The Ignored Leader

If I were to ask you who the greatest figure in early church history was after Pentecost, who would it be? Many of you would name Peter, Paul, maybe even Stephen or John, but I would bet that very few would think to mention James. James was however one of the most influential leaders in the church and the greatest leader in the mother church, Jerusalem, in the 40’s and 50’s. It seems that in the early 40’s most all the apostles had left Jerusalem to promote the mission of Jesus leaving James as the leader of the Jerusalem church. In Acts 15, there is a church conference to decide what to do with the entrance of the Gentiles into the Kingdom of God and Paul, Peter, and others were there. But the one that makes the final decision and speaks with authority is James.

So who is James? He was the primary leader of the Jerusalem church and he also happens to be the physical brother of Jesus. What is significant about this was not necessarily that he was a brother of Jesus but that he was a brother who didn’t believe in Jesus and then after the resurrection he changed his mind.

Eusibius, the first church historian, calls James the first Bishop of the Jerusalem church. In the letter to the Galatians, the apostle Paul calls James one the of the pillars of the church. James was someone Paul felt the needed to report his work to in Acts. He had some serious authority.

But if James was such a towering figure in the early church how come he has become the ignored leader? Why has his letter, it is in the Bible you know, gotten so much less attention than those of Paul? Why does Paul get the place of honor among the New Testament while James’ one letter is rarely given such a place?

The truth is that James’ letter has to be “less important” for some reason. The reason James’ message and letter is sometimes deprioritized is because he was a Jewish leader for Jewish Christians and we (I assume most of you reading this are not ethnic Jews) are not Jewish. In fact, as the church became more and more gentile (non-Jewish) as the years went on through the spread of the gospel by Paul and others, it is easy to guess why more emphasis would be given to the “Apostle to the Gentiles” instead of Jewish Christian leaders like James.

Why should we pay attention to James if he was writing to the Jewish Christians, right? This was the conclusion that many made early on giving the priority of place to Paul. As we know well though, as Christians, we believe that all of the New Testament is Scripture and we are to consider the entire counsel of God.

There is something (actually many things) that we really lose out on if James continues to be the “ignored leader”… wisdom. Both the Greeks, Romans, and Jews had a rich emphasis on wisdom. Wisdom in general is advice that brings about a blessed life. Wisdom of course needs to be practical and easy to understand. Our Old Testament has a lot of wisdom literature. Solomon and the literature ascribed to him, particularly Proverbs, shows the rich wisdom heritage of our ancestors in Israel. The Jews were not just concerned with law observance but living their lives along with law observance in a way that would bless others and themselves. They were concerned with living good moral lives even in the areas that the law did not cover. They believed that wisdom was the gateway to the good life.

Jews believed of course that all wisdom comes from God. For example, Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” We learn that wisdom and fearing (we respect his authority and live for him) God go hand in hand. You cannot have wisdom in this life is you do not live for God. Fools, those who do not fear God, do not care about living with wisdom and the instruction that comes with it. Fools don’t like being taught about how to live the good life in God.

I wonder if the fact that James has been the “ignored leader” points to the condition that we, at least in my corner of Christianity, have overemphasized Paul’s “salvation” theology to such an extent that we have lost out on James’ “wisdom.” Is it all about salvation to the detriment of living lives in wisdom? No. We, as saved children of God, are called to live lives in the wisdom of God. This is the great message of James.

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. – James 1:5

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.” – James 3:17

May his message never be forgotten or ignored. I will post more on the content of the letter of James and the idea of wisdom soon.

2 thoughts on “The Ignored Leader

  1. Do you think James has really been ignored (outside of Luther’s camp?) I think modern readers love him because he is concise and hits on a few universal issues -persecution, faith/works, runny mouths. Do you think Jerusalem (via James) struggled with Jewish Christianity -keeping Jesus within the Jewish system instead of God’s Kingdom breaking out something entirely new? I like your idea of listening more to Paul and it being to James’ detriment, and I look forward to reading more posts…Hope all is well buddy!

    • Hey Jimmy! Scott McKight in his commentary on James mentions how a bunch of contemporary theologies of the New Testament don’t even treat James. He is definitely ignored in the scholarly community. In church, probably less so, however, I do think most gentile Christians would think of James as “less important” than Romans or 1 Corinthians. The very order of our N.T. canon I believe shows the importance given to each book in the early church (the 3rd century very gentile leaders who put the New Testament together). This is the order- 1. Jesus 2. Paul 3. Everyone else (including James). I definitely agree with #1 being in the pride of place.

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