The Problem of Partiality

James 2:1-13

September 11, 2015 | Ray Pritchard

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“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are equal.” With those words, Abraham Lincoln changed the course of history.

Fast forward 100 years. On a sweltering August day in 1963, a quarter-million people traveled to Washington, D.C. for the largest civil rights demonstration in American history. Gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the multitudes heard a 34-year-old preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr.  His words struck home in the heart of America. Something inside the nation stirred when he said, I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Those four words—“I have a dream”—came to be the rallying cry of an oppressed people who would no longer be denied justice.

God is no respecter of persons

The words of Dr. King and the words of President Lincoln hearken back to this statement from the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“All men are created equal.” That’s a true statement. The Bible teaches us four crucial facts we must never forget:

1. All people are equally created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27).
2. All are loved by God (John 3:16).
3. All are stained and tainted by sin (Romans 3:23).
4. All are able to be redeemed (Revelation 22:17).

Those four facts form the basis of the doctrine of Christian equality. All people regardless of their background are significant, loved, fallen, and redeemable! That’s what Acts 10:34 means when it says God is no respecter of persons. He doesn’t play favorites. As far as God is concerned, there are only two races: the saved race and the lost race.

All Men Are Not Created Equal

But there is a sense in which “all men are not created equal.” That’s an equally true statement. We don’t all have . . .

The same background.
The same culture.
The same language.
The same IQ.
The same economic conditions.
The same abilities.
The same opportunities.

There are vast differences across the whole spectrum of humanity. So which is it? Are all men created equal or are they not created equal? Before God, we are all created equal. On earth, we are not all created equal. In the church, we are all “one in Christ,” but there are many differences among us.

The early church wrestled mightily with these differences. The New Testament bears witness to many divisions among the first generation of believers in Christ:

We all make snap judgments

Jews and Gentiles.
Greeks and non-Greeks.
Rich and poor.
Slave and free.
Circumcised and uncircumcised.
Male and female.
Young and old.
Vegetarians and meat-eaters.
Sabbath-keepers and non-Sabbath-keepers.
Wine drinkers and total abstainers.

The church has wrestled with these issues for 2000 years. James shines a light on the problem of partiality by focusing on an issue most of us never think about. He uses the example of the “man with the gold ring” to force us to face our hidden tendency to discriminate inside the church of Jesus Christ.

Let’s see what he has to say.

I. A Clear Command

“My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism” (v. 1).

What would qualify as favoritism? The word means to judge on the basis of outward appearance. You can get an idea of how this works by perusing an issue of People magazine. You’ll see pictures of the current “beautiful people,” such as Natalie Portman, Taylor Swift, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julianne Moore, Mindy Kaling, Zoe Saldana, and of course, “The Royals,” Prince William, Kate Middleton, Prince Harry, and the rest of the crew from the other side of the pond. If you read People (and similar magazines), you’ll find out who the world considers beautiful. You’ll know who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, and who’s down. You’ll discover whose marriage is on the rocks, which couple is no longer a couple, and so on. There must be a market for this because you find these magazines in every supermarket checkout line.

The world is impressed by outward beauty, money, and all the trappings of earthly power. But 1 Samuel 16:7 reminds us “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” It’s important for us to meditate on the first part of that verse. We all tend to make snap judgments based on appearance. It’s all too easy inside the church to conclude having money means we deserve special treatment and the lack of money means something is wrong with us.

Faith in Christ rises above secondary issues

So what might qualify as favoritism in the church? Here are a few examples:

Favoring “our” group over some other group.
Ethnic jokes and racial slurs.
Looking down on others who don’t dress like us, talk like us, look like us.
Assuming all people are like some people.
Telling someone, “You might not feel comfortable here.”
Encouraging our children not to mingle with other groups.
Refusing to be friends with people outside our social status.
Assuming the superiority of your own ethnic group.
Complaining that too many ________________ have started attending the church.
Refusing to vote for a qualified elder candidate because he happens to be _______________.
Telling a friend you don’t mind “those people” coming to church, but you hope they will leave “their music” at the door.

Why is this so wrong? Because in the church we are all “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.” If we truly believe in Jesus, then we ought to welcome anyone who shares our common faith in Christ. Said another way, faith in Christ rises above the things that divide us. It matters more than money or social class or language or culture or skin color. We have no right to reject a fellow believer on the basis of those secondary matters.

II. A Shocking Example

“Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (vv. 2-4).

This is the strange case of the snooty usher. Don’t kid yourself. This sort of thing happens all the time. The rich and powerful get the good seats, while the poor are told to stand in the back.

What’s the problem here? Is it that we care so much for the rich man, or that we care so little for the poor man? James isn’t arguing we should do less for the rich. He’s simply saying we shouldn’t discriminate against the poor.

The ground isn’t always level in the church

Why would we favor the rich man? The answer is obvious. Because he has money! We like to say the ground is level at the foot of the cross, but it’s not always level in the church. We tend to favor people with money because we think they can help us reach our goals. From time to time, I am invited to speak at conferences aimed at large donors. I’ve done this four or five times. These are always fancy affairs, usually taking place at a ritzy resort or a nice hotel. The food is spectacular, and they often fly in well-known musicians to do a concert. I’m happy to take part because I think it’s a good thing when Christians are generous toward God’s work.

Is it wrong to focus on reaching those donors who can help us in large ways? No, but it’s easy to fall into the mentality that we should favor those who have been blessed with an abundance of wealth. The truth is, most churches and ministries go forward because of small gifts from people of moderate means. We ought to thank God for single moms and senior adults and new believers and widows whose gifts may not be large, but whose prayers rise up to heaven with power greater than any million-dollar gift.

III. A Bracing Reminder

James now gives us two reasons favoritism inside the church is a sin.

1. Favoritism denies Kingdom principles.

“Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (v. 5)

How can we reject those whom God has accepted? Who are we to reject those whom God has chosen? James is thinking about the poor Christians of the first century who were rich in faith, even though they had little of the world’s goods. When God chooses members of his team, he usually starts with the poor, so he can show what he can do with the people the world considers hopeless. God delights to take drug addicts, prostitutes, and broken people of all kinds and redeem them by the blood of Jesus.

God loves to delights to redeem “hopeless” people

That was always the argument of General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, a movement that started in the slums of London. “We know what Jesus can do,” he would say to the skeptics. “Just take your infidelity down there, and see if it changes anyone for the better.” Then he would take the Salvation Army band down to those same slums, pray and sing and preach, and multitudes of broken lives would be redeemed.

2.Favoritism dishonors the poor.

“But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?” (vv. 6-7)

Remember what the rich do. They have the money to attack you. They hire the big time lawyers who drag you into court. Why give favorable treatment to people like that? I heard about a man who had been dismissed from leadership because of immorality. So what did he do? He threatened to sue his own church. The poor don’t have that option. But the rich think the rules don’t apply to them.

They live as if God doesn’t exist.
Their money gives them false security.
Why favor them?

IV. A Pointed Challenge

“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker” (vv. 8-11).

Partiality violates the royal law given by Jesus. What is the greatest commandment? Love the Lord with all your heart. What is the second greatest commandment? “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (See Matthew 22:38-40).

Partiality is worse than we think it is

Partiality is a really bad sin precisely because we don’t think it’s all that bad. We don’t class it with adultery or murder, but that’s exactly what James is doing in these verses. You can’t substitute good for evil. Any sin breaks the whole law (v. 10). You can’t say, “I didn’t commit murder so it’s okay if I favor the rich over the poor.” Favoritism is wrong because you have “murdered” that poor man in your heart when you unfairly judged him.

V. A Christian Alternative

“Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” (vv. 12-13).

There is good news and bad news in these verses. The good news is, those who show mercy will receive mercy. The bad news is, those who judge without mercy will be judged without mercy.

Favoritism exposes us to God’s judgment.

We discover the whole gospel in the final phrase: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” If I get what I deserve, I will end up in hell, and so will you. I don’t want justice. Justice will destroy me. I am such a sinner that if I ask for justice, that’s like asking for a one-way ticket to the lake of fire.

What I deserve, I don’t want.
What I need, I don’t deserve.

Justice will destroy me

As I wrote those words, I thought of a verse from the hymn “Rock of Ages”:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

Until we see the depth of our sin, we will never rightly appreciate God’s mercy. As long as we see ourselves as “moderate” sinners, we’ll seek a “moderate” Christ to give us a “moderate” salvation. And we will certainly stand in judgment over those whose sins we judge as worse than our own.

“Wash me, Savior, or I die”

But when God gives us a glimpse of our own depravity so we see how bad we really are, then we will say, “Wash me, Savior, or I die.” Then and only then will we be free to love our brothers and sisters in Christ without judging them by their outward appearance.

In Christ, mercy triumphs over judgment.
Why isn’t it that way in the church?

The Latest “Hot Convert”

We need to hear this word because American Christianity is entertainment-oriented and celebrity-driven. We are far too prone to swoon over the latest “celebrity conversion,” and to rush the latest “hot convert” to the pulpit so we can all applaud and congratulate ourselves on catching such a big fish for God.

During my years in the pastorate, my church members made sure I met any famous or important people who visited our church. That never bothered me. But in the spirit of James 2, I think it would be wonderful if someone came up and said, “Pastor Ray, guess what? We’ve got two prostitutes visiting the church today. Isn’t that wonderful?” Or “Pastor Ray, there’s a man here with AIDS, and he wants to know Jesus.” Or “Pastor Ray, here’s a single mother with six children. This is her first time to visit.” Or “Pastor Ray, this man just got out of jail and he came to worship with us today.”

The sin is not that we make much of the celebrities; it’s that we make so much less of the other people who visit us. Occasionally someone will say, “I wish so-and-so would get saved. They have so much to offer,” which usually means they have money they could give. Is God so broke that he needs another banker in his family? Is God so confused about the economy that he needs another stockbroker on his team? Nothing could be more worldly than valuing lost people based on what we think they could contribute to God’s Kingdom.

Is God so broke that he needs another banker in his family?

This brings me back to the original point. Are all people created equal? Yes and no. In God’s eyes, we are all highly valued, deeply fallen, and greatly loved. Jesus will save anyone who turns to him. But those outward differences I mentioned will be with us as long as we live on planet earth. There will always be rich and poor, young and old, male and female, different languages, different cultures, different educational levels, and different ethnic groups.

Somehow we must find a way to say everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to us. Our Lord was no front-runner. He felt at home with the rich and poor alike. He ministered to the religious professionals, and he was friends with the prostitutes and the drunkards.

Many years ago, when I was a student right out of high school, I spent a year at the University of Missouri. At one of the Christian groups on campus, I learned a song that was very cutting edge at the time. In fact, it seemed positively revolutionary. The first verse went like this:

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

Everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to me

Then the chorus:

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,
By our Love,
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

The final verse seems like a fitting application of our text:

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

How true it is. Mercy always triumphs over judgment when Christians love each other.

Heavenly Father, it’s easier to read these words than to do something about them. Without you, we’ll be stuck right where we are. As you showed mercy to us, help us to show mercy to others so the world may know that God is in our land. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?