A background for James?

As James looked out over the congregations of his day, did he perceive the need to address a particular problem? Commentators generally regard his original readers as being largely poor Jewish Christians. However, might there be more?

We are familiar with the divisiveness at the Corinthian church. Paul described their interpersonal relationships with statements like, “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Corinthians 3:3).

Paul’s message seems to resonate with some of James’ statements:

  • “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:16)
  • “Where do the conflicts and where do the quarrels among you come from? … you quarrel and fight” (James 4:1,2).
  • “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers” (James 4:11).

Did James intend his instruction, “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19), to provide an initial antidote for heated discussions? Heated discussions often invert all three of these.

If James was intending to address a general divisiveness among Christian assemblies, this might also explain his admonition against many of them being teachers since teachers would receive greater scrutinization in judgment. It could also illuminate a motivation for why he provided an extended exhortation on the tongue, a prime tool for both the teacher and those responding.

James identified the source of turmoil as what resides within the heart. Accordingly, he commanded his readers to demonstrate through the conduct of their lives that they were driven by a heavenly wisdom from within. Such wisdom exudes the characteristics of being “pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical.” James emphasized the need for meekness, humility and peace – all of which are components in pursuing unity.

Like Paul, who commanded the Corinthian church to abstain from judging in order to mitigate their divisiveness, James also forbade judging. Furthermore, he seems to undermine a resistant spiritually entrenched self-confidence by revealing that a vibrant faith is not merely the existence of conviction, but requires being lived out to impact social relationships.

While James may not have written his letter to assist churches in turmoil toward obtaining a healthier state, his content addresses many of the core issues lurking beneath the surface of conflict as well as the tongue’s poisonous nature. It does seem he was aware of at least some quarreling, disorder and speaking against one another among the churches.

To be sure, the principles James outlined for Christian living are valid in any context, not just religious turmoil.  Maybe when James wrote this letter he was not trying to address the problem of congregational strife, or maybe he was.

Regardless, whenever we search the scriptures for tools that promote unity, we would do well to consider the insights James offered. The goals of our heart project our trajectory.


Barry digs deeply and thinks hard. He is a contributor to the book, Straight to the Cross: Spiritual Directions for the Christian.

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