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Blowout preventers and the body of Christ

Blowout preventers are getting attention the way that Toyota or the Internal Revenue Service does. It was the failure of this device on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig that caused the current crisis which is on its way to becoming the worst oil spill in United States history. The preventer is supposed to seal off the well when something goes wrong and it threatens the rig. Obviously, this didn’t happen and the results have been catastrophic.

James 3 should serve as a blowout preventer for disciples. In this section of his letter to Jewish people living outside of Palestine, he takes on the tongue in a manner reminiscent of Proverbs with its pithy observations and warnings about our speech. The placement of this discussion immediately following the section on faith working, could be taken to suggest that the place to start putting our faith into practice would be with our words. Indeed, what kind of a world would it be if everyone started paying attention to the way they used words?

James introduces the topic with a warning about teachers. In fact, the entire section is more about teachers than it is about the tongue.  In the context of the letter, I think we are to understand teachers as those who taught in the synagogue (Luke 4:16ff; Acts 13:15). James has already made a reference to this setting (2:2), so that makes better sense than viewing teacher in a more generic sense that we are all called to teach others in some capacity (Hebrews 5:11-12, parents teaching their children, etc.).  Keener suggests that the specific context James has in mind has to do with teachers using their influence to promote envy of the rich (some who were oppressing the poor), and slander of them (3:9-10,14-16). 

James reminds them that teachers will be held to a higher standard. After addressing this concern, James discusses the tongue’s power to direct, destroy, and delight or displease (Wiersbe). These verses (v. 3-12), move beyond the scope of teachers and embrace everyone. (It’s not hard to imagine James in Jerusalem receiving various reports from visitors to the feasts that would prompt these remarks).

In v. 13, he returns to the teachers and asks, "Who is wise and understanding among you?" --- two traits that every teacher should covet. Continuing with his faith working emphasis, he suggests that these qualities best are measured not by eloquence or audience response, but by "his good conduct . . . his works in meekness of wisdom" (v. 13 ESV). He then slices through to the heart matter by suggesting the possibility of some allowing bitter envy and selfish ambition in their hearts (v. 14). When these motivations are present, nothing good can follow --- only chaos and disorder (v. 15), which comes from the devil (v. 14).  If Keener is correct in his suggestion that these teachers were instigating an assault on the rich, James absoloutely crushes their credibility.

This whole section brings to mind a similar situation that Paul dealt with in Corinth (1 1:10ff). It takes no talent or self-control to push personal agendas, choose sides, or verbally abuse. When our blowout preventer fails to function properly, hazardous words spill out and poison relationships. Like the oil spill, it can take years to clean up. In the mean time, it does great damage to the body of Christ! It was David Libscomb who said something to the effect that dividing the community of Christ was like reenacting the crucifixion. Powerful words but so is the offense under consideration (Proverbs 6:16-19).

The blowout preventers’ working parts are cataloged by James: purity, loving of peace, considerate, submissive, merciful, fruit-bearing, impartiality and sincerity. When it is working, it enables hazards to be averted and righteousness to be produced (v. 18).  
 
      "May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
                       be pleasing in your sight,
       O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer,"
(Psalm 19:14).
 
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