We studied through James with a group of students in our Life Group recently.
I noticed something, which I think is worthy of note. James is a letter written to churches telling them how to behave to one another. The New Testament is full of similar commands for the church should love one another, care for the poor, show hospitality, and much more besides.
The students we studied with were keen to take James’ challenges seriously, to apply them to their lives, and to make honest assessments about how well they match up to the way of Jesus. They asked great questions too. The Church’s future is, in that sense, bright!
The thing that struck me as odd was that consistently when applying James’ wisdom to their lives, they aimed outside rather than inside. These are instructions given to the church, but their applications were always outside the church: how they could care for the poor in society, or love their friends, or tame their tongues on social media.
They weren’t wrong—I do think the Bible should lead us to ask these questions—but there was no sense that we should start in the church. That’s the pattern though, we learn wisdom to take on the wider world in the church before we venture outwards. We learn how to love the poor in the church by loving the poor in our church before we do anything outside of the church. We learn to love the people we struggle to get along with in our church before we look outside. The church is the schoolhouse of faith.
It’s the same pattern we find in the scriptures: think of Adam’s rule in the garden, cut tragically short, that was supposed to extend out to Eden then the rest of the world.
Garden 🠒 Eden 🠒 World.
Holy of Holies 🠒 Holy Place 🠒 Courtyard.
Jerusalem 🠒 Judea 🠒 Samaria 🠒 ends of the earth.
These are biblical patterns, we expect to move in widening circles as we progress in the way of Jesus. These circles start in the holy place of God and move outwards, they start in the church and move to society.
I don’t think this way of thinking was the fault of any of the students I was studying James’ with, I think most Christians do the same thing. I think I do the same thing. We have a terribly poor doctrine of the Church.
Many of the New Testament’s commands are on how to behave to one another within the church. Some people on hearing this immediately jump to wondering if that means we don’t have to behave as Jesus’ taught to people who are outside of the church. I think that’s the wrong question, but no that’s not what I mean. The commands of Jesus apply in your workplace as much as they do on a Sunday with the people.
The right question is, why do we think we’ve cracked ‘loving one another’ inside the church? From one angle we’re much better then society at large, but perhaps that’s like having two dogs—one is dead from malnourishment, the other is within hours of starving to death—and congratulating yourself that the second dog is better fed than the first.
It’s in the church that we’re supposed to learn how to love each other. And, it’s in the church that we learn the darker truths, that our lovelessness is often a result of our sin.
We’ve been wired by cultural currents to look for structural solutions to problems. The Bible’s wisdom says that structural problems will require structural solutions, and structural sin will require corporate repentance. Typically, we need individual repentance before we can get there. We need to spot the issues in our own hearts before we can fix the big problems ‘out there’. That’s not popular, because its easier to see the problems out there, and it hurts a lot less to look at them.
We won’t get anywhere like that though. We have to begin to learn wisdom and maturity in the church, build genuinely ‘thick’ community, and then progress to society’s problems.
Realistically, because we’re people, we’ll do both at once, but we have to see that the church is where we learn wisdom.
Why is the church where we learn wisdom? She’s his bride. We are supposed to be the people being fitted for maturity, readying the bride for her husband. Of course the commands are aimed within the church first!
We bring the kingdom to the world for the world to rejoice in the marriage of the Lamb to the Bride, but we also fit the Bride for her wedding day. That means learning wisdom, practicing repentance, and seeing your local church as the family given to you by God to love well and be taught how to love by.
She’s the hope of all the world, battle-scarred and filthy though she may be, her future is inconceivably bright. There’s nothing better.
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