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A VISITATION SERMON CONCERNING THE GREAT DIFFICULTY AND DANGER OF THE PRIESTLY OFFICE.
JAMES iii. 1.
My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation.
THE text may at first sight appear to some to stand at a very wide distance from the present occasion. But I hope, by that time I have spent a little pains in explaining it, I shall set the text and occasion at a perfect agreement.
The words therefore are by interpreters diversly expounded. Among the rest, two interpretations there are which stand as the fairest candidates for our reception.
1. Some understand the masters here in my text, to be proud, malicious censors, and judges of other men's actions, and so expound the text as a prohibition of rash and uncharitable judgment, and make it parallel to that of our Saviour, Matt. vii. 1. Judge not, that ye be not judged. Be not rash and hasty
a [Published in London, 1714, together with his Charge to his Diocese, and his Circular Letter to the Clergy, The titlepage was, A Companion for the Candidates of Holy Orders; or, The Great Importance and Principal Duties of the Priestly Office. This Sermon was evidently written many years before; and Nelson tells us, (Life, p. 401.) that the bishop told his son on the night but one before he died to strike out the preface, as too juvenile.]
in censuring or judging the actions of others, or speaking evil of them, considering that by so doing you will but procure a greater judgment of God upon yourselves. The chief, if not the only argument for this interpretation, is the context of the apostle's discourse, which in the following verses is wholly spent against the vices of the tongue. But,
2. Others there are who interpret the masters in the text to be pastors or teachers in the church of God; and accordingly understand the words as a serious caution against the rash undertaking of the pastoral office or function, as an office attended with great difficulty and danger, a task very hard to be discharged, and wherein whoever miscarries, makes himself thereby liable to a severer judgment of Almighty God.
This latter interpretation (with submission I speak it) seems to me, almost beyond doubt, the genuine sense of the apostle. The reasons are evident in the text itself. For, 1. unless we thus expound the words, it will be hard to give a rational account of this word Tool, many, why it should be inserted. For if we understand those masters the apostle speaks of, to be rash judges and censurers of others, it is most certain then, one such would be too many, and the multiplicity of them would not be the only culpable thing. But on the other side, if we receive the latter interpretation, the account of the word
λλ is easily rendered, according to the paraphrase of Erasmus, thus, "Let not pastors or teachers be too vulgar and cheap among you; let not every man "rush into so sacred an office and function b." And
b Ne passim ambiatis esse magistri.
Drusius's gloss on this very word is remarkable : Summa summarum ; quo pauciores sunt magistri, eo melius agitur cum populo. Nam ut medicorum olim Cariam, ita doctorum et magistrorum nunc multitudo perdit rempublicam. Utinam vanus sim. I need not English the words to those whom they
2. If we embrace any other interpretation, we must of necessity depart from the manifest propriety of the Greek word which our translators render masters. The word is didácκaλol, which whoso understands the first elements of the Greek tongue, know to be derived from didáσкw, to teach, and so literally to signify teachers. Be not many teachers.
And so accordingly the Syriac renders it by a word which the learned Drusius tells us is parallel to the Hebrew, which undoubtedly signifies doctors or teachers.
These reasons are sufficient to justify our interpretation, though I might add the authority of the ancients, who generally follow this sense, as also the concurrent judgment of our most learned modern annotators, Erasmus, Vatablus, Castalio, Estius, Drusius, Grotius, with many others.
As for the connection of the words thus explained, with the following discourse of the apostle, I suppose this very easy account may be given of it. The moderation and government of the tongue, (on which St. James, in the sequel of the chapter, wholly insists,) though it be a general duty, (for there is no man's tongue so lawless as to be exempted from the dominion of right reason and religion,) yet it is a duty wherein the pastor or teacher hath a peculiar con
The minister's tongue is a chief tool and in
strument of his profession, that which ex officio he must often make use of: he lies under a necessity of speaking much and often; and the Wise Man tells us, In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin, Prov. x. 19. And certainly there is scarce any consideration more powerful, to deter a man from undertaking the office of a teacher, than this; how extremely difficult and almost impossible it is, for a man that speaks much and often, so to govern his tongue as to speak nothing that either is itself unfit, or in an unfit time, or after an undue manner; and yet how highly every teacher is concerned so to do.
So that it is a very easy knot to fasten my text to the next verse, thus: Let not every man ambitiously affect the office of a teacher in the church of God, considering that it is an office of great difficulty and danger, for in many things we offend all; if any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, &c. As if he had said, As there are many ways whereby the best of us do offend, so there is no way whereby we so easily fall into sin, as by that slippery member the tongue; and there is no man more exposed to this danger of transgressing with the tongue than the teacher, who makes so much and so frequent use of it. So that the teacher is Téλelos avǹp, “ a rare and perfectly accomplished man "indeed," that hath acquired the perfect government of his tongue. He that can do that, who fails not in that piece of his duty, may easily also bridle his whole body, i. e. rightly manage himself in all the other parts of his pastoral office. But this, as it is very necessary, so it is extremely difficult, and therefore be not many teachers.
To this it will not be amiss to add what Grotius wisely observes, that the admonition of the apostle concerning the vices of the tongue, subjoined to the caution in my text, "is chiefly directed against brawling and contentious disputers";" such teachers as abuse their liberty of speaking unto loose discourses, and take occasion from thence to vent their own spleen and passions: men of intemperate spirits and virulent tongues, troublers rather than teachers of the people, whose tongues are indeed cloven tongues of fire, but not such as the apostles were endowed with from above; as serving to burn, rather than to enlighten; to kindle the flames of faction, strife, and contention, rather than those of piety and charity in the church of God.
And indeed the direful and tragical effects, which the apostle in this chapter ascribes to the evil tongue, as that it is a fire, a world of iniquity, defiling the whole body, setting on fire the course of nature, full of deadly poisone, &c. are such as are not so easily producible by the tongue of a private man as of a teacher; "whose discourse," saith Erasmus, " spreads " its poison by so much the more generally and effectually, as the authority of the speaker is greater, " and his advantage also of speaking to many."
Having removed this seeming rub in the context, I return again to the text itself; wherein you may please to observe, 1. A serious dissuasive from the rash undertaking of the pastoral office: My brethren, be not many masters, or teachers. 2. A solid argu
d Maxime directa est in rixosos disputatores.
Φλογίζουσα τὸν τρόχον τῆς γενέσεως.
f Cujus sermo hoc latius ac periculosius spargit suum venenum, quod auctoritate dicentis commendetur.