In a pastoral letter dated March 1, 2019, Bishop Kenneth Carter quotes James 5:13-16, helpfully calling the elders in each congregation – those who are mature leaders – to be attentive to the ways in which we can work toward healing in our congregations and throughout our congregation. This is indeed an important summons. He goes on to write, “James does not call us to identify the sins of one another. He calls us to confess our sins to one another, and to pray for one another, so that we may be healed.” This statement gives me pause. While this is indeed accurate in regard to James 5:13-16, narrowly taken, it does not take into account the paragraph in James that immediately follows:
“My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20, NRSV).
James envisions one disciple helping another disciple see that he or she has wandered from the truth and working to bring that person back to the path of living in holiness and righteousness before God. Indeed, James seems to encourage this kind of risky investment in the life of another person, because the stakes for that other person are so high if he or she “wanders from the truth” (the death of “the sinner’s soul”).
If we were to take the whole counsel of James in this chapter, then, we would hear James call us indeed to confess our sins to one another and call us to identify the sins of one another that lurk in our own blind spots or in those areas in which we see to protect the life and practices of the “old person” that we were rather than set those aside on our own to make room for the life and practices of the “new person” that the Holy Spirit would nurture and bring to full maturity within us.
In our current context, identifying one another’s sins might be seen as problematic. It gets in the way of our living as we would wish. But in the context of the first-century church, it was far from problematic. Indeed, it was regarded as salutary and necessary. Beyond James 5:19-20, it is a practice demanded of Christian community in Matthew 18:15-20; Galatians 6:1-2; Jude 22-23. (Hebrews 3:12-13 also points in this direction, as the community is called, with second person plural verbs, to “take care lest any one of you be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”)
There are admittedly dangers when we spend so much of our energy in and direct so much of our attention towards identifying the sins of a sister or brother and investing ourselves in restoring them that we neglect self-examination, the recognition and confession of our own sins, and the amendment of our own lives. Paul seems to recognize this himself in Gal 6:1 when he writes, “Brothers and sisters, even if a person is overtaken in any transgression, you all who are Spirit-led are to restore such a person in a spirit of forbearance, each one of you watching yourself lest you also be tempted.” Jesus famously warned concerning imbalance here as well with his remark about specks and logs in the eyes of various parties (Matt 7:3-5), but even there one consequence of attending to the log in one’s own eye is to see clearly to remove the speck in the sister’s or brother’s eye.
We are all sinners on the journey of transformation. We all need the Holy Spirit’s illumination and empowerment. We all need to attend to our own progress from the flesh-driven life to the Spirit-led life. And we also need one another to help us see the sin in our blind spots, the sin we protect and refuse to name, the sin that has hardened our conscience by its deceitfulness.