Chaos theory (the church version)

Much has been written in recent years about church conflict, pastoral burnout, and the like. Of course, ministry leadership has never been a walk in the park (unless, as Mark Gungor has suggested, you mean Jurassic Park). But these days there seems to be more room for that kind of realism. People on both sides of the pulpit bring their brokenness with them to the life of the church. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, there can be miraculous transformations — and at the same time, the witness of the New Testament is that the people of God have always had a long way to go.

Part of the problem, as James insists, is that we have yet to be fully transformed by the gospel. It’s not that we don’t believe the good news. But we may have a limited grasp of the need for that news to remake us from the inside out, because we lack awareness of the ways we are shaped by cultural values. James will make that crystal clear in chapter 4.

As we’ve seen in recent posts, James aims some of his rhetoric at people in the church who are striving for positions of influence, but for all the wrong reasons. Just like those who thought they could be faithful without corresponding deeds, some seemed to think themselves wise even though they didn’t live wisely. James has no patience for this, and doesn’t mince words:

This is not the wisdom that comes down from above. Instead, it is from the earth, natural and demonic. Wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there is disorder and everything that is evil. (James 3:15-16, CEB)

Earlier, James described the uncontrolled tongue as a fire set aflame by hell (3:6); here, he continues in the same vein. The people who were striving for status and influence, who boasted about their so-called “wisdom,” weren’t just being impolite or socially inept. They were fomenting evil. True wisdom, the only kind that matters, is from above, but their wisdom was from earth. True wisdom works in accordance with God’s Spirit; but the “natural” person thinks the things of the Spirit are foolish (1 Cor 2:14). True wisdom is from God, but their wisdom was demonic, because it set itself against God and God’s purposes — even if these supposedly wise people might have protested to the contrary.

James repeats the description from the previous verse: these people are driven by jealousy (misdirected zeal) and selfish ambition (Aristotle uses the word to describe unjust politicians). Such attitudes and motivations wreak havoc in the life of the church. By the phrase “everything that is evil” I don’t think James means “every possible evil thing you can imagine,” including demon-possessed people whose heads spin like platters. I think he means “all manner of bad things”; whatever the problems are in the church, they can be traced back to selfish passions.

In the verses that follow, James will contrast all this with the nature of true wisdom, before returning in chapter 4 to the topic of selfishness and chaos in church. But for now, I want us to consider the seriousness of what he’s saying here.

On the one hand, in some traditions, too little is made of the Bible’s language of spiritual warfare. We stumble across James’ reference to hellish tongues and demonic wisdom, and it seems a little over the top. On the other hand, some traditions seem to make every problem a matter of spiritual warfare, so much so that James’ language here may fail to shock.

In a culture that prizes ambition and the self-made success story, it’s important to take seriously the passion and insistence with which James writes. Much chaos in the church can be linked to selfish ambition, to the zeal to gain ground over someone else. But to the extent that we are blind to the ways we are shaped by culture, we may be blind to the chaos created by our own ambition.

We need to stop and take stock. We need to seek wisdom from God, through his Spirit. And if we need some help to recognize such wisdom for what it is, James will provide that next.