Is James Preaching the Social Gospel?
Perhaps you’ve heard of Luther’s famous critique of the Epistle of James. He calls it an “epistle of straw” because he felt it lacked enough references to Christ for it to have any significant value. As I study this book, I become more and more convinced that Luther may have missed something beautiful here. I believe we can find Christ in the straw. In fact, as James lays out the Christian life, his directives become far richer and more profound when read in light of the Gospel: we have been purchased with the divine blood of Christ, made His with no merit of our own, and we have been raised with Christ to live in freedom. James is a master of laying out the life of freedom we have in Christ while, at the same time, ruthlessly attacking anything that would get in the way of that freedom.
Many recent Christian conversations have centered on our country’s treatment of immigrants. Everyone has an opinion on this. Lines have been drawn, heels have been dug, and enemies have been labeled. And of course, everyone has their Bible verses. Some claim Romans 13 and say you should obey the government on this one. Others respond by trotting out the sheep and goats of Matthew 25, showing how those who served the hurting are given the kingdom of God, while the others are damned for their lack of compassion. No matter which side, it’s easy for all of us to build Bible verses into grenades aimed at obliterating the political other.
In this fight, many Christians turn to James as a guide. After all, he has a great deal to say to the church about how they should be treating the poor in their midst. It would seem in the congregations James writes to, partiality was shown to the wealthy and those of high social standing, while the poor were left to shiver and starve. The wealthy, boasting of their “salvation by grace,” let the poor suffer. They saw people lacking proper food and clothing and responded by saying, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” without giving them anything to eat or wear (James 2:16). James would have none of that. This faith was not the sort of justifying faith given through Christ and spoken of by Paul and the other apostles. This was dead faith. After all, using God’s mercy as an excuse to allow others to suffer is antithetical to the work of Christ. There are many, then, who take these words from James as a call to social action. Some would say that James is advocating for the “social gospel.”
Defining Social Gospel
The social gospel movement gained popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in American Christianity. Influenced heavily by the optimism of the Enlightenment, this movement believed that by applying the principles of, say, the Sermon on the Mount or the Lord’s Prayer (Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven), the church could become an agent for positive social change. This movement claimed that the work of the church should be primarily political. That is to say, the life and preaching of the church ought to be focused, not merely on Christ crucified, but on ending the ills in society and transforming the entirety of culture to look more like the sermon on the mount.
When read according to the social gospel scheme, James’ writing against mistreating the poor is more than an admonishment against the way some members of a congregation are abusing their impoverished brothers and sisters. Instead, a social gospel reading asserts the Biblical writer is both critiquing society at large for its treatment of the poor and calling Christians to action for the impoverished in the political sphere.
Now, I’m not convinced this is exactly what James is after. Perhaps a little context would be helpful before we move on. The world of the New Testament was a culture of status and shame. In order for a person to gain greater status, others had to be shamed. The more you shamed another, the higher you sat in the social order. So, the first remained first by making sure the last remained last.
The incarnation and crucifixion completely upend this. Our God is one who humbles himself to the point of death on a cross. He who was rich with the glories of heaven, for your sake, became poor so you might become rich. God serves those beneath Him; He loves His enemies, He prays for those who persecute Him on the cross.
Further, when He baptized us, He made us to be one body. When we partake of the one body and drink of the one cup at the altar, God eliminates social distinctions that would keep us from loving each other. In other words, in Christ, there is neither Jew/Greek, slave/free, male/female (Gal. 3:28). Of course, this doesn’t eliminate our differences. It just means that our differences are neither a cause for God to keep us out of His family nor are they a reason to prevent us from loving someone in a different category than us. What is more, when we find someone in the family who is weak, starving, naked, etc., we who have the means are to care for them, provide for them, sacrifice ourselves for their self because we are one body! This, of course, is for our brothers and sisters, but the call to love also extends to our enemies who may not be baptized, but are still the aim of God’s mercy.
James, then, in teaching us to care for the poor, to feed the hungry, etc. is not advocating that we take up the cause of one group against another, nor is He calling for us to advocate for a progressive, “Christian” social reform. He’s not calling us to fix the world but to love it. Especially the least of these. After all, in the eyes of God, you are just as spiritually impoverished as anyone else in this world, and Christ sacrificed everything for you. When the Gospel ceases to be God’s sacrifice for all sinners and instead becomes a call for political action, we cease to see our political opponents as neighbors we pray for and love and, instead, view them as an enemy to be conquered.
James is calling the church to love those in their midst who are suffering. To seek out those in need and provide for them. To use their vocations as opportunities to love their neighbors. To act in opposition to this, to let the poor starve and shiver in the name of Jesus is to blaspheme the name of God.
Social Gospel or Law of God
Such an abuse of the poor puts James on the attack. In this epistle, James is doing the Law to you! You think you are justified and yet, in the name of Jesus--who had no place to lay His head--you let others starve on your watch? Are you so busy boasting of your faith that you let others suffer? Well, then, James unloads the double-barrel, shotgun of the Law on you! “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). Your faith is a joke, and you are dying of laughter.
This is not the social gospel; this is the Law of God condemning the particular sins of rich idolaters. James shoots to kill. He’s telling people who are using the Gospel of justification through faith alone as an excuse to let others suffer that they likely aren’t justified. After all, to take a piece from Luther, “O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly.” It cannot help but do good works. It cannot help but love. It cannot help but dive into the suffering of others so that, though it may cost everything, it’s not worried. It has all it needs in Christ Jesus. Or, to say it another way, God throws His faithful into the midst of dying sinners in need where they cannot help but love and suffer with them. James’ audience didn’t believe that.
Here is where, I suppose, we get towards the proper idea of the imitation of Christ. Mark Mattes, in a marvelous essay entitled Discipleship in Lutheran Perspective says it this way, “Indeed, if there is any analogy that exists between the Christian and Christ, it is not established by growth in holiness but instead by suffering—we are being conformed to the image of the crucified.” The problem with James’ audience is that they looked more and more, not like the Crucified, but the crucifier, Pontius Pilate. After all, He did nothing within his power to stop Jesus from dying. By his cowardice, he was implicated in Jesus’ death. No matter how much he washed his hands, he still let this poor rabbi suffer and die. He might as well have said, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” (James 2:16). It is Pilate, with his idol of the state, who ignores the plight of the poor. It is the enfleshed God over all creation who sacrifices everything for them.
Is James preaching the social gospel? No. He is killing the idolatrous rich with the Law. It is a death they have to die if they will ever realize the truth of the matter, that “mercy triumphs over justice” (James 2:13). If they ever want to know what it means to be set free from their sin, to celebrate real living with the other sinner/saints “under the law of liberty” (James 2:12), they will have to have their idols shattered and the old Adam or Eve crucified. Only then, can Jesus finally raise them up and seat them next to the rest of the beggars, rich and poor alike, at the altar to feed them all together and guide them in love for one another. James isn’t starting a political movement. He’s killing and making alive for the sake of faith and love.
 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, ©1999), 370-371.
 Mark Mattes, “Discipleship in Lutheran Perspective,” in Lutheran Quarterly, vol. XXVI, 2012. Pg. 148