The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Brains, Reins and a Tiller

It turns out that size doesn’t matter.

by Mike Baughman

Epistle Reading: James 3:1-12

For Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012: Year B—Ordinary 24

In this week’s lectionary text on leadership and tongues, the potential significance of the small and mighty is affirmed. Napoleon (5’2”), St Francis of Assisi (5’1”), Ghandi (5’1”) and Paula Abdul (5’2”) all bear witness to what the author of James wrote thousands of years ago—you don’t have to be big to have a big impact on culture. BTW—I measure up at a mighty 5’5.”

James 3 at first offers up a word of hope for me and others whose biggest advantage in life is that we really rock the limbo at weddings. Horse bits and boat rudders are small but they can have a huge impact.

A Change your Pants Moment

It only takes a spark to get a forest burning and little Mikey Baughman is now getting his chance to stir up the Church! But just when I think I’m going to pee my pants with excitement over the possibilities, I read on to discover what James thinks of tongues and why we shouldn’t be too quick to jump at leadership.

This little member leads the body to become “a world of iniquity.” This little member “stains the whole body.” This little member “is a restless evil full of deadly poison.” The tongue (we are talking about the tongue, right?) “sets the whole course of one’s life on fire and is itself set on fire by hell.”


It would seem, no less, that the leader is like the tongue of the body of Christ. Forget peeing my pants with excitement, I might poop them with fear over what I might do, what I might say or how I might burn the body to which I’m attached! Now little Mikey Baughman is about to run away with fear and dread.

And a Snaffle shall Lead Them?

I don’t know much about horse riding but I do know three key things: 1) the most common kind of bit is called a “snaffle,” 2) “snaffle” is a really cool name, 3) a snaffle/bit is worthless without reins. To put it in nautical terms, a rudder is worthless without a tiller. The author of James lifts up these parts—tongues, snaffles and rudders—and acknowledges their power. Still, all controlled by something else: brains, reins and tillers.

There are a lot of times that I think of the leader, or myself as the pastor, as the brain, rein or tiller. James may be reminding us that we are not. If we use the tongue without a brain, we may accidentally “set on fire the cycle of nature.” If we use a snaffle without reins, the horse will just stand in place. A boat with a rudder but no tiller will just drift with the currents beneath. I know plenty of leaders and pastors who, when they are put completely in control, definitely fall into one of those three categories.

The Hardest Question

Who holds the brains/reins/tillers for your congregation?

The Rev. Mike Baughman is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, working on a new church start /coffee house in Dallas, TX. He is the co-author of one book and has contributed to a long list of books, curricula, resources and research. He also trains and consults with churches non-profits and small businesses on social media and how it can be used to help their work and ministry. He lives in Dallas, Texas with his wife (also a pastor) and four kids. You can learn more about him at , follow him on twitter @ireverant and read his blog,


  1. Tim Koester says:

    This is particularly challenging after we have just heard of Jesus “loosening” the tongue last week and the joy (and faith) that came as a result. The tongue however is not the issue at hand. It is the WORD that is spoken that ‘sets the world on fire’. Look at what a 14 minute video has done this week.

    So what ‘brains’ control our ‘tongues”? What thought compels our speech and the words that are carried to the ears of another? It’s a complicated question and too often the answer is smudged with the stain of selfish sinfulness. Yet we confess that the head of the body is Christ and it is to this Word of God that we are captive. So your question leads me to another. If I believe and confess it is Jesus who holds the reins, why do I keep wanting to spit the bit out of my mouth?

  2. Amigo Cowboy says:

    As a recovering “brain, rein or tiller,” my contribution to the message this morning will go something like this:

    I am a recovering “brain, rein or tiller,” and I have the unpleasant memories that serve as reminders

    Apply the additional text “Let the same mind be in you as in Christ Jesus”

    Think of all the amazing examples a congregation can reflect when it commits itself to being a refuge of encouragement, love, and support…and prayerful correction when needed.

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