Christopher Morgan responded to Courtney Reissig’s critique of Morgan’s understanding of the poor in James, which we were happy to include at the bottom of the review.
Studying a book of the Bible can be daunting if you don’t know where to begin. And even using a commentary can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing if you are not a scholar. Thankfully, there are books like A Theology of James: Wisdom for God’s People. This book, authored by Christopher W. Morgan, was written for the church. It’s a thorough unpacking of James’ theology and how it applies to our lives. This commentary is part of a larger series on biblical theology, and the series introduction states, “Believers today need quality literature that attracts them to good theology and builds them up in their faith” (ix). That is exactly what Morgan does in this book.
Morgan is professor of theology and an associate dean at California Baptist University. He writes with depth and clarity. This is a book that could grace a pastor’s desk and yet also be found in the hands of a person in the pews.
After setting up the context for James in the first three chapters, the middle six chapters provide a thematic overview of the book, followed by four final chapters on practical issues related to James. The thematic overviews are especially helpful in giving the reader a framework for understanding the various truths James lays out in his short book. Overall the chapters are clear, short, and helpful in explaining the text.
Here Chris Morgan accomplishes a seldom-attempted task, laying out a biblical, coherent theology of the epistle of James. He connects the particulars of James to the big picture of the Bible and argues that its instruction is both grounded in theology and is theology applied.
James is about encouraging Christians to act like Christians and live a life that proves the gospel is at work (1). Some view James’s writing as a contradiction to Paul’s teaching of justification by faith alone. But Morgan spends an entire chapter debunking that theory. Morgan rightly shows that there is no tension between Paul and James. Rather, they emphasize different components of the same truth, essentially working together instead of against one another (142–143).
In addition to working through the finer points of theological discourse, this book is intensely practical. The sinful tendencies and sorrows of James’s day are no different than the ones plaguing our churches. We fight against favoritism, selfishness, and pride, and we weep and suffer just like our brothers and sisters before us. Morgan packages the truths in James into thematic chapters that provide application for Christian living. Morgan’s chapter on suffering in the book of James is a clear explanation of how to respond to believers in times of sorrow and suffering (65–76). Going through the entire book of he shows how James seeks to encourage the suffering Christian and equip the church to do the same (66).
While the overviews were helpful, Morgan could have been more persuasive in one chapter, “The Poor” (77–94). Morgan sees the use of the word poor in James as referring to the “righteous poor” talked about in the Old Testament (77–78). He also sees this evidenced in Jesus’ defense of the poor and oppressed (79). Jesus defended those who were not primarily poor monetarily, but also “poor in spirit” (85). He rightly understands that the church is called by God to care for the poor and not show favoritism (80, 87). He also has a clear view of this life not being all there is. The righteous poor can rest in Christ knowing that they will one day inherit the earth and all injustice will be righted (84, 92). But I don’t think that the righteous poor are the only impoverished group James is exhorting the church to notice.
This chapter left me asking the question, “So where do the unsaved poor and destitute fit in our churches?” If true religion is helping orphans and widows in their affliction (James 1:27) then how do we apply the “righteous poor” definition to this command? Surely Morgan would not say that we only help orphaned children who have made a profession of faith. If we help the poor so that they will see God, then we must be willing to help even the spiritually blinded poor. While there is merit in showing the commonalities between the Old Testament provision for the poor and what James is now saying, the overarching definition of poor as meaning righteous poor does not seem to hold water. James appears to be referring to both the righteous poor and the poor who do not yet know God. Caring for the poor reflects our love for God. The poor who cannot help themselves and are in utter despair, and the poor who are saved by grace and need mercy and hope to know that one day all will be made right.
The topic of the poor and the church’s mission in reaching the poor is no small debate. Many Christians have worked through this topic and come down on different sides. While Morgan quotes people like Tim Keller, he seems to come to a different conclusion than Keller on who the poor represent. In his book Generous Justice, Keller defines helping the poor this way:
The Bible is clear that Christians’ practical love, their generous justice, is not to be confined to only those who believe as we do. Galatians 6:10 strikes the balance when Paul says: “Do good to all people, especially the family of faith.” Helping “all people” is not optional, it is a command. We don’t have to look only to the New Testament to learn this. One of the four vulnerable classes protected by the Hebrew prophets was that of the immigrant. While foreigners residing in Israel could convert, the injunction to provide them with shelter and guard their legal rights was not qualified by whether they had entered the covenant or not. That showed that Israel’s justice and compassion was not to be confined to only its own believing community. But the most famous and powerful statement of Jesus on what it means to love our neighbor is found in his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) (Generous Justice, 61).
He goes on to walk through the story of the Good Samaritan showing how Jesus defined our neighbor not simply as brother or sister in the faith, but rather our neighbor is the person standing right next to us (Generous Justice, 67–68). Keller explains that our first responsibility is to our families as seen in 1 Timothy 5:8, but then our care should be directed towards the community as evidenced by Galatians 6:10.
Studying God’s Word is of first importance for every believer. It is in his word that we learn about him and grow in fellowship with him. It is in his word that we are able to see his will for our lives. James is not a works-based book like some have taught. Instead, James is a book about how to live in light of the gospel. God cares about our actions and he is kind enough to provide us with a way to live. Despite the differences in opinion regarding how we help the poor, this book is still a great resource for the church. Morgan helpfully unpacks James, giving us the big picture of the letter, while still pastorally applying it to our lives.
Christopher Morgan’s response:
I want to thank Courtney Reissig for her kind review of my recent A Theology of James: Wisdom for God’s People (P&R, 2010). I also want to thank her for being forthright enough to question an aspect of my chapter on the poor. Upon reading the review, I immediately wondered whether I had been misread or whether I had been unclear. After rereading my chapter, I see that I was not sufficiently clear, at least in light of how the recent evangelical debates about the identity of the poor would affect how the chapter might be interpreted.
My leaving the wrong impression would not be all that troublesome for some matters, but mercy for the poor is of great personal concern to me and is a priority for the churches I have served. My wife and I adopted our daughter and are licensed foster parents. And our church families (past and present) have launched significant poverty and homeless ministries. So with much gratitude to John Starke and TGC Reviews for giving me the privilege of clarifying my position, I want to set forth my understanding of the identity of the poor in James first by summarizing my overall views and then by commenting on what each passage discloses.
My Overall Understanding of the Identity of the Poor in James
James’s teaching on the poor is considerable and related to other challenges facing the churches: trials, favoritism, faith and works, conflicts, presumption, exploitation, and patience. James is not a liberation theologian but stands in the traditions of the Old Testament and Jesus, following their literary use of the “poor” as oppressed and righteous. For James and the other biblical writers, the poor are not righteous because of their socio-economic standing but through faith in God. The identity of the poor also may be linked with the exiled people of God (Isa. 26:6; 49:13; 51:21), who hope in God’s ultimate eschatological vindication (Isa. 49; 51; 54; 61). This was true for Israel, the Qumran community, and likely James’s recipients, the Christian covenant communities of the Dispersion. The identity of the poor as the people of God in James is additionally clarified by the identity of the rich, who are not merely people with many possessions, but are characterized as proud (James 1:9–11), receiving an eschatological humiliation (1:9–11), oppressors, defrauders, and persecutors of believers (2:5–7; 5:1–6), blasphemers of Christ (2:7), and as those who will be severely punished by God (5:1–6).
Further, there seem to be two categories of the poor in James: the severely poor destitute of even decent clothes and often in need of daily food (2:14-17); and the majority of the people in the churches who evidently had enough to be responsible to help the severely poor. So while the identity of the poor in James is hard to pinpoint precisely, it seems to combine some of the following connotations: financial poor; marginalized; powerless; oppressed; dependent on God; humble; righteous people of God; exiled people of God.
My Interpretation of the Identity of the Poor in Particular Passages in James
• 1:9–11: Here the poor are the oppressed covenant people of God who will find ultimate vindication in a future reversal.
• 1:26–27: The widows and orphans, not directly called the poor, are the vulnerable and marginalized in society. They include the covenant people of God and outsiders. James’s reference to the widows and orphans reflects that of the Old Testament, particularly Exodus 22; Leviticus 19; Deuteronomy 10; Psalm 146; Zechariah 7. Note that each of these passages also necessitates concern for aliens/sojourners (Exod. 22:21–22; Lev. 19:9–10; Deut. 10:18–19; Ps. 146:9; Zech. 7:9–14).
• 2:1–7: The poor are the righteous people of God, who are destitute but chosen by God to be rich in faith, heirs of the kingdom, recipients of the covenant promise, and people characterized by love for God.
• 2:14–26: The poor are described as “brothers” and are obviously Christians.
• 5:1–6: The poor are described as the exploited day laborers, “righteous”, and, in language reminiscent of God’s people in Egypt (Ex. 3:7), as those who will be avenged by God.
Thus, when James refers to the poor, he apparently means believers. The reference to widows and orphans includes those inside the covenant as well as outsiders. So while James primarily stresses God’s concern for his oppressed covenant people and how the church is to embody that same concern, James 1:26–27 (and Luke 10:25–37, Gal. 6:10, and many more) indeed teaches that God’s people are also to reflect God’s love for the poor, including those who are outsiders. And as we do, we display God’s goodness and showcase God’s kingdom: “The church is the community that anticipates the eschatological reversal by caring for and respecting the poor . . . partiality belies the eschatological nature of the community, which ought to display in advance God’s exaltation of the poor” (Dan G. McCartney, “Suffering and the Apostles,” Suffering and the Goodness of God, ed. Christopher W. Morgan and Robert A. Peterson, Theology in Community 1 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 107).