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36. “First Pure, Then Peaceable” (James 3)

“But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable....”

One of the most extraordinary perversions in the whole of Christadelphian exposition is the not uncommon use of James 3:17 to justify agitation and strife in the pursuit of “purity”. It is a terribly wrong use of the Bible to toss about convenient phrases as slogans, with absolutely no regard for their context.

“In times of ecclesial strife, it is often assumed, quite unfairly, that to advocate a policy of patient negotiation and attempt to avert division by every proper means, is to display lack of a sense of Scriptural priorities and unhealthy tolerance of error. James is often (wrongly) called in aid of a vigorous campaigning for purity of doctrine as an essential preliminary to the restoration of harmony and peace. For does he not say ‘the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable’ (3:17) and is unity not therefore dependent upon oneness of mind in things spiritual?” (A.H. Nicholls, “First Pure, Then Peaceable”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 109, No. 1295 — May 1972 — p. 193; this article is virtually repeated in Vol. 113, No. 1343 — May 1976 — pp. 161,162).
And it is so tempting to read this phrase as a time sequence: Take care of the purity first, and then the peace will naturally follow. Contend earnestly for the faith, with tooth and nail if need be, and then take the fragments that remain when the strife has run its course, and establish an “honorable” peace only among those who are absolutely of one mind — because they agree absolutely with you! Can the policy so much like the repressive tactics of a Hitler or a Stalin, tactics that allow no disagreement and ensure peace by steamrolling the opposition — can such a philosophy truly commend itself to Christ’s brethren? Is “first” really a note about time, as though one could be “pure” this week but not necessarily “peaceable” till the next, when the other fellow has been disposed of?

The entire passage in James (3:13-18), dealing with true wisdom, is an extended contrast between two types of “wisdom”, one which has its origins from “beneath” and the other from “above”. Envying and strife and debate, motivated by impure thoughts, are from beneath; they are natural rather than spiritual. Against such manifestations of the “wisdom” of man the apostle Paul also spoke:

“For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would....lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults....” (2 Cor. 12:20).

And he warned the Galatian brethren:

“If ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (5:15).

By contrast, the positive theme of James’ words here is a peace born of love and sincerity (purity of motives). Heavenly wisdom is free to manifest itself in works of meekness (v. 13); it need not resort to bombast and agitation. True righteousness is motivated by Scriptural peace — inward calm and outward gentleness (v. 18).

The words of the apostles imply far from idyllic conditions in the early ecclesias. Their warnings are just as valid, and perhaps more so, to us today as we survey a divided body and ask ourselves why.

“Even in those early days, there were men who had a measureless self-conceit, a bitter jealousy of those whom their brethren regarded with affection and trust, an arrogant confidence in their own opinion and their own judgment; men in whom there was very little of the spirit of Christ, but who were quite certain that they, and they alone, had the mind of Christ; men who were resolved, whatever might come of it, to force upon the ecclesias their own beliefs either with regard to doctrine or practice; who made parties in the ecclesia to carry out their purposes, held secret meetings, flattered those who stood by them as being faithful to conscience and to Christ, and disparaged the fidelity of all those who differed from them” (N. Smart, The Epistle of James, p. 117).
The tragic misuse of James 3:17 to justify every manner of agitation and division stems also from a misguided apprehension of the word “pure”. As James uses it here, the word applies only to moral deportment, not to the body of first principles commonly but not altogether correctly called “doctrine”. Indeed, the word hagnos and its related words have reference always to moral purity; in other passages these words are appropriately translated “chaste” (2 Cor. 11:2; Tit. 2:5; 1 Pet. 3:2) and “sincerely” (Phil. 1:16). The verb form appears as “purify” in such passages as James 4:8; 1 Peter 1:22; and 1 John 3:3, with the same connotation. By using hagnos James does not convey so much the idea of cleansing or catharsis, but more nearly that of holiness or sanctification, freedom from any kind of defilement of mind or conscience, or from any inward stain or blemish (L.G. Sargent, The Teaching of the Master, p. 71).

The Bible emphasis, therefore, is not upon “pure doctrine” (the phrase occurs nowhere in the AV or RV), but invariably upon “sound doctrine”, the healthful teaching which informs the spiritual mind and keeps the ecclesial body pure and wholesome. It refers equally to method as to content. The very test of a teaching’s soundness is whether or not it produces strife (Nicholls, op. cit., p. 194). Wisdom is to be “pure”, whilst doctrine is to be “sound”, an enormous distinction.

It might also be noted that neither is “fellowship” ever Scripturally characterized as being “pure”. Purity in the absolute sense belongs to God alone, and in any other relation is only relative. Purity of conduct is something for which to strive, since Christ commands, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:45). But it cannot be said that we should strive for the “purity” of belief of our brethren by the questionable means of agitation. And, even if we were so instructed, the outcome of such an inquisitional search for “purity” would certainly not be the desired “peace”.

Inasmuch as words are just about as well defined by citing their antonyms as their synonyms, I shall consider here James’ two forms of “wisdom” in parallel columns. By such a method the real significance of both “pure” and “peaceable” will become plain:

1. Let the wise show his manner of life by his works with meekness of wisdom (v. 13).
1. The foolish shows his manner of life by his words, seeking domination (v. 1) by boldly blessing God while cursing men (vv. 9-12).
2. His wisdom is from above, born of God, and therefore PURE, loving, guileless, and single.
2. The “wisdom” from beneath is natural: earthly, sensual, and demoniacal (v. 15). Rather than purifying, it is defiling (v. 6).
3. PEACEABLE: This is really the first and foremost characteristic of the “pure wisdom from above” (v. 18).
3. By contrast, earthly wisdom is con- ducive to “envying and strife” (vv. 14,16).
4. GENTLE: Forbearing, patient, careful.
4. An “unruly” tongue (v. 8), leaving in its wake “confusion (tumult, unquietness) and every evil work” (v. 16).
5. EASY TO BE INTREATED: “Open to reason” (RSV).
5. Unapproachable, boastful — with a tongue no man can tame (v. 8).
6.”Full of deadly poison”, i.e. cursing (v. 8).
7. WITHOUT PARTIALITY, wrangling or uncertainty. Adiakritos: “not to be parted or separated”.
7. Having a “double standard”: “With our tongues we bless God and curse men” (v. 9).
8. WITHOUT HYPOCRISY; i.e. being single (or pure) in purpose.
8. “Does a spring pour forth from the same opening fresh water and brackish?” (vv. 11,12). “Glory not and lie not against the truth” (v. 14).

Thus it may clearly be seen that “peace”, far from being nonexistent until an artificial “purity” has been imposed, is instead a virtue always to be desired. Indeed, how could one instructed at all in the wisdom of God ever contend that any of the other qualities enumerated along with purity are not to be desired at all times? Should one be gentle only after the opposition has been beaten into flight or submission? Should one be merciful only after his striving has left nothing and no one to be forgiven?

“ ‘First’ and ‘then’ are not references to a sequence of events — get the wisdom pure and peace will follow — but to the relationship between the characteristics of the wisdom that is from above. It is above all else pure, and consequently is ‘peaceable, gentle and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy’...’But if ye have bitter jealousy and faction in your heart, glory not, and lie not against the truth.’ The path of doctrinal purity, in any sense of the word, does not lie along that road, since nothing can be of God that causes confusion and strife” (Ibid.; compare also P. Adams, “First Pure, Then Peaceable”, The Testimony, Vol. 30, No. 360 — Dec. 1960 — p. 429).
James crowns his discussion of heavenly wisdom with an allusion to the “sermon” of Christ on the mount:

“And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by them that make peace” (James 3:18).

The “pure” and the “peaceable” of James’ discourse are now seen as a conscious imitation of the thought (and even the order) of Matthew 5:8,9: (1) “Blessed are the pure in heart”; and (2) “Blessed are the peacemakers”.

Also, James’ simile of the fruit trees (v. 12) and his allusion to the “fruit” of righteousness (v. 18) are echoes of the Lord’s figure of speech in the same discourse:

“Beware of false prophets... ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit” (Matt. 7:15-17).

As did Christ, James foresaw that men would sow destruction and confusion in the field of God. The damage that such men would cause by their schismatic tendencies, born of jealousy and pride, would have to be counteracted by the pure and peaceable and gentle actions of others. With this in mind James speaks of the tree. There is a tree that is righteousness, and righteousness is its fruit. It is firmly planted, rooted in the truth, and nourished by the soft showers of heavenly wisdom. Its fruit is harvested and then sown by the peacemakers who are pure in heart. The product will be many “trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified” (Isa. 61:3). But there is a condition for this planting in which God works with and through men: it must be done “in peace”, for strife is destructive of the very seed of righteousness.

* * * * *

Brother Carter, late editor of The Christadelphian, under the heading “A Plea for Uncalled-for Disunion”, wrote as follows:

“The title is not ours; it is one given by bro. Roberts in a call for sober and fair judgment at a time when feeling was running high just after bro. Andrew’s teaching had caused years of contention followed by division. Some were for pressing too far their demands upon fellow believers under the guise of ‘PURITY OF TRUTH’, and belaboured bro. Roberts for lack of zeal because he would not endorse their efforts. Some have thought of bro. Roberts as a fiery zealot always leading division. He certainly combatted, and rightly so, important and vital errors that were at different times introduced in the community. But it is clear that it was not a fanatical zeal that moved him. He recognized that there were other duties — teaching, guiding, instructing, promoting unity where vital issues were not involved. Three pamphlets were reviewed by him which he variously described as ‘Plea for Unsound Union’, ‘Plea for Uncalled-for Disunion’, and ‘Plea for Apostasy’. He repudiated all three pleas, and we endorse his attitude” (Vol. 93, No. 1104 — June 1956 — p. 224).
To this we would add certain of Robert Roberts’ thoughts in his own words:

“It is well to be zealous for ecclesial purity; but if we are to abstain from ecclesial association till we find an ecclesia that is perfect, we shall never have ecclesial association at all. We must have compassion as well as zeal. We are all imperfect, and unless we practice some of the charity that ‘hides a multitude of sins’, we shall hinder and destroy instead of helping one another” (“Ecclesial Notes”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 23, No. 263 — May 1886 — p. 230).
To his words may be added those of other staunch brothers:

“The aim of the gospel is to convert and edify, not to divide. Division is an evil, whether necessary or not. The loss of disciples through apostasy, even when it becomes inevitable, is still grievous. And many losses may well have occurred, not because members were caught out in apostasy, but because some mistaken person or group thought that one must not be peaceable until purity has been attained. And of course this is not what James is saying....The wisdom from above is pure, but it is folly to think of it in terms of purity alone, or to imagine that it can entertain purity in isolation from the warming qualities which make it at once divine in its origin and human in its sympathies. The whole theme of this exalted homily is against the pursuit of so-called purity for its own sake alone, and for a righteousness which bears peace as its fruit at the hands of peacemakers” (A.D. Norris, Bible Missionary, No. 42 — July 1971 — pp. 2,3).

“My conviction is that we, as a body, are in a thousand times greater danger through failure in this matter of brotherly love than in those doubtful issues which have exercised so many of our members. When once controversy has started there is usually a tendency on all sides to multiply the sins of unfairness, misrepresentation, and all the other fleshly evils that arise from strife. Stones are thrown where bread should be given. The Scriptures will save us if we will allow them to have free course, but we must search them for food and medicine and not merely for weapons” (I. Collyer, An Appeal to Christadelphians, p. 5).
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