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Background on James
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Background on James

Elsa Tamez Commentary on James
The Scandal of James

Link to James as Wisdom
A Word for the Wise

Link to James and Eschatology
The End is at Hand

James and Spiritual Wholeness Not Yet Available
Finding Spiritual
Wholeness in James

James View of the World
James' View of
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Worship Resources
STILL TO COME

James 3: Be wise: control your tongue!

Although James chapter three neatly divides into a section on the tongue and a section on wisdom, notice as you read how the two sections are integrated. Verses 1-12 vividly describe a community torn apart by someone’s unthoughtful use of language and James makes it clear that an unbridled tongue will lead the community astray. Have you seen this fire and chaos in your community? James argues that words are also works, linking these verses to the message of chapter two (M147): faith without works is dead.

Indeed your good life, your life of works, must be lived in the wisdom from above. James 3:13-18 is a return to the theme of singleness: single-minded attention to the wisdom from above is what will return peace. These verses may be advice for putting out the fire let lose by the tongue in the verses above. Control comes from wisdom, not the wisdom of the world, but the wisdom of God.

Study Chapter Three
James 3:1-12 Control Your Tongue! | James 3:13-18 Wisdom
Between Sessions: Silence Exercise | Top of Page

Link to Next Page: Chapter Four Previous Page: Chapter Two

Guided Bible Study
Using the Guided Bible Study | Introduction
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5
I Artwork, Link to Introduction 1 Artwork Link to Chapter 1 Study 2 Artwork Link to Chapter 2 Study 3 Artwork Link to Chapter 3 Study 4 Artwork Link to Chapter 4 Study 5 Artwork Link to Chapter 5 Study

1. James: Control Your Tongue! (estimated time 60 minutes)
James is clear: you can't bless God with the same tongue that curses God's creation. Are tongues wagging in your congregation? This exercise looks at how we use conversation to solve, or not to solve, problems in our churches.

Supplies
Chart Paper and markers
Role Play Problems for each group of three
Hand-out of Commentary on James 3:1-12 for each person
Discussion questions

Experiential Activity: Problem Talking
Divide into groups of three people. Two people will have a discussion about a problem in the community; the third will observe. If you can’t make even groups of three some groups may need more than one observer. Hand each group a sample problem to discuss and give them a couple minutes to prepare. All of the group may read the description, but only the two should plan how to have the conversation.

The discussion problems should be models of inappropriate ways we talk about issues in our community. The two most common examples are likely to be two people evaluating a third person’s inappropriate behavior, that is, gossip, and person one telling person two that a third person, not present, doesn’t like their behavior of person two: triangulation. If you have other examples from your congregation, and can edit them enough that they are completely anonymous, they would be appropriate for this exercise. The goal is to have examples of types of conversations, rather than particular details of conversations. Sample discussion problems.

Allow five or six minutes for the role play and then recombine in the large group. Role play is awkward; be sure to stop before all the groups are done. In the large group post the words Gossip and Triangulation and ask the group to define them. If you have used other examples of inappropriate conversation, post those terms as well.

Take about five more minutes for the observers to describe the conversations. Focus on the process, not on the content of the speech. Look for what was effective? And what was not? rather than solving the actual problem. It is effective for the discussion to turn to real problems in your community, but stick to the way language and communication are helping or hindering the issue, rather than the problem itself. As a group, take another 15 minutes to consider the following questions:

Discussion Questions

  • Why do we use gossip and triangulation so frequently?
  • Why is it so hard to confront a problem directly?
  • What would happen if we did confront individuals with behavior we don’t like?

Study the text
Return to small groups, use the same threesomes, or combine into groups of six. Have one person in each group read aloud James 2:1-12. Allow a minute of reflection and then ask each person to share what stood out in the text for them. Read the scripture aloud again and then handout the commentary for each person. Take another 20 minutes to discuss these questions:

Discussion Questions

  • Can we control our tongues?
  • Is control of our tongues sufficient to keep our whole bodies in check?
  • We have talked about triangulation and gossip. How is this similar to, or different from, cursing one another?
  • Is James’ advice meant for teachers or for the whole community?
  • What can our congregation do differently with our tongues in the coming weeks?

James 3:1-12
If we can control what we say, we can control our whole body, James declares. The wisdom text Sirach declares that everyone has slipped with their tongue at some time, it is a common wisdom motif that it is impossible to control our tongues. But in verse 2 James argues that we must strive for perfection, that the control of our tongue is the control of our very selves. Using examples as common in the first century (M154) as they are today, James describes how to control a horse, a ship, and fire. The implication is that our tongue can, indeed, be controlled.

And if we do not take control, the image of fire turns our attention quickly to the eternal consequences of chaos. In verse 6 the untamed tongue stains the whole body; it destroys creation like a fire destroys a forest. Notice the creation allusions that James has included in verse 6 with the phrase cycle of nature or wheel of birth, the created animals in verse 7, and then the creation in God’s likeness in verse 9. Compare this with Genesis 1:26.

In contrast to the image of creation, verse 6 turns from the earthly forest fire to the eternal fires of Gehenna. Translated hell in the NRSV, Gehenna is the valley where garbage is dumped and burned on the south side of Jerusalem. In apocalyptic literature the term is used as a metaphor for evil, and for the devil living in this most evil place (W169). For James, an unbridled tongue, inflamed by the power of evil, will in turn destroy the whole of creation (W173).

Verses 1-8 set up a broad comparison between the unbridled tongue and the controlled tongue, which brings about perfection. Verses 9-12 make the duplicity more apparent and more clearly ridiculous. In verse 9 James points out that we can’t bless God at the same time as we curse God’s creation. Note the use of restless evil in verse 8. The Greek akatastatos came up earlier in James 1:8, where it is translated unstable and describes the double-minded person. In verse 10 again we have the image of double-mindedness in the one who uses their mouth for both blessing and cursing. James is straightforward: My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.

While this entire passage has meaning for all our brothers and sisters, some scholars believe that the use of we in verse 9 signals a switch to a specific incident in the community (W173). If so, this is probably connected to the reference to teachers in verse 1. We can imagine James addressing a teacher causing discord in the community. James response is not to address the theology or orthodoxy of the teaching, but rather to notice the results of the teaching. Blessing and cursing are cannot come from the same mouth. Peace and discord cannot come from the same teaching. James' message once again emphasizes the works that we do, not the theology that informs our works.

To whom is this message offered? Some scholars identify verse 1 as introductory for the entire chapter (W173). Teachers, then, are called to be stricter in their use of language; it is teachers, especially, who must watch what they say. Wall argues this passage is written to condemn the one teacher creating discord in the congregation (W173). However James refers again to sinful speech in 4:1 and 4:11; in these instances he is clearly addressing the community at large. Perhaps this is evidence that the lessons in chapter 3 on the wise use of the tongue are meant for all of us as well (M148). In either case, it is interesting that James uses the first person plural, we, in 3:1, identifying himself as one of the teachers of the community.

Certainly the over arching goal for James is perfection, of himself and other teachers here in chapter three, but certainly of the community overall. James 3:2 refers to everyone or anyone who controls their speech: the result of that control is perfection. As we have seen in earlier texts, perfection for James is found in self-control, in our works of the law. It is perhaps unattainable, but it is indeed the goal we should set ourselves.

Resources (Link to full Bibliography for web site)
Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James in The Pillar New Testament Commentary, DA Carson, general editor. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).

Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works Is Dead. John Eagleson, translator. With Study Guide by Pamela Sparr. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002).

Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).

An Experiment with Silence
Have your group try this experiment with silence sometime before your next meeting. If you do all of chapter three in one session, this exercise should be at the end of chapter three. Otherwise, assign it here, before you proceed to the last verses of Chapter 3. Then, before starting the next session, meet in small groups and read aloud James 3:1-12.

Print this exercise.

Discussion Questions:

  • Does this text have new meaning after the experiment with silence?
  • What did you learn about the power of speech after this exercise?
  • How did it feel to be unable to speak? Were there situations where you learned more by being quiet? WHere you were left out?

From Pamela Sparr, Study Guide The Scandalous Message of James in the book by Elsa Tamez (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2002). Order the book.
“An experiment with Silence gives people the opportunity to think more about what James says about the tongue and speech and what it means to be powerless or without voice. Give everyone a sticky name tag (with the backing still on) that says: 'I have taken a vow of silence. Please don’t expect me to speak.' Ask people to take a vow of silence that will be observed some time before the [next] session. Silent time may be structured in a number of ways, for example, for a particular time segment, such as three two-hour segments to be determined individually; or full participation during a certain meal time. Ask people to notice: how they felt; how people interacted with them; what opportunities they missed; what opportunities emerged as a result of being silent; what was hard; what they learned. Invite them to jot down notes for use in a discussion during the [next] session” (S129).

Resources (Link to full Bibliography for web site)
Pamela Sparr, Study Guide for Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works Is Dead. John Eagleson, translator. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002).

Study Chapter Three
James 3:1-12 Control Your Tongue! | James 3:13-18 Wisdom
Between Sessions: Silence Exercise | Top of Page

Link to Next Page: Chapter Four Previous Page: Chapter Two

Guided Bible Study
Using the Guided Bible Study | Introduction
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5
I Artwork, Link to Introduction 1 Artwork Link to Chapter 1 Study 2 Artwork Link to Chapter 2 Study 3 Artwork Link to Chapter 3 Study 4 Artwork Link to Chapter 4 Study 5 Artwork Link to Chapter 5 Study

2. Wisdom of God or Earthly Wisdom (estimated time 75 minutes)
The wise person achieves perfection by holding their tongue. Wisdom is found by focusing on God and God alone-we cannot serve both God and the wisdom of the world. What does it mean to live a life of wisdom from above today?

Supplies
Chart Paper and Marker
One page of a recent newspaper for each person
Hand out of Commentary on James 3:13-18 for each group
Print out of Discussion Questions

Experiential Activity Wisdom in the News?
Give each individual a page of a recent newspaper. The exercise is easiest if you limit this to news rather than feature sections of the paper. Using the stories on their page, they should identify one or two people that they would describe as wise. It will take some time for people to read a few stories in order to find someone. Once most people have selected someone (about 10 minutes), make small groups of four to six people.

In the small groups, everyone should share who they picked, and why. Then ask each group to choose the wisest person from among the individual choices. This will take 15 or 20 minutes.

Gather the large group and ask them to reflect on what we mean by wisdom. Using chart paper, list descriptions of a person who could be called wise. This should be a list of adjectives rather than names of individuals. Once you have a good sized list, ask if there is any difference between earthly wisdom and wisdom from God. Circle those adjectives that describe wisdom from God in another color. The large group exercise will take about 15 minutes.

Study the Text
Before reading the text, ask the group to listen for one word that stand out for them in today’s text. Then read James 3:13-18 aloud to the entire group. Allow a minute of silence, and then ask each person to share one word. Remind the group it is ok to pass. Read the text aloud again.

Break out again into your small groups, with a copy of the commentary for each group. Ask each small group to consider these questions:

  • How is James’ list of wisdom from above different from the groups?
  • What is the difference between earthly wisdom and wisdom from above?
  • Do you think that James problem with an unqualified teacher affected his list?
  • What would be the fruits of God’s wisdom in your local congregation? In the community?

James 3:13-18
It is through wisdom that we achieve perfection. Here and again in James 4:1-10, wisdom is James focus. But it is clear that not just any wisdom will do. For James wisdom, like works, is a black and white issue. Here we see that wisdom from above is not the same as the wisdom of the world. One is pure, the other is not. You can try to follow both, or you can follow only God’s way, but only those who focus single-mindedly on God’s way are doing what is right.

If James 3:9 is the beginning of a discourse on a problem of unqualified leaders speaking out to the congregation (M149), then verse 13 is a direct challenge to those teachers. Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. Surely this is an attack on those who are cursing others in the congregation in verses 9 and 10. The challenge is similar to that in James 2:18 Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. To prove your place as a teacher, prove your wisdom is of God; show your gentleness. It is our actions that prove our single-minded focus on God’s way.

Those whose actions show bitter envy and selfish ambition are trying to live both in God’s world and the earthly world at the same time. The phrase selfish ambition is related to rivalry, particularly in a political sense. James is now commenting on a struggle between two political leaders in the congregation (W 183). His approach is to avoid the differences in theology between the leaders, and to focus on the sociological implications for the congregation. Disorder and wickedness of every kind are the results he sees. It is the resulting disorder that proves who is wrong, rather than extensive theological debate (W186). James uses the word akatastatos again in 3:16—implying instability, restlessness, and its connection to the double-minded (M174) from verses 1:8 and 3:8.

If the consequences of double-mindedness is wickedness of every kind, the wisdom from above can be seen by its fruits. Wall describes the list as “a catalogue of well-known virtues that describes the characteristics of speech formed by divine wisdom” (W 187). This listing is similar to the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The Galatians text does not provide the same list, and does not imply that James or Paul knew of each other’s letters. But we see that the image of humility, peaceableness and upright behavior (M175) are the marks of Christian living. Both James and Paul are concerned with how we live out our lives as Christians.

For James the benefit of single-minded focus on the wisdom from above is purity. James use of peaceable, gentle, and willing to yield seem to be directly in contrast to the controversy between the two teachers. To be full of mercy and good fruit links this text to the care of widows and concern for the poor found throughout James. Impartiality and sincerity again are words that could describe an honest political campaign. Verse 18 then is the consequence of God’s wisdom and calls to mind Jesus’s words: Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God (Matt 5:9).

Study Chapter Three
James 3:1-12 Control Your Tongue! | James 3:13-18 Wisdom
Between Sessions: Silence Exercise | Top of Page

Link to Next Page: Chapter Four Previous Page: Chapter Two

Guided Bible Study
Using the Guided Bible Study | Introduction
Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5
I Artwork, Link to Introduction 1 Artwork Link to Chapter 1 Study 2 Artwork Link to Chapter 2 Study 3 Artwork Link to Chapter 3 Study 4 Artwork Link to Chapter 4 Study 5 Artwork Link to Chapter 5 Study

Resources (Link to full Bibliography for web site)
Douglas J. Moo, The Letter of James in The Pillar New Testament Commentary, DA Carson, general editor. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).

Elsa Tamez, The Scandalous Message of James: Faith Without Works Is Dead. John Eagleson, translator. With Study Guide by Pamela Sparr. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2002).

Robert W. Wall, Community of the Wise: The Letter of James (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997).

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All material ©Women's Division, 2002. For permission to use, or to link to our site, contact J. Ann Craig. Unless otherwise noted, articles are by Elizabeth M. Magill, MDiv. 2002 Episcopal Divinity School.