“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trails of various kinds” (Jam. 1:2). With these familiar words James, the half-brother of our Lord, begins his letter to the infant churches scattered across the ancient world. What I want to take note of is the way in which James addresses his audience, namely, with the term “brothers.”
Now, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that just as in English the masculine plural ‘brothers’ does not exclude females, but is rather a mixed-gender plural, including both the men and women in the churches. And while the term ‘brothers’ is not unique to James, since other New Testament writers use it as well, what I want to draw out is the peculiar affection with which James seems to use the term. It is demonstrably James’ preferred form of address, and the frequency with which he addresses the churches as such is unmatched in the New Testament (e.g. 1:2; 2:1; 3:1; 5:7 – see also, “beloved brothers” in 1:16, 19). He writes affectionately to his beloved siblings in the family of God. This quite naturally raises the question of our own affection for our siblings in Christ today: do you possess a similar familial love for those in your church and the one, catholic church?
In using this term, moreover, James highlights our adoption into God’s family. As believers in Jesus, united to him by faith (and consequently his younger brothers), we have been ushered into the family of God as inheritance-receiving sons, heirs of the kingdom of God (Rom. 8:16-17). Though James never explicitly speaks of adoption, the theme is clearly present in the letter. We see it not only in his form of address, but also when he writes, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (1:18), and again, “Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (2:5). What a blessing it is to be a child of God!
What is most striking to me, however, is when James departs from his pattern and uses other forms of address in the letter. James lashes out against his imaginary opponent in 2:20, calling him a “foolish person.” Such is the one who believes he can have faith apart from works. In perhaps the central passage of the letter, 4:1-10, James addresses his audience with the tenderness of a charging bull, calling them “adulterous people” (4:4), “sinners” and “double-minded” (4:8). James’ tone towards the arrogant merchant (4:13-17) and self-indulgent rich (5:1-6) also lacks the affection present in the rest of the letter. In these cases, James speaks with a prophetic frustration, a holy anger that burns against the sinfulness and friendliness-with-the-world of the people of God.
Applying James’ choice of words in these passages is particularly difficult, especially given his own admonition against anger (1:19-20). We should tread lightly, think carefully, and listen intently before imitating James in this regard. The fact that these are cases where James breaks from his pattern of affection should itself caution us from speaking likewise, though not entirely stop us.
In reading James, you sense that he truly loved those to whom he wrote. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, “He who looks upon his brother should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ” (Life Together, 24). That being the case, you’re ‘stuck’ with the church forever…and they with you! James knew that and loved accordingly. May we do the same.