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When James Met Paul

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Over the years, many people have claimed that the writings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament stand in contradiction to the Book of James. It is easy to see the basis for such a claim, as Paul writes, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28) and James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). These statements seem to be the exact opposite of each other, but we need to recognize that things that appear to be contradictions may not be so on closer examination. For example, Charles Dickens said “It was the best of times and the worst of times” in A Tale of Two Cities, and rather than using him as an example of an author who doesn’t really know what he is saying, students continue to read this well-known book in literature classes today! 

There have been several good explanations for how the differing circumstances and context of these statements reveal that these statements are not at odds with each other but actually complement each other – as Paul rules out works as the basis for salvation while James rules out faith that is merely intellectual belief (for example, see this article by Chris Bruno for The Gospel Coalition). Therefore, I want to take a different approach that leads to the same conclusion that Paul and James were not opposing each other with these statements. We will look at various places in the New Testament where they interact with each other to see that James is not an adversary of Paul, but rather affirms his ministry, agrees with him, and even assists him.

James’ Affirmation of Paul (Galatians 1:18-2:10)
Paul explicitly mentions his interactions with James in the Book of Galatians. They meet first about three years after Paul’s conversion and calling (Galatians 1:18). It is not mentioned what they discussed, but it does not seem that James opposed Paul’s work or ministry. Another encounter happened 14 years later due to a revelation that Paul received as well as some “false brothers” in the community causing trouble(Galatians 2:1-10). Here, James (along with Peter and John) affirms Paul’s work in ministry to the Gentiles, including his teaching that they could be right with God through faith in Jesus without keeping the Jewish law. Therefore, James was among those who endorsed Paul going to minister to the Gentiles while they stayed focused on bringing the message of Jesus to the Jews. They were not in competition with each other but complementing each other, bringing the same message to different audiences and also seeking to care for the poor (see Galatians 2:10). This concern for the poor and marginalized is just one of many points of connection found in the writings of James and Paul (another connection is that both emphasize the changed life that comes through faith in Christ).

James’ Agreement with Paul (Acts 15:1-35)
While some scholars think that Galatians 2 and Acts 15 refer to the same gathering (just told from different perspectives), I see these as two different encounters as the circumstances seem a little different. Even if Acts describes the same event, its description offers additional insights into their (not-hostile) relationship. This interaction between Paul and James occurs due to a conflict found in the early church, as “some men from Judea” were teaching that circumcision was required for Gentile male converts. This led to Paul and others going to Jerusalem where James was a leader in the early church. Peter then shared about his experiences that were narrated in Acts 10-11, and Paul and Barnabas about their ministry that we see in Acts 13-14. The speech that leads the council to their definitive decision is then given by James, who affirms their experience, looks to Scripture, and states that Gentiles can enter the community of faith without keeping the Jewish ceremonial law; they need only to turn from idols and sinful behavior associated with them (this seems the best explanation for the regulations noted in Acts 15:20-21). Thus, James agrees that one is saved not through works of the law but rather through faith, and that this faith leads to a change in priorities and behavior. Such a statement might actually help us as we look at James 2, as James does not argue that Abraham or Rahab are saved by keeping the Jewish law, but through behavior that shows their allegiance to God and His people. James does not command them to keep the ceremony and regulations of the Old Testament Law but to obey God’s command to love Him and love our neighbor…the very thing that Paul says as well!

James’ Assistance of Paul (Acts 21:17-26)
Paul returned to Jerusalem after what is known as his second and third missionary journey. James was a leader in the church in Jerusalem, and rather than the church shunning Paul or being alarmed at his arrival in their town, they “gladly” receive Paul and meet with him. In fact, they glorify God when they hear what God is doing through Paul. Then the church offers Paul some insight: rumors are spreading among Jewish believers that Paul is not telling Gentiles they can be saved without keeping the Jewish law, but rather, that he is telling the Jewish believers in Jesus not to keep the Jewish law (Acts 21:21-22). As a way to counter that rumor, James and the leaders of the Jerusalem church encourage Paul to go to the temple along with others – they had been under a vow to show that Paul lives in observance of the law while telling the Gentiles (in line with what was decided at the earlier gathering) that they did not need to keep the law. Rather than oppose or debate Paul, James assists and defends him! Paul did as suggested, though some misunderstandings led to his arrest by the crowd (Acts 21:27-36). Paul has many adversaries, but James is not one of them!

Not Against Each Other….But Against Misunderstandings
The various interactions between James and Paul makes it unlikely that they were arguing with or contradicting each other with their statement about faith and works. They did not see themselves as opposing each other, but as spreading the same message to different groups of people – they were allies, not adversaries. Rather than arguing with each other, they may be arguing against others who had misconstrued the teachings of these men. In Acts 21, we see the people made (false) claims about what Paul was preaching. In Galatians 2:11-14, Paul had to confront Peter because of a change in his behavior with Gentiles after “certain men came from James.” Note that it was not James, but some people associated with him, people who may have used his name to support their position or misunderstood his teaching and instructions. This situation then leads Paul to declare the same sorts of things that James discusses in Acts 15 (which I think is after Galatians 2). Therefore, rather than putting James and Paul in opposing camps that we should choose from, we should see them affirming each other and assisting each other to correct and counter misunderstandings concerning their messages. 

Questions about the Bible or theology? Email them to Pastor Brian at Theology@WeAreFaith.org. You can also request to receive weekly emails with our blog posts by filling out the information on the right side.

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