Studies in James: The Purpose of the Epistle (Part 3)

We have been exploring the dominant themes of the Epistle of James. It is often argued that James is a collection of wisdom sayings and not a cogent letter. If we can see that there are three interwoven themes to the letter, however, we can more reasonably identify the purpose of the Apostle’s writing. James writes to address the issues of wisdom and integrity, but within the community of believers. We have already explored the first two themes, and will explore the final one in this post. James writes in order to commend genuine faith in the community of Christ.

The communal aspect of James’ epistle has not been analyzed and discussed much. It has been, I might suggest, a neglected area of focus in exploring this letter. But the communal emphasis is there in the text. He writes about the “assembly” (2:2), it’s teachers (3:1) and elders (5:14). He writes about how to resolve conflict in the church (3:13-4:10) and identifying qualified and unqualified teachers (3:1-18). As you read the various ethical commands throughout the book, then, you should read them as addressed to the church not merely individuals.

This distinction is important because while individuals make up the church, it is a collective ethic that makes the churches witness meaningful. We are not merely individuals with integrity and wisdom, but we are together a community who models wisdom and integrity with one another. So, when James writes about care for the poor in 1:26-27 he is not merely calling on individuals to care for the poor. Instead, he is insisting that this be an aspect of our communal life. The church community is to provide a culture of generosity and hospitality. When he writes about speech (1:19-27), he is not encouraging merely individuals to guard their tongues, but he is calling on the whole community to be a culture of verbal purity. When he speaks to issues of suffering he cultivates a theology of suffering that the whole community is to embrace. It is this theology which will enable sufferers to persevere and the whole community to care for those suffering. All of these themes certainly require individuals to obey and to adhere to sound doctrine, but by placing the emphasis on the community it is about building up a culture that supports these elements. Individuals trying to live out faithful obedience is difficult, but the support of the whole community strengthens such practice and belief.

Ultimately, then, we might say that wisdom and consistency are enhanced by the presence of the community. It is the faithfulness of the community, not merely the individual, which makes a meaningful witness. In the words of Christopher Wright:

The community God seeks for the sake of his mission is to be a community shaped by his own ethical character, with specific attention to righteousness and justice in a world filled with oppression and injustice. Only such a community can be a blessing to the nations. (Quoted in Morgan, A Theology of James, xiii)

James’ theology is for the community, not just the individual. His theology aims to produce a community that honors God in wisdom and consistency. That’s how we should read the book.

As you read through James keep this communal aspect in mind. The imperatives are given to the church as a whole, which means we as individuals are to be part of building a culture of wisdom and consistency. We are to help one another and contribute to the shape, tone, priorities, and practices of our church. You are not an isolated Christian, you are a part of the body. You are called to love the poor, guard your tongue, face suffering, and practice wisdom as part of the whole. You live out your genuine faith within the community. You have, then, a responsibility to and for the other members of the community. 

What, then, should we say is the purpose of the epistle of James? James writes in order to commend genuine faith in the community of Christ. The themes of wisdom and consistency point to what genuine faith looks like, but they are displayed within the covenant community of Christ. The goal is not just to be individual followers of Jesus, but to be a whole family of God that follows Christ in practice. That is the theme of James, and that is the call on our lives as believers. 

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