Church politics?

Several years ago, I sat at the head of a conference table, surrounded by ministry students and a handful of local pastors, teaching a seminar on the challenges of ministry. As I told stories about some of the typical difficulties of leading a congregation, the pastors in attendance glanced at each other and nodded knowingly. Many of the students, however, were glassy-eyed; some sat back in their chairs as if to distance themselves from my words.

Then one of the students, who was looking more and more distressed as I spoke, suddenly raised his hand. I don’t remember his question. I do, however, remember what he said first: “Okay, so, you’re like freaking me out right now.”

And I thought to myself, Better now than later, friend. Better now than later.

Many students come to their seminary education from churches that were like family to them. Their experiences were largely positive, their leaders loved and respected. Not having been in leadership themselves, they may know little to nothing of some of the relationship struggles pastors face. I’m reminded of the student who raised her hand in class in response to a comment I once made about church politics. “Church politics?” she asked, her head cocked, her face scrunched up into a quizzical expression. “That’s a thing?”

Yes. That’s a thing.

And it’s not a new thing.

. . .

Most scholars, as we’ve seen, believe that the book of James was written by the half-brother of Jesus, who became the leader of the Jerusalem church, the “mother” church in which the movement began. There’s not much to learn about James from the New Testament itself, but what stories we do have may help us understand his letter a little better.

Paul, for example, tells a story about a conflict he had with Peter, in which James shows up as a background character. Paul and Barnabas were co-leading a Gentile church in the city of Antioch, and Peter came to check it out. Peter himself, after all, had played an important and unexpected role in the spread of the gospel and the giving of the Holy Spirit to Gentiles (Acts 10). It was only natural that he would be curious about the goings-on in Antioch. He seemed enthused about the ministry, and joined in table-fellowship with uncircumcised Gentile believers, something he never would have done in the recent past.

But, as Paul describes it, “certain people came from James” to Antioch, and Peter drew back from eating with the Gentiles “because he was afraid of the people who promoted circumcision” (Gal 2:12, CEB). These people, apparently, were the hard-liners who were willing to accept that the Jesus movement could extend to Gentiles — but only, they insisted, if the Gentiles agreed to be circumcised.

Talk about membership requirements. Welcome to the fellowship! And oh, by the way…

Was James therefore pro-circumcision? And how might this affect the way we read his comments about the relationship of faith and works in his letter?

The controversy stirred up by the pro-circumcision conservatives triggered a council meeting back in Jerusalem. Peter — possibly a chastened Peter? — reminds the gathered apostles and elders that he was the one chosen by God “through who whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe” (Acts 15:7). Paul and Barnabas add their testimony.

It’s James who then declares that all of this fulfills the prophecy of Amos, and urges that they not impose the requirement of circumcision on the Gentile converts (although they do impose other, less stringent requirements). It’s possible, then, that when Paul says that Peter was knocked off course by people “from James,” what he means is “people from the Jerusalem church who by default carried some of the authority of James’ name” — but don’t necessarily represent his thinking.

. . .

End of story? Not quite. After his third missionary journey, Paul eventually returned to Jerusalem to fulfill a vow he had made in the city of Corinth. In Jerusalem, Paul and his companions made it a point to meet with James and the elders of the church. They rejoiced as they listened to what God had been doing among the Gentiles through Paul’s ministry.

But then, church politics came into play. What they told Paul was essentially this: We have a thriving ministry to Jews here; they believe in Jesus, and are also scrupulous about the Law. They’ve heard stories about you, and think you’re anti-Moses, anti-circumcision, anti-everything they hold dear. So here’s the plan. We want you to participate in a special purification ritual that will show everyone that the rumors aren’t true and that you’re still a good and faithful Jew (cf. Acts 21:20-25).

The unstated subtext, of course, is: Otherwise, there’s going to be trouble.

Paul, for his part, goes along with the plan.

And there’s trouble anyway. Big trouble. When Paul shows up in the temple, he’s falsely accused, then almost killed by a mob (Acts 21:27-33). From that point on, at least in the book of Acts, there won’t be any more missionary journeys.

. . .

Church politics, unfortunately, is a thing — a unavoidable side-effect of people trying to figure out how to navigate important differences and misunderstandings. No doubt James and the Jerusalem elders told Paul what to do in good faith, fully expecting their own people to respond in a reasonable way. They could not have predicted how easily outsiders (probably some Jews from Ephesus who resented Paul’s ministry there) could start a riot in the crowded temple.

James himself was not a hard-liner. But much of his ministry was to Jewish converts who were. As we work our way through his epistle, therefore, it might be good to keep this question in mind: how would the “twelve tribes” of Israel (James 1:1), scattered here and there throughout the empire, hear his words about the relationship between faith and works? And how might his words transform their way of thinking?