James Series | Writings

James 3:3-5a – Of Bits and Boats

Indeed, we put bits in horses’ mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body.

Look also at ships: although they are so large and are driven by fierce winds, they are turned by a very small rudder wherever the pilot desires.

Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things.

Several years ago there was a report on Brazilian TV about a self-proclaimed pastor who came to church one day with a surprising announcement: God had told him to have an adulterous relationship with a married woman in the church. The biblical justification for this horrible deed was, according to him, to be found in Hosea 3:1.

Then the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by a lover[a] and is committing adultery…

In the interview, the “pastor” reads this verse to the reporter. The skeptical journalist asks to see the verse, and then points out that the pastor has confused the Portuguese word “adultera” (commit adultery) with “adúltera” (is committing adultery). And if both words look the same to you, go back and look again – there is an accent over the “u” in the second word that makes all the difference in the world. (For our lusophone readers, the TV segment can be seen here The look on the “pastor’s” face when he realizes his whole case is built on a spelling error is priceless).

Little things make a big difference.

In the case, the difference between sound doctrine and horrifying heresy was one little slash above a letter. In today’s verse, James cites two more examples: that of the little bit that is used to direct a horse (verse 4), and the small rudder that is used to steer a great ship (verse 5).

Of course, neither bits, nor bridles, nor acute accents are what James is really talking about here. He is illustrating the enormous influence that the tongue has.

And as we have done before, it is important to remember that James is making this point in the context of those who would be teachers in the church. If it is essential for every Christian to learn to control the tongue (and it is), then it is doubly important for those in leadership to understand the power (for good or for evil) of the words that come out of their mouth.

In my relatively short time in ministry, I have seen careless words destroy friendships, split churches, and undo years of hard missionary labor – all due to one of the smaller muscles in the human body.

The author’s warning is clear – pay attention to what comes out of your mouth! And, as is his habit, he is going to put things in much more emphatic terms in the verses to come.

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