  Like toothpaste from a tube, once let out, it is out.  Trust can be destroyed with a single word, and once trust is lost, it can only be regained by repentance, forgiveness, and a period of integrity.  Simply stated words can be devastating to another person.  People's lives have been radically altered by the words of others.  Words shouted in anger have broken relationships and resulted in fights and death.  What would be your response if your Bible study teacher suddenly started speaking out of character with words of slander, obscenities, lies and rage?  At the very least you would be witnessing a loss of control, and at worst, you may be witnessing the true nature of a hypocrite.  Certainly, the integrity of the teaching from such an individual would be called into question.

James 3:7-8.  For every kind of beasts, and of birds, and of serpents, and of things in the sea, is tamed, and hath been tamed of mankind: 8But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. 

Imagine, like Daniel in the lion's den, you are in a closed room, surrounded by  dangerous animals such as lions, tigers, and bears (oh, my!).  What would be on your mind? One would probably be looking for some place to hide.  These animals can all be tamed through several different means, both physiological and psychological.  However, no such taming of the tongue is as successful.  We can tame the dumbest of animals, but cannot tame the most intelligent of animal expressions.  Here James teaches how difficult it is to control the tongue.  During the history of mankind he has brought every type of wild animal under his dominion.  Though the tamed animals may be caged, the tongue is always liable to slip out of the bars and devour with a venomous bite.  So, not only does it need to be watched and guarded and controlled, but much more care and pain will be needed to prevent outbursts.  The deadly poison of verse 8 is reminiscent of the venomous viper in the grass that quickly strikes.

James 3:9-10.  Therewith bless we God, even the Father; and therewith curse we men, which are made after the similitude of God.  10Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not so to be. 

Not all that the tongue produces is necessarily bad.  James is referring in these verses to the unruly tongue, a tongue that is not brought under the control of the Lord Jesus.  What are some of the proper uses of our most prevalent means of communication? Sharing prayers and needs, edifying, teaching, preaching, counseling, singing.  This verse also speaks of the consequences of hurting others.  When we despise and hurt others we are despising God who made them.  We are directly sinning against God.  If we find it so easy to condemn and criticize others, what does this say about our relationship with God?  Such behavior is not appropriate for a Christian who professes Jesus as Lord.

It is absurd that a tongue that praises God in one breath curses God or man in the second.  James is referring to the inconsistency of a tongue that is not brought under the power of the Holy Spirit.  If such an inconsistency exists in oneself, he should examine the source of his faith.  Note that the scripture reveals that it is Godís privilege to condemn, not ours.  When we see reason to accuse and condemn others, we should always note if it is truly our responsibility to do so.  Consider the archangel Michael when contending with the Devil.

Jude 1-9.  Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee.

Michael would not even lose his temper against Satan.  Why should such an inconsistency not be? Like our works led of the Spirit, our speech should also be led of the Spirit, and His works are always consistently administered in love.

Why is the tongue so much more inconsistent than our works? We have time to consider our works as we choose to serve one another.  Often the time it take between thought and word is immeasurably small.  I once complimented a friend stating, "I really respect the fact that you never answer a question without pausing to think."  His answer was (after a long delay), "Jack, you don't understand, it simply takes me that long to think of an answer."  What he stated was humble, and true.  It takes him time because he thinks about the question before blurting out his own thoughts, as I would normally do myself.  There seems to be little lead time in what we say, particularly when the content of our speech is emotionally charged.  James calls for integrity and consistency in our speech as well as in other areas of our lives.

James 3:11-12.  Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? 12Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.

James refers to fruit generated in nature.  A true and living faith will not allow such inconsistencies in word or action.  How many hurts and sins would be prevented if we were able to make all of our words and actions consistent with the Spirit that God has given us.  How can we make our words and our spirit be more consistent with God's word and His spirit?

Col. 3:8-11.  But now ye also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy communication out of your mouth.  Lie not one to another, seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.

What should we do when we experience emotions of anger to avoid speaking malice, slander, or filthy language? What should we do when we experience prejudicial feelings of superiority over other races, creeds, religions, etc? The scripture calls upon us to look to the Spirit who has given you a new self.  That new self is not led of Satan to confuse and destroy, but rather led of the Spirit to reconcile and build up.

1 Peter 3:8-11.  Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.  For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile.  Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it.

In the previous chapters we have noted how James equates the works of the Spirit and the nature of true faith.  Works of the Spirit are the fruit of faith, and like a fig tree that produces figs, true faith will produce the true fruit of love that is empowered by the Holy Spirit.  The Christian who truly loves God has no choice but to bear fruit as his nature changes from a self-centered focus to one that is seeking obedience to the Lord.  Obedience to the Lord is then demonstrated by that true fruit in both what we do and in what we say.  Consequently, if one professes to be a true believer but fails to produce fruit that is consistent with the love of God, that person's testimony of true faith comes into question. 

Let each of us look into our own hearts and examine the way we use our tongue, particularly as we use it to communicate with the body of Christ.  If we see a pattern of behavior that is motivated by our own self-will rather than that of the Holy Spirit, we have an opportunity to confess that sin to God, to repent, and to seek His forgiveness as we seek to make our lives a testimony to Him rather than to ourselves, and in so doing we can be a productive agent for God's kingdom on this earth.


Burdick, Donald W. (1981).  James.  Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 12.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House.  pp. 186-192.