Chris Morgan is Associate Dean of the School of Christian Ministries and Professor of Theology at California Baptist University. He is author or editor of several books, and it’s the last of these that we discuss below:
- Christopher W. Morgan, Jonathan Edwards and Hell (Fearn, Scotland: Mentor, 2004).
- Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
- Christopher W. Morgan and B. Dale Ellenburg, James: Wisdom for the Community (Focus on the Bible; Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2008).
- Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Faith Comes by Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008).
- Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Suffering and the Goodness of God (Theology in Community; Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).
- Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, What Is Hell? (Basics of the Faith Series; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010). (Cf. my summary.)
- Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, eds., The Glory of God (Theology in Community; Wheaton: Crossway, 2010). (Cf. my interview with Chris on this book.)
- Christopher W. Morgan, A Theology of James: Wisdom for God’s People (Explorations in Biblical Theology; Phillipsburg NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010).
I recently mentioned six books “that preachers, teachers, and students will consult first and with most profit when studying the book of James.” Now I would expand that list to include Chris’s two books (#s 3 and 8 above).
1. Your first sentence in the book is this: “Non-Christians do not read the Bible; they read Christians” (p. xiii). What do you mean by that, and what does this have to do with the theology of James?
My point is that our lifestyle as the church communicates God to the world. When the church embodies love, holiness, truth, unity, and consistency, people will receive a viable portrait of God. When the world sees the church as filled with pettiness, division, and self-promotion, unbelievers’ understanding of God is inevitably distorted.
James forthrightly calls for consistency in the church. Such church consistency is crucial for our effective communication of God, and thus effective mission.
2. You mention that James helps us deal with a tension many pastors feel. What is that tension, and what do you mean by it?
Many of us as pastors and church leaders are inspired by knowing what the church can and should be. We invest our time, our prayers, our jobs—our very selves—in hopes of seeing the church become what God intends. Plus, the more we study and teach the Bible, the more we realize how important the church is. God elected it, Jesus bought it, and the Spirit indwells it. One day Jesus will present the church to himself as a perfectly beautiful bride. We also begin to notice that the church of the New Testament is imperfect, wedged historically in the eschatological already and not yet, and with power, personality, and cultural struggles. Yet in the New Testament we also see the church as passionate about the gospel, serious about obeying Christ, diligent to take the gospel to all nations, generous in meeting the needs of the poor, and concerned to seek unity, even in the midst of some major Jewish and Gentile cultural clashes.
However, the more we serve the Lord in churches, the more we come to grips with another reality, this one a bit disheartening—most individual churches are not what they are supposed to be. These covenant communities do not exude the level of passion for Christ, genuine love for others, servant spirit, or ministry to the hurting that we expect. Many churches exchange God’s global purpose of making disciples of all nations for being keepers of the status quo. Much of their leadership, budgets, and programs are centered on themselves.
The irony is that we often encounter these two truths at the very same time. The more we grow in our theology, the more value we place on the church. Yet the older we get and the more experience we have in serving churches, the more problems we see in the church. Biblically minded church leaders always have—and until Jesus’ returns, always will—sense this tension between a high view of the church and a realistic view of churches. In fact, it is when pastors or church leaders stop feeling this tension that danger lurks. That is likely a sign of lowering their standards, naivety, or disillusionment. The churches we serve are not the way they are supposed to be, but this should not lead us to despair but to serve the Lord, who can strengthen them.
And if we understand the Bible and its teachings related to the already and not yet, then this tension should not come as a surprise. It necessarily exists because the kingdom has come in Christ, but has not been fully realized. The church, as the eschatological covenant community, is to bear the marks of the kingdom, yet will not do so perfectly until the grand finale of history when the church is presented to Christ.
The epistle of James bears witness to this tension. This letter is written to real-life churches with real-life problems. Its message needs to be heard by churches today.
James, a key leader in the Jerusalem church, writes to help churches composed of Jewish Christians who are struggling with oppression from without and strife from within. Some of them also slip easily into being religious without genuinely following Christ. Throughout his letter James counters these problems and more as he offers wisdom for consistency in the covenant community, the church. And James addresses these challenges with a robust theology. While many think of the epistle of James as loaded with exhortations—and it is—it is much more than that. James offers pastoral theology that speaks to the needs of churches, and does so grounded upon a systematic theology. It is theology applied.
3. How would you summarize the message/theology of James?
I suggest that we see three central orienting concerns (consistency, wisdom, and community) together, and that we view the central burden of James as pastoral. James writes this letter to these churches to offer wisdom for the purpose of consistency in the communities. What do I mean by this?
First, by “wisdom for consistency in the community,” I mean that the letter of James has roots in the Old Testament wisdom tradition and seeks to dispense wisdom and its practical results. This approach to wisdom is at the heart of James. James applies the truths about God and covenant faithfulness to such daily issues as trials, temptations, words, wealth, obedience, planning, and brevity of life. In doing so, James stresses that our response to these daily challenges must be consistent with God’s person and ways.
Second, by “wisdom for consistency in the community,” I mean that James offers wisdom for a purpose: to encourage the covenant faithfulness of the people of God. James’s frequent opposition to being double-minded and his regular call for wholeness and integrity apply this wisdom. The goal of wisdom is maturity, completeness (cf. 1:4), and integrity, or as I am calling it, consistency.
Third, “wisdom for consistency in the community” means that James is addressing church matters from a pastoral perspective. As a major leader in the Jerusalem church, and therefore of other churches related to that mother church, James is keenly aware of church needs and problems. Indeed, he spends his day neck-deep in them. So James writes an ecclesiological document that speaks to real-life concerns that the Diaspora churches faced. Reading James with pastoral eyes reveals this community emphasis. These Jewish Christians were a part of local congregations (“synagogue” in 2:2) with teachers (3:1), elders (5:14), and members in need of church leadership’s prayers (5:14–16). These believers were experiencing trials (1:2f) and oppression (2:6; 5:1–11). Some were claiming they had faith but had little concern for personal holiness (1:22–25; 4:4) and failed to assist the poor (1:26–27; 2:14–17). The congregations also included some who sought to gain power as teachers, but were spiritually unqualified for the role (3:1–18). Some, including many desiring to be teachers, were quarrelsome, bringing friction rather than peace (3:13–4:10). James writes to address such church problems and responds by offering “wisdom for consistency in the community.”
4. How does this book differ from your commentary on James? And why did you write the commentary first?
I have had a long interest in James—personally and pastorally. But the more I studied James, the more I felt I had been missing the church/community emphasis—and doing so while serving as a pastor and preaching through James to help the church! The more I read works on James, the more I felt that others too were neglecting this important aspect. My sermons focused on the individual applications of James’s exhortations—facing trials at a personal level, dealing with temptation at a personal level, individual obedience with reference to words, etc. While those sermons were not necessarily incorrect, they shed light on only a small portion of James’s burden. Regrettably, it was not until the last sermon I preached in my 2001 series on James that I noticed its intensely community-centered perspective. Since that time, however, it has become increasingly clear to me that James is writing pastorally with an emphasis on the covenant community, dealing with church problems, and thinking from a church leadership perspective.
So I co-wrote (with my friend Dale Ellenburg) the commentary. The commentary’s purpose is to give sound and clear interpretation and explanation, and is structured passage by passage. It is to help pastors help the church through James.
I wrote A Theology of James because I found that I did not have time or space to develop my thinking on James’s theology. Writing both volumes has been helpful, as now both the particulars and the broad contours more readily stand out. In contrast to the commentary, A Theology of James is structured according to theological context, pastoral burden, themes, theology, and contemporary application. Its contents are below.
- 1. James in Context
- 2. Influences on James’s Thought
- 3. James’s Pastoral Burden: Wisdom for Consistency in the Community
- 4. Wisdom
- 5. Consistency
- 6. Suffering
- 7. The Poor
- 8. Words
- 9. God’s Word/Law
- 10. James and Paul
- 11. A Sketch of James’s Theology
- 12. Theology at Work
- 13. James for the Twenty-First Century Church
- Questions for Study and Reflection
- Select Resources on James’s Theology