Summary: Many Christians that are thought to be mature demonstrate immaturity through their speech. James confronts Christians, demanding that they look at what is said and how they say it.
A PERFECT CHRISTIAN
“We all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.”
The story is told of a pastor who was trying to make the point that no one is perfect. Declaiming from the pulpit, he asked, “Do any of you know a perfect man?” Expecting to rush on to the anticipated negative answer, he was startled to hear a meek little voice speak up, “I do!” Looking out over the congregation, he finally espied a timid-looking little man seated far back in the auditorium.
“Excuse me,” stated the preacher as he fixed the little man with his gaze, “you say you know someone who is perfect?”
“Yes,” said the mousy little man, “my wife’s first husband.”
The story is funny, but it does compel us to acknowledge a truth that is common knowledge—there is not, nor has there ever been, a perfect person in the entire world. James seems to hold out the possibility that there could possibly be a perfect individual lurking somewhere in our world. However, James is not referring to an individual who never sins. Rather, in these verses, James is speaking of a spiritually mature person. Though there is no possibility of being sinless, there is every expectation that the Christian will become mature in faith and practise. James is seeking to build up the people to whom he is writing, enabling them to become mature in spiritual insight and ultimately in their conduct in the world.
MATURITY, NOT SINLESS PERFECTION, IS UNDER SCRUTINY — “We all stumble in many ways.” James is addressing Christians who are persecuted because they are Christians. When James wrote, these saints were experiencing hardship because of their beliefs. We have seen repeated instances in the preceding chapters of the trials they were compelled to endure: loss of wealth, loss of friendships, and loss of the social networks they had long taken for granted.
The author of the Letter to Hebrew Christians speaks pointedly of some of the trials early saints endured, perhaps describing the very Christians to whom James was writing. “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release… Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth” [HEBREWS 11:35-38].
Under such fierce testing, many persecuted believers grew discouraged and their faith gave way to fear. Seemingly bereft of wisdom, they were tempted to deny their Faith for momentary relief. Angered and frustrated, these suffering saints frequently turned to their own ingenuity in order to survive. Some believers began to adulate wealth and power, rather than supporting one another, and many reduced worship to ritual. They reacted just as we do.
Studying the second chapter, we witnessed James’ emphasis upon practical Christianity. Rather than performing rituals in a mindless fashion, Christians are to show compassion and reign over any biases that might otherwise prevail within the congregation, according to James. In other words, James sought to encourage these persecuted believers to live holy lives. Arriving at the present chapter, James addressed yet another serious failing among the people of God.
People that were not recognised as people of power or wealth within the world were tempted to exalt themselves within the congregation through advancing their own agenda. Teachers were esteemed within Jewish culture, and so some of the saints thought to elevate their own standing within the Christian community through taking control of the congregation by presenting themselves as teachers. So, James cautioned his readers against promoting themselves, waiting instead on the Lord to do whatever promotion was to be conferred. His admonition is profitable for believers in this day, just as it was for those early Christians.
Perhaps you do not think there was a serious problem when James wrote, but from a spiritual point of view, there were serious problems evident among the churches. Wealth and power and stature in the eyes of the world are not necessarily indicative of spiritual maturity. The story is told of a time when Thomas Aquinas was walking with a prelate through one of the great cathedrals. Referring to a coffer filled with moneys, the prelate remarked, “Behold, Master Thomas, the church can no longer say, as did Saint Peter, ‘Silver and gold have I none!’” Thomas was apparently quick with his retort, “Alas, neither can we say what follows, ‘In the Name of Jesus Christ, rise up and walk.’” Focused, even in a small measure, on gaining approval from this dying world, the people of God were sacrificing spiritual power and maturity.