Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Studying James (Part 2)

The Protestant Facebook Bible study (of which I am a part, and about which I posted here last week) is continuing. As I mentioned last week, we were scheduled to cover two chapters per week (I know! That's way too fast for any kind of serious discussion to be had.), but because the organizer of this Bible study wishes to speed things up (??) we are now covering three chapters this week. So last week was chapters 1 and 2 of James. This week is chapters 3, 4, and 5.

There was very little discussion last week. Of the fifteen or so people who agreed  to participate, there were maybe four or five who posted comments. And the comments were minimal. Mostly people wrote about resisting temptations and trying to live a Christian life. Uuuuum, OK. That's a good start. But it seems more like a spiritual support group for struggling Christians than a Bible study. Shouldn't we dig a little deeper? Shouldn't we look at the more challenging passages and discuss their doctrinal implications? I mean, we all agree that sin is bad and God is good. We agree that we should apply God's commandments to our daily lives. But there are parts of James that are unique and challenging passages that might yield some lively discussion. We are missing a valuable opportunity, especially considering that the coordinator of this study specifically invited Christians of many denominations and even non-Christians to participate. Let's compare notes and see where we stand on some of these issues.

Thankfully there seems to be a little more interest this week, but I thought I would stir things up a little more, and so I posted the following:

Throughout James there is a constant theme of avoiding sin, living in harmony with the Christian community, and choosing God above the world. Obviously, all Christians can embrace these ideas without much disagreement. Talking about these things and encouraging each other is certainly important. But for the purposes of a *Bible study*, this only takes us so far. These general ideas are found throughout the New Testament, they are not unique to James. If all we take away from James is that we should avoid sin and turn away from worldly things, then we haven’t really scratched the surface of what makes James unique. So I’ve looked for passages in James that stand out as distinctive and more difficult to interpret. If I’m going to *study* the Bible I feel like I should put out that extra effort and go beyond the surface.

We all agree that sin is bad and that following God is better than following the world, but what about James chapter 2 and the centuries-long debate about “Faith and Works” – to me THAT is a topic worthy of discussion – that is what would elevate this to a Bible STUDY, and not merely a Christian support group. A Bible study ought to go deeper than just a quick read of the text; it should force us to think.

So in James 3-5 I would point out the following verses:

Verse: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment. For we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well.” (3:1-2)
My thoughts: What does this mean for the leadership of the Church? Obviously it states that *few* should be called as teachers, but James also says (here and in later verses) that this small number of teachers should steer the Church as a “bit” in a horse’s mouth and a “rudder” of a ship. How does this apply to our obedience to the Church’s teachers? If I am not the “rudder” then I am a part of the ship and I go where the rudder guides me. Do we give that sort of obedience to the Church? Do our teachers rightly claim such authority over us?

Verse: "Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord..." (5:14)
My thoughts: Do Christians do this? This is a command of Scripture – “he must call the elders…” The Bible is telling us that the “elders” of the Church should anoint the sick with oil, and pray over them. This practice has ancient origins and was practiced by the early Church. Do Christians still do this today? If not, why? Should we abandon a command of Scripture that the ancient Church practiced? Can we pick and choose which parts of James are important to practice and which to abandon? Isn’t it all GOD’s Word?

Verse: "...confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much." (5:16)
My thoughts: Again, this is God’s Word to us – so we owe Him obedience. Do we confess our sins to others? Or instead, do we only confess internally…to God alone? Certainly we should confess to God in our hearts and minds, but James says we must confess to others, and pray together for healing. How did the early Christians practice this Biblical idea? Should we look to Christian history to see how this concept was practiced?

These are just a few distinctive passages from James that go beyond the general themes of virtue and Christian living. I think if we spend some time on passages like these we can come to a deeper appreciation for God’s Word.

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