James 3:1, ‘be not many masters’ – what does that mean and refer to?

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A number of bible-versions have in James 3:1 such wordings as “be not many masters” or “let not many of you become teachers”. Some have quoted such translations, and said or let it be understood that someone is to be a “master” or “teacher” (“preacher”), and that others are then only to listen to what that “master” says, and obey. Can that be correct?

Here, it is important to keep in mind what Jesus said to his disciples concerning masters and teachers and related matters. Here is one of the passages that have a bearing on that matter.

Matthew 23:8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (NASB77)

As you can see, Jesus told his disciples that they were all brothers (equal), and that they were to have only one spiritual leader and master: Jesus. And, only one spiritual father: God the Father in Heaven.

Those words of Jesus, and many other things in the New Testament, make it clear that the above-mentioned interpretation or use of James 3:1 is not correct. This leads to the question, really what does James 3:1 mean and refer to? What was the epistle-writer talking about? This article takes a closer look at that passage.

(The article nsa060.htm considers the matter of “spiritual authority” – the question, who can speak for God? The articles nea020.htm and nsa070.htm sort out the concepts “ordination” respectively “clergy and laity”.)

The first part of James 3:1.

First, here are two “traditional” translations of that verse:

James 3:1 Be ye not many masters, [Greek didaskalos] my brethren, knowing that you receive the greater judgment. (DR1899, comment added)

James 3:1 My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, [didaskalos] knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (NKJV, comment added)

It appears that the meaning is that those who make themselves “masters” over others, will face stricter judgment. But, there is more to that passage and its context.

Much of this matter revolves around the word didaskalos in the Greek text of that verse. It is a special word in the NT. Forty of the fifty-eight passages where that word occurs, refer to Jesus as the Master. It was used as a Greek translation of the word rabbi (see for instance John 1:38, Greek text, and keep in mind what is said in the above-quoted Matthew 23:8).

So, when one views James 3:1 in that light, it appears that James was saying, in effect, “Brothers! You must not become a bunch of ‘rabbis’!” Or, “Brothers! You must not become ‘great rabbis’!” [a]

It appears that James was simply echoing Jesus’ instruction that his disciples were to have only one Master and Teacher, Jesus, and that they all were brothers, which is to say, equal. Again, we read:

Matthew 23:8 “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 “And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. 10 “And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ. (NASB77)

(Note also the statement “you are all brothers”, verse 8. – In James’ short epistle, 17 passages contain the word “brother” or “brothers” [brethren].)

a Regarding James 3:1 and the translation “Brothers! You must not become a bunch of ‘rabbis’!” –

The last part of James 3:1.

Above, it was noted that it appears that James was actually saying, “Brothers! You must not become a bunch of ‘rabbis’!” So, what about these words:

James 3:1 […] knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment. (NKJV)

Did James mean that there is stricter judgment for those who make themselves “judges” or “masters” over others? It appears so. Read on:

James’ letter has many things to say about judging, and judgment in general (eight passages in that epistle contain the word “judge” or “judgment”). There is more on this later in this article, but let us first consider certain other scriptures. The below-quoted passages indicate that certain things can bring stricter judgment on one.

Matthew 7:1 “Judge not, that you be not judged. 2 “For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. 3 “And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? 4 “Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? 5 “Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (NKJV)

Matthew 23:14 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. (NKJV)

Romans 14:4 Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. […] 9 For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 11 For it is written: “As I live, says the Lord, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God.” 12 So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. 13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. (NKJV)

So – this is regarding the last part of James 3:1 – judging others is not the thing to do, if one does not want to be judged or condemned, oneself.

If one judges or condemns others (by whatever standard one has created or set up), but does not live up to that standard oneself, then that will not be a “plus” on one’s account when the time of one’s own judgment comes.

Also, as you can see above, Matthew 7:5 and 23:14 mention hypocrisy, pretence. (The Pharisees demanded people to follow many kinds of rules, but they did not live by their own rules and demands. Jesus warned people about them and their teachings. The article noa120.htm has more on the Pharisees.)

Important: Of course, one must make “judgments” in the meaning “assessments”, “decisions”. That is something one must do all the time, in order to be able to act wisely in each given situation, even in regard to persons and their doings. Also, we know that the saints were instructed to warn offenders, and if that did not help, mark them and cast them out from their fellowships. (The article naa100.htm has more on this.) But, one must not try to set oneself up as a “judge” or “master” over others. Again, Jesus told his disciples that they were to have only one master – Jesus.

Other passages in James’ letter, regarding judging.

James 2:1 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, so as to show a partiality for persons. 2 For if there comes into your assembly a man in splendid apparel, and with gold rings on his fingers, and there comes in also a poor man, in mean clothing, 3 and you show regard to him that wears the splendid apparel, and say to him, Sit here, in an honorable place; and you say to the poor man, Do you stand there, or sit here, under my footstool; 4 are you not partial in yourselves? and do you not judge from false principles? 5 Hear, my beloved brethren: Has not God chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which God has promised to those who love him? 6 But you dishonor the poor man. […] (AND)

As you can see, that passage indicates that among those whom James wrote to, there were some who sorted people into different “castes” on the basis of “status” or wealth. James was correcting them, in regard to that matter. Verse 4, “are you not partial in yourselves? and do you not judge from false principles?”

More in James’ epistle, regarding judging and judgment:

James 2:6 But you dishonor the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you, and do they not themselves drag you to the judgment-seats? (AND)

James 2:12 So speak, and so act, as those who shall be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, who has shown no mercy. Mercy glories over judgment. (AND)

James 4:11 Do not speak evil one of another, brethren. He that speaks evil of his brother, and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law, and judges the law: but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law, but a judge. 12 There is one law-giver that is able to save, and to destroy: who are you that judge another? (AND)

James 5:9 Indulge not in complaints against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned: behold, the judge stands before the door. (AND)

“Judging” others and making “rules” for them (which is what the Jewish rabbis did) actually means that one makes oneself a “master” and an “authority” over others. (The article nsa060.htm considers the matter of biblical, spiritual or religious authority. That is, the question, Who can speak for God?)

Let us keep firmly in mind what Jesus said in regard to such things, as recorded for instance in Matthew 23:8 – “But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers.”

Again, it appears that James was simply echoing Jesus’ instruction, and that the practical meaning of the first part of James 3:1 is,

Brothers! You must not become a bunch of “rabbis”!

The linguistic details, such as the meaning of the words polloi and didaskaloi in the Greek text of that passage, were discussed earlier in this article.

Now, it is true that the New Testament passages which were quoted here, refer to things that were said or written to and regarding the saints (those who received the Holy Spirit in the first century). But certainly, the principles that are recorded in those passages, apply even today. Believers are not to make themselves “judges” or “masters” over others.

And again: One must all the time make “judgments” – assessments, decisions – in order to be able to act wisely and properly in each given situation. And also: The fact that the saints were told not to make themselves judges over others, did not mean that they were to tolerate offenders or wrong-doers. The article naa100.htm studies a number of New Testament passages which record how they were instructed to warn offenders, and if need be, cast them out from their fellowships.

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm

Pride and humility in connection with religion. → nga100.htm

What does the Bible say about the Pharisees? → noa120.htm

What the Bible says about marking, avoiding and excommunication. → naa100.htm

What does the Bible say about authority? Who has biblical, spiritual or religious authority? Who can speak for God? → nsa060.htm

1 Corinthians 1:10, the translation “all speak the same thing”. What was the apostle Paul talking about? → naa060.htm

What does the Bible say about ordaining or ordination? How did the saints choose their elders? Were those elders “ordained”, and did they function as “priests” of some kind? → nea020.htm

On the words and concepts “clergy” and “laity”. → nsa070.htm

Did elders in the saints’ fellowships act as “rulers”? On the translation and meaning of Hebrews 13:7, 17 and 24 and certain other passages. → nea040.htm


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