The Letter of James
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James 3:1-12
Control Your Tongue!

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 (Moo 154) 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 (Wall 169). For James, an unbridled tongue, inflamed by the power of evil, will in turn destroy the whole of creation (Wall 173).

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 (Wall 173). 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 (Wall 173). 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 (Wall 173). 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 (Moo 148). 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.

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).


This article is written by Elizabeth M. Magill ©Women's Division,United Methodist Church, 2002.