James 1:26 - Teleios and the Tongue

In a previous blog post I argued that in James 1:4 the word τέλειος should be rendered as complete or whole and that one of the main themes in James is this idea of wholeness. In James 1:26 (and continued in 3:2) this theme is continued by showing that the way a person speaks identifies their lack of τέλειος.

James 1:26 - “Εἴ τις δοκεῖ θρησκὸς εἶναι μὴ χαλιναγωγῶν γλῶσσαν αὐτοῦ ἀλλὰ ἀπατῶν καρδίαν αὐτοῦ, τούτου μάταιος ἡ θρησκεία” (If anyone thinks he is religious although he does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless (LEB)).

James 3:2 - πολλὰ γὰρ πταίομεν ἅπαντες. εἴ τις ἐν λόγῳ οὐ πταίει, οὗτος τέλειος ἀνήρ, δυνατὸς χαλιναγωγῆσαι καὶ ὅλον τὸ σῶμα. (For we all stumble in many ways. If a man does not stumble in his words, this one is a complete man, also able to bridle the whole body.

The word δοκεῖ begins James 1:26, which has the gloss to think or to seem/suppose. Looking at other uses throughout the New Testament we can say it more narrowly connotes thinking something is true when in reality it is false. For example, Matthew 3:9 says, “καὶ μὴ δόξητε λέγειν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς· Πατέρα ἔχομεν τὸν Ἀβραάμ” (for if you think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abram as our Father’). Also, in 1 Corinthians 3:18, “εἴ τις δοκεῖ σοφὸς εἶναι ἐν ὑμῖν ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ” (if anyone thinks he is wise among you in this age). Both these passages let the reader know that the person doing the “thinking” sees himself as being right but in reality he is wrong. This is what is happening in James 1:26: the man thinks himself as religious but in reality his religion is worthless.

The next clause exposes the contradictory nature of his thinking. The participle χαλιναγωγῶν is probably best translated as a concessive participle indicating that “the state or action of the main verb is true in spite of the state or action of the participle”.[1] This brings about the contradictory aspect of his opinion of himself. If anyone thinks he is religious, although he does not bridle his tongue. Why is bridling the tongue a sign of a truly religious person? The tongue shows the outflow of the heart by showing our weaknesses. A person that bridles their tongue is one that is becoming a more complete and whole person. They are slow to speak, which is one of the first steps to being slow to anger (1:19). Matthew exposes the Pharisees for being hypocrites with their tongue. In Matthew, Jesus tells us that they expose their evil hearts when they speak (Matt 12:34) and later tells his followers that “what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person” (Matt 15:18). James, in line with the teaching of Jesus, says that if you can not bridle your tongue then you have evil in your heart. No matter what religious activities you are doing that makes you think you’re religious if you can not bridle your tongue then there is still much soul work to be done. A τέλειος person is one that can bridle is tongue because his heart and actions are in line with one another.

This brings us to our final analysis of this passage. The ἀλλὰ in this passage is key for our interpretation and seeing that bridling the tongue is one attribute of a τέλειος person. Runge says that the ἀλλὰ often times functions as a “corrective” in the sentence[2]. He says that a corrective “introduces a correction of the expectation created by the first conjunct; an incorrect expectation is cancelled and a proper expectation is put in its place.” In this case, I think it is serving as a corrective to everything before it (Εἴ τις δοκεῖ θρησκὸς ⸀εἶναι μὴ χαλιναγωγῶν γλῶσσαν ⸀αὐτοῦ ἀλλὰ) Whatever the expectation was created with the first clause the words after ἀλλὰ will provide clarification. In this case ἀπατῶν καρδίαν ⸀αὐτοῦ, τούτου μάταιος ἡ θρησκεία (but deceives his heart, this religion is worthless). A person who does not bridle his tongue is deceiving his heart and his religion is useless. A τέλειος person is one that is not deceiving his heart because his heart and actions are in line with one another. This interpretation is clarified by a passage later in his writing (3:2) when he says “πολλὰ γὰρ πταίομεν ἅπαντες. εἴ τις ἐν λόγῳ οὐ πταίει, οὗτος τέλειος ἀνήρ, δυνατὸς χαλιναγωγῆσαι καὶ ὅλον τὸ σῶμα” (For we all stumble in many ways. If a man does not stumble in his words, this one is a complete man, also able to bridle the whole body.) Part of being a τέλειος person is controlling your tongue because the tongue reveals the heart.

James, in his wisdom writing, is showing Christians what it means to live a life of wisdom. A life of wisdom is one that knows God and his actions line up with God’s heart. A τέλειος person is one that is loving God and loving neighbor not only in his actions but in his heart also.


  1. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics - Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, 634 (Zondervan Publishing House and Galaxie Software, 1999).  ↩

  2. Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis, 93 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010).  ↩