Martin Luther called the letter of James "an epistle of straw". I think that means he didn't like it. He understood that salvation was by grace through faith and viewed James as promoting works for salvation. Though many have learned how to handle some of its so-called problem passages, especially "faith without works is dead", James still haunts most salvation-by-grace people as being ammunition for legalism. If it wasn't for all those favorite verses that many treasure as defining "practical" Christianity, the letter of James may have been thrown out long ago!
So, was James promoting legalism? Hardly. But realize that James was NOT Paul. He had not been yanked out from his people to spend most of his life with outsiders but had remained in Jerusalem. The difference? James showed his Jewish brothers how their history in the true God was all about this Jesus. James' message to Israel: your fortune is Christ. But Paul was sent to proclaim Jesus to those whose history was an outright rejection of the true God. And while His own people rejected Him, the people who were considered as dogs accepted Him. Paul's message to these people was clear: Israel's failure is your good fortune!
Is it possible that WE have turned James into something he was not? He may not have had the understanding of grace that God gave Paul, but he was NOT lacking, for he had the same Spirit as Paul. But what if James was NOT written to make believers squirm in guilt and shame? What if our insistence for practical Christianity has turned James into one big legalistic dissertation? What if there was a viable alternative that takes into consideration the whole context of James so that it flows from one thought to the next as a letter would? What if James was NOT legalism's friend?
Who was James? Most agree he was the half-brother of Jesus, and the leader of the Jerusalem counsel. Paul's statement, "certain men from James" in Galatians 2:12, suggests his name carried some authority in Jerusalem. It's often assumed that his supposed legalistic Jewish emphasis intimidated Peter which caused the situation mentioned in Galatians 1 and 2; But Peter messed up from his OWN fear that the James-Gang might not understand his lifestyle changes from living among the so-called heathen. Paul referred to these men from James as "the party of the circumcision". But did that mean they were pushing circumcision or was that just who they were? Question: How many times did you assume Daddy was coming home to beat you because Mommy said, "Just wait till your Father comes home!"? Did that fear ever cause you to make your brother look bad in an attempt to make yourself look better? If so, you understand what happened to Peter.
In Acts 15, Peter pleaded before the counsel to reject the push to circumcise Gentiles. The matter was deeper than it appeared, for what it really said was, "We are better than you and you can't have what we have unless you submit to our standards." The upshot of what Peter had to say was that "WE" failed our own standards so how could "WE" even suggest that "THEY" try to keep what "WE" never could? Paul agreed by relating what he saw God doing among the Gentiles without the Jews' input (This is what offends those who claim special status). And what did the so-called legalistic James say? He agreed wholeheartedly!?. He sent a letter to the Gentile believers saying "These guys who disturbed you weren't speaking for us!". But what about the four rules he included in the letter? It's interesting that Paul didn't object, and that the Gentiles were encouraged by it. What if it turned out that these four things (even the fornication) just happened to be integral elements of their former pagan temple rituals that violated the Jewish conscience and was destroying the sense of unity between them? For there is no other sense in which abstaining from those particular four things would cause them to "do well". And if it was that simple then maybe that's why the Gentile believers could breathe a sigh of relief as they realized WHY their Jewish brothers were upset at them and how easy it would be not to offend them anymore. What if James was not trying to lay some Law on the Gentiles but instead was appealing to them as the "stronger brothers"?
What if our misunderstanding of James has come from a centuries-old tradition of forcing his letter into the mold of Paul's? Could that be why we THINK we have to balance James 2 (Abraham justified by works) with Romans 4 (Abraham justified NOT by works)? We end up explaining what it doesn't mean but haven't a clue as to what it does mean. If James was describing the miracle of life in Christ you would never know it by our modern interpretations.
I find it noteworthy that James didn't offer any proofs of Jesus' authority to the 12 tribes. It appears that these Jews may not have disputed it, though not necessarily have all believed it. What if James was actually forcing the issue of FORM vs. REALITY? What if, in his own style, he was suggesting that "not all Israel is Israel" (i.e. those miraculously born of God)? What if an equivalent letter of today would be addressed to those who, in form, hold to Christianity, but not necessarily to Christ? What if this letter drew attention to the SOURCE of the miracle instead of to the words of its followers? A letter like this might be calling the believer to recognize WHERE his life comes from so that he is not so easily fooled by what religious people claim. Doesn't this describe a letter that should be written "To The Church of America"?
By the way, this is not a wild speculation on my part, for I am certain that I have captured its intent. If you want to argue semantics or want to prove how your viewpoint is better than mine, be my guest. But, please, don't waste your time, or mine, with a well-prepared study of a few verses that doesn't take the whole context into view. Also, be ready to answer a whole slew of questions directly from the context of the letter.