Danger! Danger! Tongue Ahead

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the past three weeks I have reproduced those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 11, 2018, based on James 3:1-12.

With evocative and memorable imagery, James 3 highlights the power of our words, both positively and negatively. Our words can create or destroy. They can build up or tear down. They can help or harm. The things we say, and how we say them, matter. This is especially true for anyone in a position of influence—including, but not limited to, the “teachers” James mentions.

For me, the most remarkable statement in this passage comes toward the end of it: “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness” (3:9). This statement is significant for at least three reasons.

First, it affirms the truth that all humans are created in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). Sin has not altered this fact, nor is this a special status only for Christians who are intentionally being conformed to the image of God in Christ (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10). All humans, including those we consider “the least” or “our enemies,” have been made in God’s image.

Second, this statement affirms the truth that our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationships with others. How we treat other people is the real litmus test of the authenticity and depth of our relationship with God. This is emphasized in various ways throughout the New Testament, most bluntly in 1 John 4:20: “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.” This truth goes back to Jesus, who linked “love of God” with “love of neighbors,” love of “strangers,” and even “love of enemies” (Matt 22:36-40; 25:34-40; 5:43-48).

Third, this statement affirms that this second truth extends not just to our actions but also to our speech, both how we talk to other people and how we talk about them. Gossiping about others, spreading unfounded rumors. Slandering others, sowing known lies. Harassing others, throwing cruel, demeaning words their way. Bullying others, verbally intimidating them. Anathematizing others, cursing them beyond the pale. How many times do we passive aggressively smile to people’s face but then cut them down behind their back?

James’ teaching here has particular relevance in our digital age, in the realm of social media. Safe behind our computers or smart phones, we say things to and about people that we would never say to their face, or never say off line at all. Yet behind that icon on the screen is an actual eikōn of God, a human person created in God’s very “image.” If we wouldn’t speak of God in that tone, with those words of “cursing,” how can we speak of another person in that way?

Faith and Works

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over three weeks I am reproducing those here in my blog. Here is the article for February 4, 2018, based on James 2:14-26.

As the Adult Bible Study student guide notes, it’s possible that James was responding to a misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching about being justified by faith and not by works of the Law. In fact, given the similarities in wording between specific statements in Paul’s letters (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16) and here (Jas 2:24), this is likely the case. Some had understood Paul to mean that our actions don’t matter with regard to salvation—all that matters is believing certain things to be true. Sadly, many Christians today also understand Paul’s teaching this way—and they either accept this teaching as gospel or reject Paul as having distorted Jesus’ teaching.

It’s a common misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching, that “faith” is simply “belief,” mentally assenting to certain truths—that Jesus died for our sins and rose again, for example. However, the word for “faith (pistis) can have a wide range of meanings. It can include “belief,” but it can also mean “trust,” “faithfulness,” or “allegiance.” Paul in fact draws on this whole semantic range of the word pistis: yes, believing certain things to be true is important, but so is trusting in God in a personal way, as well as showing faithfulness and demonstrating allegiance to God. This is underscored by the many ways Paul speaks about genuine faith as that which works itself out in loving actions (e.g. Gal 5:6).

James gives two examples of these “loving actions” that result from genuine faith: caring for the poor (2:1-9, 14-17), and protecting the foreigner (2:25-26). This is significant for at least two reasons.

First, these are prominent themes throughout the Scriptures. Concern for the poor, including the widow and orphan, and concern for the foreigner or stranger, is deeply embedded in the Law of Moses and repeatedly voiced by the Prophets (e.g. Lev 19:10, 34; Deut 15:7-11; Isa 1:17; Jer 22:3). This concern for the poor and the stranger, representing the most vulnerable in society, continues through the teaching of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament (e.g. Matt 25:34-40; Rom 12:13; Gal 2:10; 1 John 3:17).

Second, this is significant because these continue to be prominent needs—and controversial flashpoints—today. Somehow, in certain conservative Christian circles, caring for the poor and welcoming the stranger, or calling on governments to attend to these needs, has become a sign of theological liberalism. But can we claim to have genuine, living, saving faith, yet refuse to stand with the poor and the foreigner, with all who are vulnerable and marginalized in society? Both James and Paul—following in the footsteps of Jesus, following the Law and the Prophets—are clear: the answer is a resounding “no.”

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.