‘Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body.’ James 3:1-2
It is true there are recent changes in society’s attitudes towards swearing, it is not an urban myth perpetrated by Old Stagers who still wish TV was in black and white. But does it matter and are some double standards being applied here? The British Board of Film Classification are considering if they should change the criteria used to apply their age ratings to take account of changes in public perception. They say a third of people in the UK are more likely to use strong swear words than five years ago. Six in ten people saw strong swearing as part of everyday life. However, there is a generational divide with 18 to 34 year olds most likely to swear and they are desensitised to its impact. Among older people, strong swear words remain taboo with 75% of over 65s saying they would not use strong swearing in public.
Parents do not want their children to be exposed to swearing and to remain protected for as long as possible. The BBFC are adopting a policy of treating acronyms for swearing in the same way as the full words. Very many work places including all public services have policies prohibiting the use of verbal abuse and yet at the same time in the highest level of public service personal abuse is endemic as is lying when the facts are public knowledge. Today there were published “expletive laden” messages from the Prime Minister decrying the health secretary, the authenticity of these messages has not been denied. (BBC UK News website 16.6.21)
How does this relate to the Christian faith and Christian leadership? It makes clear the division between an obedient life as a disciple of Jesus and the common culture of the wider world. However, this is not a new issue and it goes to the heart of humankind because our language exposes our heart. Two thousand years ago James wrote to the church extensively because it was very important then and it is very important now. The whole of Chapter 3 and on to 4:12 is devoted to the use and impact of our speech. The use or misuse of speech is far from limited to swearing although its use can be a litmus test. In my own life one of the earliest challenges the Holy Spirit brought to bear was in how I spoke and what I said. That refining process continues to this day.
James makes clear that teachers and church leaders are subject to God’s particularly strict scrutiny. v1 Why do parents care about their children not being exposed to swearing? Because the examples laid before them are powerful influences. Those who are our teachers and leaders influence perhaps even more by example than they do by the content of the words said. There is an understanding that we will sin (stumble) v2 unless we have already become perfect. That however is not a position we will achieve prior to our arrival in heaven, however we are or should be being perfected by the Holy Spirit as we grow in Christ.
We should be cautious about wanting to take up the position of a bible teacher. It is an honourable and important role but has great weight. Jesus warned teachers that if they differ from his teaching they will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven, whilst those who practise his commands will be called great. Mathew 5:19 The elders of Ephesus were told they were shepherds of the sheep that Jesus had bought with his blood, laying responsibility on them in their choice of words. Acts 20:28 But they were also warned that wolves (false teachers) would rise up to take the church away from Christ’s teachings. Acts 20:29 Paul reminded them he was constantly warning them, even with tears, of the dangers that would disturb or distort their faith.
How can you tell the difference between a wolf and a shepherd?
Did becoming a Christian impact on the way you spoke?
Do you consider whether the impact of your speech builds people up and reveals Christ’s character?
In Christ Alone – Celtic worship Steph Macleod