When James begins his epistle to his fellow Christians scattered throughout the nations, he mentions trials and testing in a general sense. As he continues his letter, he begins to explore aspects of the Christian life which cause problems, demonstrate spiritual ignorance or immaturity, and which are a bad witness to the outside world. Note that James’ words are directed to the church, as are the other New Testament epistles. We are sometimes quick to expect the unsaved and unchurched to behave as Christ would have us behave and lament when they don’t, when it is sometimes difficult for Christians to remember to do so.
What are some of the factors that cause division and strife in church communities and other relationships? James lists several, and expands on a couple:
- doubting – the message of the gospel and its power to transform
- being “double minded” – unstable, not fixed on the purposes which God has called him or her to.
- faith without works – not living out what you believe. We are called to “go the extra mile”, to think of others as well as ourselves, to give of our time, efforts and resources for kingdom, rather than personal goals. We are not saved by works, only by the blood of Christ, but our works demonstrate our love for Him.
- Showing bias and prejudice. The world has its “favourites”- the “stars” that many admire and emulate. As Christians we are not to favour the rich and powerful. Throughout the Bible God calls and uses the weak and powerless of this world for His purposes. Those who have financial resources to donate to church purposes should not do so with the expectation that they now have a power base in the church.
- Having a reckless tongue. James devotes a large section of his letter to discussing this topic, and the seriousness of the effects of unbridled speech to harm communities cannot be overestimated. Gossip and criticism are the white ants that can completely destroy ministries and churches from within. If a person gossips to you, they will gossip about you. You’re not obliged to pass on information to the ones in the community who need to know everything about everyone. Refuse to join in. Speak well of your brothers and sisters in Christ. If you have a problem with a person, follow Biblical procedures in dealing with the situation. Don’t go around discussing the problem with others and asking them to take sides. If you have a problem with the pastoral team, discuss your concerns with them only. They assume heavy responsibilities and are accountable to God for their actions.
- wrong desires- being jealous of others and coveting what you don’t have (a direct transgression of the tenth commandment). Sometimes a church community can become a vehicle for power plays and jealousy within the laity. Things like ministry involvement or leadership can become idols in themselves. Nor should we treat God as a spiritual santa. Asking God for blessings in a self-centred manner is not what He wants. I wonder what James would make of the prosperity gospel. We need wisdom to control our selfishness and desire the more precious gifts of God.
- Pride, arrogance and boasting. Scripture reminds us to emulate the servant heart of our Saviour, who led by washing the feet of His disciples. We all minister best from a position of humility and genuine love for those who we serve. All credit goes to Him who enables it all – Jesus.
- Oppressing the poor. Throughout scripture, this has been regarded by God as a serious sin. “The workman is worthy of his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:18). “Behold, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: pride, fullness of bread, and prosperous ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49). Ministry to the poor and needy was established not only by Christ but was one of the reasons for the appointment of care workers in the church, described in Acts chapter 6.
After this exhaustive list of troublemaking factors, it’s refreshing that James ends his epistle on a positive note. We are not to fear problems in the church, for Jesus has called us to be a unified body, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. We serve a conquering Lord, whose power is greater that that of any who would oppose us. When we commit our lives to Christ, His Holy Spirit dwells within, to be our counsellor and earthly guide.
What are some of the results of this indwelling Holy Spirit? James tells us that it produces people who are
- wise – able to act maturely in relation to others
- peaceful – mediators and peacemakers
- gentle and accommodating
- merciful – forgiving others as Christ has forgiven us
- full of good works
- fair and honest
- enduring – serving Christ in good times and difficult ones
May God bless you and your church in whatever sphere of ministry you are involved in.