posted on Oct, 29 2012 @ 06:31 PM
At the end of the third chapter of his New Testament letter, James was explaining the difference between the Wisdom which comes from God, “the
Wisdom from above”, and the more earthly, merely human wisdom.
In the next part of the letter, he sets out some of the practical implications of choosing between them.
In a previous thread, I was looking at his warnings at the beginning of the fourth chapter, about the “passions”, and the danger of choosing
enmity with God, and the need for repentance.
At the end of the chapter, he’s addressing people obsessed with the pursuit and possession of wealth (obviously still making the wrong choice).
In the interval between those two themes (vv11-12), he gives a different warning to the brethren themselves;
“Do not speak evil against one another…”
It seems to me that this exhortation comes in two versions- the basic version and an expanded version.
The basic version, which we find at the beginning and end of the passage, and implied in the rest, is simply about the way we treat the brethren.
The argument runs-
Anyone who speaks evil against a brother is acting as judge over him.
This echoes the complaint in ch2 v4, that those who show partiality among the brethren have become “judges with evil thoughts”.
But this is wrong, because there is only one true judge.
This judge can save, but he can also destroy- and the implication is that he may destroy, rather than save, anyone who tries to take over his
(“Judge not, that you be not judged”- Matthew ch7 v1)
So “who are you that you should judge your neighbour?”
Perhaps this line of argument would have been the main theme of James’ pastoral teaching on the subject.
I suspect that modern pastoral use of these verses tends to focus on the same theme- rightly so, because the problem of “speaking evil against the
brethren” has a devastating effect on community life and the sense of unity.
The expanded version of this passage brings in “the law”.
However, the impression I get from other chapters in this letter is that James doesn’t mean the full “written code” of Moses when he’s using
His interest seems to lie in the more basic moral principles of the kind found in the Sermon on the Mount.
The expanded argument, found in the full text of the passage, now runs like this;
Anyone who speaks evil against a brother is speaking evil against the law.
And similarly anyone who judges a brother is judging the law, and therefore setting himself up as a law-defining judge.
But this is wrong, because there is only one true lawmaker and judge.
Then the end of v12 abruptly drops the reference to the law and returns to the more basic theme.
(That’s one of my reasons for supposing that the first version of the exhortation came without that part of the argument)
The logic of the expanded version looks a little odd when it’s examined closely.
How can speaking evil against a brother be the equivalent of speaking evil against the law?
How is that supposed to work?
Maybe the starting-point is the charge that speaking evil against the brethren is disobedience to the law.
James has already told us that those who dishonour their brethren are transgressing “the royal law”, or possibly “the kingdom’s law”, namely
the commandment “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (ch2 vv8-9)
Now anyone who defies the commands of a court is said to be “in contempt of court”.
In the same way, perhaps, we could say that transgressing the law amounts to disregarding the law and showing a lack of respect for the law.
But can this really be stretched into “speaking evil against the law and judging it”?
The connection seems a little thin.
I’d like to offer an alternative explanation.
If your brother is defending the law, and you are speaking evil against him because he’s defending the law- if you are saying, in effect,
that defending the law is an evil thing to do- then the logic of the expanded version makes perfect sense.
In those circumstances, the act of “judging” your brother would amount to the same thing as judging the law that he was defending.
In effect, you are claiming the right to set aside the law, which makes you a lawgiver, and accounts for the observation that there is “only one
The natural setting for such a dispute between critics and defenders of the law would be the controversy about “Faith and works”, which has
already played a part in this letter.
In the first of this series of threads, I was suggesting the same background for the third chapter’s lecture on the use of the tongue.
This brings us to another puzzle, viz. the place of this passage in the overall structure of the letter.
We find it currently sandwiched between “Don’t choose enmity with God” and a diatribe against the wealthy, without clearly belonging to either
In a sense, though, it does follow on from the beginning of the chapter, where James was complaining about the “fighting among you” and blaming it
on “the passions”.
We can see these verses as another aspect of the same problem, on the grounds that the passions, including the theological passions, are the reason
why we feel driven to speak evil against the brethren.
This behaviour is a symptom that the passions have not yet been overcome.
Then we can take the argument further back, and see the problem as one of the products of following the wrong kind of wisdom, the wisdom that is
“earthly, unspiritual, devilish” (ch3 v15).
(At one stage, indeed, I thought of attaching this discussion to the end of the “Friends and enemies” thread, but the combination would have
been too long)
However, this complaint in vv11-12 also echoes the complaint in ch3 about using the tongue to curse our fellow men.
In fact if these two verses had been found as the immediate sequel to ch3 v12, nobody would have thought them out of place.
That might have something to say to us about the way this letter was put together.
We can find some continuity between these verses and ch3 vv1-12, as a discussion on the use of the tongue.
It’s also possible to find a continuity when James is discussing the theory of Christian behaviour;
In the second chapter, from v14 to the end of the chapter, James is dismissing the theory that “works” can safely be neglected.
That argument gets continued in a second section, from ch3 v13 to the end of that chapter or even to ch4 v10, where he’s presenting what he’s got
to offer in preference to that theory.
It almost looks as though the two discussions have become interlocked, which is understandable enough if they both involve criticism of the “Faith
Perhaps the exhortation in these two verses was “extended” from the basic version as part of the process which brought it into the final structure
of this letter.