March 10, 2008

Listening to James in Africa

"My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:19-20).
With these final words, James ends his letter. They are quite amazing when you stop to think about it. James has just finished writing to the church about their lives together in the midst of suffering and sickness. In essence, the body of Christ is bound together by prayer. If someone is suffering, pray. If someone is cheerful, praise God! And if someone is sick, have the church leaders pray. Can you see it? The church is a house of prayer.

But James does not end after writing about prayer. No, he has something else on his mind. Christians are also struggling with a serious challenge--false teaching. The church has been established on a foundation, the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). The church stands or false on the revelation entrusted to these men.

Yet there will always be those who seek to contradict or corrupt the apostles' teaching. And believers are constantly in danger of listening to them, wandering from God's truth. Therefore, James lets the church know that we are all required to refute error. By doing so, we accomplish nothing less than saving a soul from death and covering a multitude of sins. What a wonderful responsibility we have been given!

Unfortunately, this task is an unpopular one today. Pointing out false teaching is seen as mean-spirited, rude, and divisive. Additionally, missionaries that seek to defend God's truth are thought of as importing Western thinking, rejecting indigenization, and imperialism.

Nevertheless, these words from James are needed in Africa today more than ever. While we must always seek to contextualize the Word of God and not bog it down with cultural trappings, failing to follow James' instruction will lead to dire consequences. We simply cannot afford to look past our brothers and sisters in Christ as they are daily facing false teaching.

But you don't simply have to take the word of this American believer. Solomon Andria, an African theologian from Madagascar, wrote the following comments on these verses in the Africa Bible Commentary:
"The last paragraph of the letter confirms that James cannot be opposed to Paul.... He does not set works up against faith. Those who are lost are not those who have neglected works but those who have distanced themselves from the truth, that is, from the faith. Africa is fertile ground for new religions and sects, making it more important than ever to be well rooted in biblical truths through reading and studying the word of God. James' focus on truth at the end of his letter undermines any assertion that all he is interested in is works" (1516).