Some thirty five years ago I published my first article. It came out in a Berkeley, California based magazine of radical discipleship, appropriately named Radix. It was a short piece, morphed out of a sermon or a talk that I had given somewhere, based on James 4 and 5. “Come now you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you.” Nowhere else in the New Testament do we find such a prophetic announcement that is so reminiscent of Amos. Like the prophet before him, James is a decidedly in-your-face kind of guy.
My publishing debut was generally well-received, except by one of my professors. This Christian philosopher cum biblical scholar told me that when James was offering such a stark prophetic word against the rich, he was not in fact addressing Christians. Rather, this was a critique aimed at ‘pagans’ in the Roman empire.
I was dumbfounded. When Amos said similar things wasn’t he addressing the people of God? And when James addresses his letter to “twelve tribes of the Dispersion” and assumes from the opening sentences that these are followers of Jesus doesn’t that mean that the whole letter was addressed to them?
I concluded that this was a matter of my professor simply not liking the radical implications of what James wrote and therefore he simply concluded that the tough stuff in the letter wasn’t written to Christians anyway, so you don’t need to get too worked up about it all. In this instance self-protective ideology trumped the radical word of Scripture.
But when I began reading some of the literature on James again for this summer’s WBB reflections, I found that my old professor wasn’t alone in his opinion. I’ve met this view more than once. When James is at his most abrasive, especially in relation to the ‘rich’, he is not talking to the church, but to those outside of the church. No kidding, some scholars are really saying this stuff!
Now there are two, no three, problems with this.
First, why would James write to non-Christians in a letter addressed to the churches? I mean, how would he expect them to even hear what he had written? They wouldn’t likely be in church, now would they?
Second, if some bits of the letter assume a believing audience and other bits assume a non-believing audience, then how on earth would you be able to discern which is which? It seems that the only criterion is that the bits that are most radical are in fact not addressed to the church. Yea, that makes a lot of sense for a follower, if not a blood brother, of Jesus.
And third, it seems that the only functional criterion as to what is written to the church and what isn’t, is that anything that might suggest that the church is something less than what it is called to be, that the church might even be in deep apostasy, that there is economic stratification in the church with its concomitant exploitation and oppression, that the church might indeed be under the severe judgment of God, simply can’t be true. There is a theological name for this. Some call it ‘eternal security’, others ‘the perseverance of the saints’ and yet others ‘once saved always saved’. But if we took James’ radical words seriously “come now you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you” and thought that, like the rest of the letter, these words were addressed to members of the church, well then these safe and secure theological dogmas would crumble.
James will not abide safe and secure theological dogmas in the face of oppression. To such dogmas James is saying, quite literally, ‘to hell with them.’