In the western world today, there is a wide variety of choice when it comes to picking a church to suit one’s expression of faith.
There are churches that are strong on tradition, while there are others who take a more modern approach. There are churches which are strong on liturgy, while there are others for those who like something a little more free. There are churches which expect a high degree of participation, while there are those which expect people to be little more than more than spectators. And there are churches who take an intellectual approach to the faith, while others respond to the emotions.
Indeed, there are churches that can suit just about any Christian. And some people go to a lot of trouble to find one that suits them best.
As a consequence, the church has often been criticised for its apparent disunity—with its many different denominations and expressions. And yet the availability of different expressions of the faith—even within the one denomination—can actually be a healthy thing.
However, whilst diversity in expressions can be healthy, we should not lose sight of the basic expressions of the faith—expressions that should be common to all. And to help us in our understanding what some of those expressions are, I want to refer to the letter of James. Because in his letter he outlined some basic principles that he expected every congregation to follow no matter what their particular preference.
B. JAMES’S SIX EXPECTATIONS
1. Honouring of God: Standards of Behaviour (12)
And his first expectation is in regard to the need to hold God in high esteem, and the standard of behaviour expected of any congregation.
Now at the time that James wrote, there was a problem with people making oaths and swearing statements using God’s name. But as far as James was concerned, the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain was of paramount importance in the expression of one’s faith.
Indeed, James suggested that such practices of swearing and using God’s name in vain should cease. Because not only was the practice bringing the name of God into disrepute—the practice did not reflect well on God—but people were using such expressions to either deceive others or put themselves in difficult situations.
For example, swearing something in God’s name was being used when people were trying to cover up a lie; oaths were being said when a low level of truthfulness was being expressed; and commitments were being made in God’s name, which should never have been made and were leading to disastrous consequences (e.g. Judges 11:30-39).
For James, a basic standard of behaviour for all members of God’s church is essential. And the basic expectation of James for all churches—and for all congregations—is the need to not only hold God’s name in the highest esteem and respect, but for members of the congregation to live lives in a way that was truthful and open.
In other words, no swearing by God’s name. And no lying either. Rather let our ‘Yes’ be yes and our ‘No’ be no. Because anything else is likely to lead to condemnation and judgement by God.
2. Communion with God (13)
James’s second expectation is in regard to the need to be constantly in communion with God—to communicate with God at all times, whether through times of grief or through times of joy.
If anyone is in difficulties, James suggests, let them pray for relief or deliverance. And if anyone is cheerful, let them sing God’s praise. In other words, for James, there is no situation where a member of God’s church should be out of communication with God.
God wants to know about our sad times, how we are feeling and what’s going through our minds. God wants to know about our joys, and the excitement of the good times that we experience. For all followers, for all members of his church, the practice of constantly keeping in touch with God, and telling him how we are feeling, is something that should be a feature of every member of the church.
3. Praying and Anointing the Sick (14-15)
James’s third expectation is related to those in the church who are sick, and those who are responsible to care for them.
And when someone is sick, James suggests, the person who is sick should be able to call on the carers, who in turn should pray for them and anoint them with oil.
Now, when James suggests that the sick person should call in the elders, he is not describing sickness of a trivial nature, like the flu. James is clearly describing something beyond the visiting of someone with a mild illness. Because the visit of those who care makes the visit of a very formal nature. However, taking that into account, what’s behind James’s idea is that the carers of a church should be a group of people who are noted as being people of faith. And the expectation is that their prayer of faith will help the sick person, and the anointing of oil will help in the healing process too.
Now, regarding the idea of anointing with oil, that stems partly from the fact that in New Testament times oil was used for medicinal purposes. It was used for soothing and cleaning wounds, warming a sick person’s body, toning the muscles to help with paralysis etc. etc. However, in this call for prayer and healing we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that, from a religious perspective, we are talking about more than just physical healing. We are talking about spiritual healing too. And it would be wrong for us, today, to distinguish clearly between the two.
The whole picture then is one where James reminds the church that it needs to be involved in both physical and spiritual healing—the physical healing of the body and the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. Because although God is quite capable of doing both perfectly well on his own, he does have the habit of using his people to do both. And therefore in any one church there should be people appointed for this valuable task.
4. Confession of Sins (16a)
The fourth expectation of James is in regard to the confession of one’s sins, and the need for the church to support the sinner.
Because for proper confession, James suggests, there are three aspects which need to be considered. The first is the need to confess one’s sins to God. The second is the need to confess one’s sins to another person within the church. And the third is that having confessed one’s sins to someone else, that that other person should then pray for the sinner.
Now that may sound very scary and radical. But there is a point to the suggestion. The fact is that even among believers we all make mistakes—none of us is perfect. The point of the community’s involvement then is not to say what a naughty person the sinner has been. But rather to support that person in the hope that the sin will not be repeated.
With the community’s awareness, or a particular member’s awareness of a particular problem, there is more encouragement not to repeat the same mistake. And there is a level of support and encouragement so that the person is less likely to give into that same temptation again.
At the heart of the issue is not the condemnation of the sinner, but rather the healing of their sin, and for support in whatever consequences that arise from it. At the heart of the issue is the basic need for the sinner to receive forgiveness and restoration.
5. Praying for One Another (16b-18)
The fifth expectation of James is the need to pray for one another. According to James, prayer is a very powerful medium, where God hears the prayer of the righteous. And as a consequence James was concerned to encourage the practice.
But he wasn’t talking about the odd occasional prayer. James was encouraging ‘active’ prayer. Prayer where people pray, and pray, and pray. And James used the prophet Elijah as a kind of model to which we should all aspire.
Because Elijah was a man who having been told of God’s plan for a drought, prayed constantly that it might come about. Some considerable time later he then prayed that it would end. And the implication is that Elijah prayed for the people that they might repent and return to God constantly during the three-and-a-half-year drought.
Now, James suggested, there was nothing special about Elijah himself. He may have been a prophet chosen by God but, in many ways, he was just an ordinary person. He was human, not divine. But regardless of any gifts that God bestowed on him, he was a model on which all church members should mould their lives, particularly regarding the issue of the need for constant prayer.
6. Dealing with Sin within the Community (19-20)
And the sixth expectation of James is in regard to the community’s role when one of its members strays. or when the moral standards of one of its members declines.
In such circumstances, James suggests the community’s role is not to judge the sinner, but to face them with their error. And it is to do so in the hope that they will return to acceptable Christian standards.
In other words, the church’s role is not to just let the person go their own way, but to attempt to return them the fold, so they might receive salvation and the forgiveness of their sins.
And with that, James suggests that the blessing will be two-fold. Firstly, the person who drifts away—if they are returned to the fold—will be blessed by deliverance from death. And secondly, those instrumental in changing that person’s behaviour (and who should be conscious of their own errors, because none of us perfect) will be blessed by God too, through what they have done.
Now, at this point it might be helpful to say something of the New Testament church. Because the New Testament church was invariably based on the model of the Jewish synagogue, whose worship had a fairly rigid structure. However, developing from that there was becoming a much more open expression of faith, where its members were encouraged to use their gifts in the expression of worship and in their day to day Christian service.
By the time we get to James, then, we find a congregation with a very solid organisational structure. But at the same time, filled with people who were expected to contribute openly to the life of the church. And it is from this backdrop that James’s expectations are focussed.
Now, of course, one of the problems today is that we have generally lost the idea of community. We’ve lost the sense of responsibility and support that we should have for one another that in New Testament times was expected to be the norm.
And, as a consequence, regarding honouring of God and our expected behaviour, we live in a community where God’s name is used in vain more now than it ever was before. Indeed, swearing in God’s name has become meaningless.
Regarding communion with God, people don’t call upon God as much as they should. In times sadness and times of joy, modern attitudes are often that we simply have to put up with whatever life brings our way.
Regarding sickness, people don’t always call out for help. Even church people don’t want to make a fuss; they don’t want to put anyone out.
Regarding the confession of sins to someone other than God . . . well that is far too threatening. It can be so embarrassing, and there is a reluctance to let anyone else know our faults and failings.
Regarding prayer, people generally don’t pray, and pray, and pray to God. Because that’s not the kind of relationship that people have with God anymore.
And regarding turning back those who have gone astray. Well, isn’t there a tendency to think that that’s their affair? Added with that is the tendency to not want to get involved.
Now those are some of today’s attitudes. But that doesn’t mean to say that we can just forget the teaching of James or the Christian concept of community. We can’t just tear out certain pages of the bible because we don’t like what they say, or just hope the issue will go away. But it does mean that we need to relearn what life’s all about; we need to relearn what the church is all about; and we need to relearn what being a member of a community of faith actually means.
Of course, from the New Testament onwards, the structure of congregations have changed, from one based on the background of Jewish practices, to the more open style of the New Testament where people were expected to contribute, to today’s world where it is represented in many different ways. And yet, regardless of modern-day structures, there are still certain behaviours and expectations that should be a feature of every congregation. Not least of which should be the six expectations described by James.
Expectations regarding the need to hold God in the highest esteem, and to maintain acceptable standards of behaviour. Expectations regarding the high level of communication with God, and for that level to be maintained no matter what the circumstances. Expectations regarding the sick, and the need to be able to call on church members for prayer and even perhaps the anointing with oil. Expectations regarding the confession of sins, and in particular for the need for others to hear a confession to prevent a re-offence. Expectations regarding praying for one another, and the need to pray and pray and pray. And expectations of the church community to not let people simply go off on their own, but to be actively involved in returning stray members to the fold.
Six things then, which should be features of any church; six goals for all churches to pursue; and six things which should be found in any congregation, regardless of its culture, churchmanship, or structure.
Posted: 4th December 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis