The church police?

Nobody likes to be scolded. Nobody likes to be told they’re wrong — even when they know they are. Think back to when you were a kid. When you broke the rules (or something else), some adult may have been quick to correct you. But even if you knew they were right, the bigger the fuss they made about it, the less you wanted to listen. And if it seemed like you were always being harangued for some infraction, real or imagined, it may have encouraged more rebellion and misbehavior, not less.

Sound familiar?

In the previous post, we saw how James ends his letter by encouraging mutual responsibility for each other’s spiritual well-being in the Christian community. Here, once more, are his words:

My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20, NRSVUE)

We may know or have known someone, however, who seemed only too happy to take up the mission of correcting others. It may even be the tone and tenor of the entire community: If you want to be part of us, thou shalt not cross these lines. Words of rebuke and correction were often prefaced with “God told me to tell you,” suggesting that anything you then said or did to the contrary was in direct rebellion against God, further greasing your slippery slope into oblivion.

Let me be clear. We do stray, regularly, from God’s way. And often, words of rebuke tweak a rebellious spirit in us. We could all benefit from wise and loving correction.

But therein lies the rub: is the correction wise and loving?

This is the danger of taking verses out of context. James has spent the entire letter cataloguing all the ways in which believers were missing the royal law of love and abusing each other with their words. It would violate everything he’s just written for someone to go around correcting other people’s mistakes but doing so with anger or an underlying desire to prove their own spiritual superiority. The point is to lovingly build up a godly community, not give someone another opportunity to lord themselves over others.

Again, let me be clear. Yes, it is quite possible that God would tell us directly to correct someone else, to turn them back, to help them see the error of their ways. But if we’re completely honest with ourselves, we might have to admit that “God told me to tell you” really means “I’m uncomfortable with your behavior, and want to tell you to stop. But I’m afraid that you’ll either get mad or won’t listen. If I say that the message is from God, I’m off the hook.”

Moreover, remember James’ sage counsel: we are to be quick to listen and slow to speak (1:19). These words are sandwiched into the middle of a passage (vss. 18-21) that suggests that the truth of the gospel should be planted within us in such a way that it bears fruit. That fruit, in other words, should be demonstrated in the way we listen and speak.

So: have we done a good job of listening before a word of correction was ever offered? Do we listen humbly and well even as words of correction are spoken? After all, think about the times you wanted to speak back to someone who was correcting you, but you knew that your words would fall on deaf ears. Even if you knew that the correction was somehow justified, the unwillingness of the other person to let you tell your story, or their inability to hear or have compassion for your story, made you want to withdraw from the relationship.

And that is not what James wants.

So please. Call off the church police. It is right and good for believers in community to watch out for each other, to offer words of correction when needed. But this must always be done in love, with both compassion and humility. That is just as much a faith-filled “work” as anything else James describes in his letter.