How often have you heard Pastors warn you to be “careful lest you make friends with the world”?
Personally, I hear this a lot. Especially in discussions where I have advocated for full inclusion of our rainbow whanau into the church.
The comment is normally followed up with the speaker pointing to the Epistle of James and reminding me that “faith without deeds is dead!”
The comment seems to be built on this idea that there is a moral standard which we as Christians must at least try to live up to in order to be saved. Those who do not succeed or attempt to follow the standard set before them, are in essence, choosing to reject Christ’s offer of salvation. It is this reasoning that has led many Christians to believe that people within the Gay community will not be accepted by Jesus if they choose to fully embrace life as a gay man or woman.
Personally, I believe that this idea has some logical flaws. I won’t deal with that in this piece, but if you’re interested, I wrote a piece dealing with that question in a bit more depth in my article “Is the Gay Christian Saving the Church?” If you’re interested follow the link…
But, is this what the book of James is actually saying?
It’s true that the book of James speaks of the importance of following the Law (James 2:8-9), and that several times the writer reminds us that “faith without deeds is dead (2:14-26)”. But what does he mean by this?
Is being a Christian about trying to follow some strict moral law? Because, if so, wouldn’t that mean that Christianity was no different than the religion of the Pharisees? And isn’t it a contradiction for James to say that “we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not through faith alone (2:24)”, when Paul says the exact opposite (Rom. 1:17; 3:28; 30; 4:5; 9:30-32; 10:3-4; Gal 2:16-17; 3:8; 10-11; Eph 2:8-9)?
At a glance?
Yet, what I find interesting is how James defines ‘the Law.’
James uses the language of ‘Law’ throughout his short letter, yet his definition of what ‘the Law’ is, was very different from what the Jews of the day understood the Law to be.
Instead of a strict set of moral instructions, James teaches that the Law can be boiled down to one commandment.
“Love your neighbor.”
It seems that James, like the many of the New Testament writers, believed that following Jesus wasn’t about trying to observe some strict moral law, but about learning to love others (Matt. 22:36-40; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:25-28; John 13:34-35; Rom. 13:8-10; Gal 5:14; 1 John 2:3-8; 3:11; 14-17; 23; 4:16-21). “Love God, Love others,” was the commandment that Jesus taught as the most important commandment. In fact, it is this commandment that Jesus says supersedes and sums up all others.
In contrast to Judaism, which taught that a person had to earn their salvation through observance of a strict moral code, James redefines the language of the law, pointing us back to Jesus’ own words.
Love for others is the true Law that God has given humanity to follow.
And it is our desire to show Love to others, that reveals whether we Love our God or not.
For James, following this Law of Love is revealed in how we care for those who in our society who are vulnerable and oppressed (1:27). It is seen in how we respond to the needs of the poor (2:15-16), and is witnessed when we challenge the systems which discriminate and dishonor those on the margins (2:3-8). To observe the ‘Law of Christ’ from James’ definition, is to practice the way of Love.
There is irony however, in the way this message has been distorted.
The Epistle of James has been used to reject Gay couples, discounting the validity of their salvation, and condemn people who don’t live up to the ‘Christian standard’ set for them. “Faith without deeds is dead,” has become a slogan of the religious elite, condemning those who do not comply with the moral code they deem as the necessary path to salvation.
Those who would call for the church to be inclusive of all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or race, have been warned of the dangers of “becoming a friend of the world”.
Yet, what I find interesting, is how James himself seems to define this phrase.
To be a friend of this world, according to James, is to be consumed by selfishness, ambition and jealousy (3:14-15), it is allowing your greed to consume you to the point where you are willing to resort to violence to take what is not yours (4:2), it is to discriminate against the poor (2:3-4), and to participate in a system of oppression which allows you to live in luxury while others suffer and die at your expense (5:1-5).
Such selfishness, such unbridled rebellion against the Law of Love, is, in the words of James, “earthly, unspiritual and demonic” (3:15).
Like Paul and Jesus, James seems to define the concept of ‘the world’, not as seeking to be liked by people in your community, but as the spiritual forces of evil that hold dominion over the earth (John 12:31; 2 Cor. 4:4).
Becoming a “friend of the world” then, in James’ definition, is to side with the priorities of this World through our jealousy and selfish ambition.
James’ message then is this. If you live a life focused on your own self-interest, one which revolves around your own consumeristic needs, and ignores the cries of the marginalised and oppressed, then it would seem that you have not allowed the “word of God” (Christ’s command to Love), to take root in your life.
That message should make every Christian in the Western world pause for just a moment.
Before we turn to our neighbor and condemn them for living a life we define as ‘immoral’, we should first examine our own twisted priorities (Matt. 7:1-5).
The similarities between the ‘Rich People’ described in the beginning of Chapter 5, and the Western Church are stunning. Like the rich folk James describes, we too have accumulated treasures, and amassed wealth at the expense of the vulnerable. We too have ignored the cries of the field and factory workers, clothing ourselves with garments seeped in the blood of slaves, we have cheated those in the third world of their wages. We have demanded a world of luxury, and sought the satisfaction of our every desire, and in our pursuit of a bargain we have condemned innocents to death. By our compliance with a system of consumerism, we have allowed corporations to ignore the safety of the workers who make the items we enjoy. We have ignored their suffering, choosing cheap chocolate, and $10 sneakers over the lives of our fellow human beings. We have willfully supported modern-day slavery.
None in the West can deny their involvement in this system.
All are complicit.
All have sinned.
Instead of seeking to follow the Law of Love, we have allowed our priorities to be tainted and corrupted by the world. Instead of actively resisting these systems of oppression, we have made friends with the World. Abandoning the Law of Love, we have sided with the demonic forces of evil, allowing ourselves to be consumed by selfishness and greed.
Oh the hypocrisy!
Oh the shame!
We who have been called his Children, have spat on Jesus name!
Let there be tears for what we have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Let us humble ourselves before the Lord, let us draw near to Him. For we are sinners, and only He can purify our hearts (James 4:7-10).
The horrifying reality of our own hypocrisy and sin is humbling.
I know that it is also quite a heavy reality to come to grips with.
But, maybe that’s alright. Perhaps, that’s what James is doing. Inviting us to sit with the heaviness for a moment. Giving us the opportunity to come to grips with our part in all this.
This understanding of James does not allow us to easily define who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’
But, perhaps that’s the point.
Perhaps, James seeks to warn us of the shaky ground we venture onto when we attempt to provide a framework to judge the salvation of another.
Only God knows the heart, only God can see if an individual is walking towards Love or away from Him.
In fact, as a warning against those who seek to judge the journey of another believer, James reminds us that “God alone… is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbour?” (James 4:12).
I believe the Epistle of James holds a caution for all of us. Next time we go to judge the salvation of another, perhaps that of your neighbour who is gay, or your friend who sleeps around a bit, or drinks too much on a Friday night. Maybe take a moment to examine yourself, and remember the words of James.
“Your job is to obey the law (which is love), not judge whether it applies to you” (4:11-12).
Instead of trying to discern who is IN and who is OUT, perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether we are observing the Law of Love which Jesus has given us.
Is there evidence in the lifestyle we have chosen to show that we have taken seriously Jesus’ command to love? Or have we abandoned Love, and sided with the demonic in pursuit of selfish gain and individual self-interest?
The answer to that question is known to none but you and God…