Formations 09.09.2018: Making Integrity a Priority

James 2:14-26

A growing trend in the business world is to establish a position with responsibility for corporate ethics. Brooke Masters of the Financial Times recently found more than 400 openings at the recruiting site Glassdoor for chief integrity officers and more than 650 for ethics officers.

It perhaps shouldn’t be a surprise that positions of this nature seem to be especially popular with companies attempting to rehabilitate their image in the face of scandals. Masters specifically mentions Wells Fargo, which set up an ethics officer in the wake of a fake accounts scandal in 2016, and Volkswagen, whose head of integrity is currently dealing with a scandal related to auto emissions as well as the recent arrest of the head of the company’s Audi unit.

It isn’t enough, though, to hire heads of integrity. Companies must include them in top-level decisions, and companies must reinforce the moral message. Employees notice when those things don’t happen.

What good is it to say all the right things if you never put your money where your mouth is? Wells Fargo’s ethics office lasted less than six months before being renamed “conduct management.” Since then, additional instances of misconduct have come to light. As Masters comments, “Perhaps having a weak or ineffectual moral leader is worse than having none at all.” Corporations can talk a good game about ethics and integrity, but we’ll know they’re serious when their organizational culture reflects these values.

What good is it for Christians to talk about faith but never put their faith to work? In today’s lesson, that is the question that James raises. Apparently, he was aware of some purported followers of Christ whose walk never matched up with their talk. He can’t let that kind of superficial faith go unchallenged. What good is it to boast of a faith that doesn’t make a difference in one’s own life—let alone the lives of others who could use a compassionate, helping hand?

Brooke Masters, “Do Companies Really Need a ‘Head of Integrity’?” Financial Times, 28 Jul 2018 <https://www.ft.com/content/7fb6c5f0-90b6-11e8-b639-7680cedcc421>.

Discussion

• When have you seen organizations—companies, churches, nonprofits, etc.—do a good job of upholding ethics or integrity? What did they do right?
• How do you feel when someone who claims to be a Christian behaves in ways that bring shame to the cause of Christ?
• Based on this passage, what do you think the words “faith,” “works,” and “justify” mean to James?
• What might James have to say to those who insist that salvation is by grace through faith and “not the result of works” (Eph 2:9)?
• How might James’s and Paul’s understanding of faith, works, and justification both challenge and complement each other?

Reference Shelf

Emphases of James

The writing is not a systematic composition. It switches subjects quickly without transition and often returns to a subject such as the rich. It must be read for the truth taught in each brief statement

The writing includes, incidentally, the great biblical themes: God the creator and Father (2:19; 3:9); one universe (1:17); God is holy (1:13); gives good gifts to us (1:17); is the source of all good (1:5, 17); our ways are in his hands (4:15); God is merciful (5:11); hears prayers (1:5; 4:2; 5:13-18); and forgives sins (5:15, 20); and the book sees salvation as justification (2:21).

James deplored hypocrisy, sham, and pretense of any kind. His exhortations reflect an appreciation for the Hebrew prophets. He also believed that God and the Christian life were incompatible with the cultural world of his time. His repeated condemnations of the rich and powerful suggest a kinship with Amos and suggest a serious flaw in contemporary American Christian understanding.

Morris Ashcraft, “James, Letter of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 428.

Armchair Faith

James begins his discourse on the symbiosis of faith and works with a pointed question: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?” (2:14a). “That kind of faith cannot save, can it?” (2:14b) Clearly, James expects negative answers: profession without practice is worthless, both to the self- deceived confessor (2:14b) and to those in grave need (2:15-16). That kind of faith that is all profession and no practice, all creed and no deeds cannot save (2:14b). James’s imaginary opponent thinks it enough to profess faith (2:14) and pray God’s blessing on the poorly clothed and hungry (2:16). James’s opponent perhaps reasons if faith is present and prayers are mouthed, God will of necessity take care of the rest; thus, human intervention is superfluous. However, the hungry and ill-clothed need more than a benediction, a good word; they need believers to be a blessing to them by feeding them and clothing them (2:15-16; cf. Matt 25:35-36). The poor need more than a verbal passing of God’s peace; they need brothers and sisters who will incarnate God’s concern for peace with justice for the oppressed. Talk of faith in itself does not help those in need; they need loving action on their behalf not empty words.

Many commentators have been puzzled by the challenge laid down by James’s imaginary opponent: “You have faith and I have works” (1:18). What many readers expect from the debate partner is “I have faith and you [i.e., James] have works.” However, James is not the proponent of faithless works; rather James sees merciful works as the natural and fullest expression of living faith. The opponent’s error is to imagine that saving faith can be divorced from merciful works. Certainly, one can speak of faith as a theological abstraction in isolation to other concepts such as the Good or the Right; but one cannot demonstrate faith’s reality by appeal to hypotheticals. (James’s “Show me your faith apart from your works,” 1:18, expects a response that living faith can only be demonstrated through actions). James will not allow the luxury of this “armchair philosopher’s ‘faith’”; in its natural habitat, in the lived experience of believing people confronted with those in grave need, faith is inextricably tied to lives that express those beliefs and commitments that the faithful cherish. “Faith” by itself, as a sterile abstraction, is dead (1:17).

Christopher Church, “James,” Hebrews–James, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2004), 359–61.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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