In this highly compressed saying James reiterates and summarises the point he has made in verses 14-15 where he warned his listeners that jealousy and envy, selfish ambition and rivalry are a form of wisdom ‘from below’—‘earthly, natural, and demonic.’ The Greek text has no verbs and so heightens the emphasis on place: ‘for where (hopou gar; ὅπου γαρ) jealousy and selfish ambition, there (ekei; ἐκει) disorder and every evil thing’ (Vlachos, 124). There is a sense of inevitability in the admonition, a warning of an unbroken link between cause and effect. Wherever this kind of ‘wisdom’ is operative there will also be these effects which are destructive to the life of the community, and a contradiction of its essential nature.
The first of the effects is disorder (akatastasia; ἀκαταστασία), also translated in some versions as ‘confusion’ (NKJV) or ‘disharmony’ (NJB). The term is used in an adjectival form (akatastatos; ἀκατάστατoσ) in 1:8 and 3:8 to describe the instability of the double-minded man, and the restlessness of the untamed tongue. In 1 Corinthians 14:33 Paul uses it to argue that God is not the author of confusion (akatastasias; ἀκαταστασίας) but of peace, and in his gospel Luke uses it with reference to ‘tumults’ (Luke 21:9). Instead of a community life that is peaceable and well-ordered, there may be instead a fracturing of harmony with outbreaks of disturbances and dissension.
A second result of jealousy and selfish-ambition is ‘every evil thing’ (pan phaulon pragma; πᾶν φαῦλον πρᾶγμα), or perhaps, every evil practice (ESV, NIV). All manner of evil accompanies the outbreak of disorder in the community.
So, too, envy is particularly deadly. James, in these verses, may be influenced by Wisdom 2:24: ‘It was the devil’s envy that brought death into the world, as those who are his partners will discover’ (NJB). So, too, Matthew notes that ‘Pilate knew it was out of jealousy’ that the chief priests and elders of the people had handed Jesus over (Matthew 27:18). The final command of the Decalogue acts to counter the problem of envy. If Paul finds in the love of money the root of all evil, James sees it more fundamentally as the fruit of envy. The two concepts are not far removed from each other, and while James’ emphasis appears to be on would-be teachers and leaders in the community, their motivation is often the acquisition of status and the financial rewards that accompany such elevation.