In any given social situation, most of us have a clear sense of whether we’re insiders or outsiders. It might be in a neighbourhood, a workplace, a school, or even a family. We sense that some are preferred over others — and we know if we are one of them. This is a common feature of most human communities, so we might expect to find it in the church. However, the church is more than just a human community. It is the body of Christ on earth — a context in which everyone is equally valuable to God — so we should expect the church to be different. Sadly, it often is not. We look at each other from a strictly human point-of-view and decide who is “worthy” and who is not. Worse yet, we use the world’s value system to do it.
In chapter one of his letter, James dealt with a number of issues in rapid-fire sequence. However, when he got to the issue of partiality, at the beginning of chapter 2, he devoted nine verses to his assessment of the situation. We’ll read them all now, and then look at individual key points as we proceed through our study.
James 2:1-9 “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [the Lord] of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world [to be] rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonoured the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?” If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
The situation described here sounds appalling to us with our cultural emphasis on diversity, acceptance, tolerance, and equality. Yet, appalling though it may be, I don’t find it particularly shocking. People’s value is assessed superficially, and they are treated accordingly, far more often that we would like to admit, especially when it is happening in our own hearts. We’ve learned to keep our views to ourselves and our actions in line with social expectations, but inside the same old responses to people rise up so easily. Let’s take a closer look at what James communicated rather forcefully here.
James 2:1 “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [the Lord] of glory, with partiality.”
Very simply, James issued a direct command. As fellow believers we should not look on each other as the world does. Outside of the body of Christ, one evaluates another by social status, ethnicity, wealth, fashion, physical attractiveness, age, gender, and so on and on and on. James commanded his Christian brothers and sisters to not do this. While the facts of social status, ethnicity, wealth, fashion and the like, are different with each individual, we should not treat people differently based on those differences. To drive the point home, James offered an example of the kind of thing he was speaking about.
James 2:2-4″ For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
Let’s put this little story into a contemporary context: The Sunday morning service is about to begin and most people are already in their places. Suddenly, everyone becomes aware that a visitor has entered and is being shown to a seat by an usher. Many recognize this man as a person of wealth and influence in the community. He is wearing expensive clothes, nice jewellery, and shiny shoes. The usher leads him to a seat near the front on the aisle — prime real estate in most churches — and asks the people there to slide down the pew to accommodate the visitor, with whom he shakes hands warmly before he returns back to his place.
Things have just settled down (by that I mean people have quit whispering about who just showed up in church and what it might mean), when the door at the back of the sanctuary opens rather timidly and another man slips in. This man is the opposite of the first. No one knows who he is. His clothes are rumpled and unwashed. A faint, but unmistakable, smell accompanies the man as he tries to find a seat. The people at the ends of the rows give no indication that they are willing to make room for him.
To avoid more people noticing what is going on, an usher approaches him and, without touching him, beckons the man to follow him to the back. There, under the balcony, the usher points to a small hard wooden chair scavenged from the Sunday school department. When the man sits down, he is so low that he has to keep bobbing around in order to see the preacher’s face between the sea of heads in front of him.
When this kind of thing happens today, it is usually done in an effort to reduce commotion and to cause as little embarrassment as possible for everyone. Most of us sincerely attempt to treat people equally, at least on the surface. In James’ time, social hierarchy was recognized, accepted, and reinforced openly in secular society. However, James’ concern was not with society; it was with the church. So he asked his readers a searching question. Based on the scenario he described, he asked them “Have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”
Whoa! That’s a little uncomfortable, isn’t it. James asks us to incriminate ourselves. He asks us to confess our weaknesses and acknowledge our sinful judgment of people based on externals. There were no constitutional amendments for James’ first readers to hide behind. And should we try to do that, we simply increase the suspicion of our guilt. My guess is that we all have secret prejudices and biases. But secret though they may be and hidden from the eyes of onlookers, they are known to God.
Taking it one step further, James reminded his readers that their motives for making these unwarranted judgments of others based on casual observation were evil — evil in the sense of their being selfish, ego-boosting, appearance-driven, and self-serving. Assuming that those reading the letter, regardless of the time and place they occupied, would be honest and confess their guilt, James provided four arguments against the sin of partiality.
James 2:5-9 “Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world [to be] rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonoured the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called?” If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”
Let’s look at the four reasons James gave for avoiding partiality in the body of Christ.
1) The first issue is that God has chosen the poor of this world [to be] rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him. Paul emphasized this same point in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
1Corinthians 1:26-29 “For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.”
No believer, regardless of the advantages that arise from his or her birth, ethnicity, family heritage, appearance or anything else dare look down on the those God has chosen to use: the foolish, the weak, the base and despised. Some of the poorest, marginalized Christians I know have deeper faith and a closer relationship with God than the wealthiest, influential ones. Yet, rather than honouring deep faith born out of poverty, we see only the poverty and thus dishonour the poor man, as James wrote.
2) James pointed to something he observed in the life of 1st Century Christians. He noticed that it tended to be the rich who oppressed them and brought legal actions against them. We’re not sure of the details of the circumstances to which James referred, but it does seem the wealthy and privileged know how to work the judicial system to their advantage and are more likely to use it against others than the poor.
3) The third reason to avoid partiality — honouring the rich and despising the poor — is that the rich and famous were more likely to blaspheme — to speak evilly of Jesus, the one whose name is above every name. Those who are highly placed resent any others who would dilute their power. The Lord Jesus makes claims on His people that make human masters and lords resentful. Thus they verbally belittle the Lord and heap contempt on those who belong to Him.
4) Lastly, James reminded his readers of what he calls “the royal law according to the Scripture.” This is a concept which is stated in both testaments. It could also be called the law of love for it calls us to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. James stated clearly and simply that showing partiality is not a loving thing to do and, thus, is sin. This makes those who practice partiality in their relationships to be law-breakers.
Impartiality was important to James because he saw it as a way that believers could demonstrate the character and qualities of the Lord to those around them. Jesus made no distinction when He reached out to save mankind. There were no prerequisites regarding socio-economic status or gender or age or anything else. Jesus came to seek and save those who were lost, regardless of other factors.
When we treat everyone with dignity, honouring their value to God, we act as Jesus did. By the way, James didn’t ask us to treat the rich and famous less well. He asked us to treat the poor and unknown with the same respectful acceptance that we usually reserve for the rich and famous.
How about you? Have you noticed that God loves you and reaches out to you with His offer of pardon for sin as abundantly as he does for everyone else? Have you acted on that? Have you said “yes” to Him? This would be a very fine day for you to agree with God about your sin and let Him take care of it for you. Consider the one who, though He was God, became human so that He could bring you to God.