In the first half of the second chapter of James, the author deals with the problem of partiality or favoritism in the church. James says in verse one: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.” The Greek word for partiality in this verse means “to make unjust distinctions between people by treating one person better than another.” The key word in this definition is the word “unjust,” because to make distinctions between people by treating one person better than another is not necessarily sinful. For example, I treat my wife better than other women. Is it sinful for me to treat my wife better than other women? Absolutely not! In fact, it is just right that I treat my wife better than other women. Therefore, when we say partiality, we mean an unjust discrimination between people by considering one person better than another.
To illustrate partiality, James writes in verses two to four:
For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine [bright/shinning] clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby [dirty/filthy] clothing also comes in, and if you [ushers] pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
In this passage James is addressing professing Christians who treat some people better than others because of their status in life. Notice that favoritism could be financial in nature. One commentator notes that “in its early days the Church was predominantly poor and humble; and therefore if a rich man was converted, and did come to the Christian fellowship, there must have been a very real temptation to make a fuss of him, and to treat him as a special trophy for Christ.” How sad that even today there are Christians who prefer to fellowship with the wealthy rather than with the poor. Usually, the destitute are forgotten while the rich are favored. Some ministers visit the well-to-do and neglect the poverty-stricken members of their church. They like to visit members who can help them in return. The Bible does not approve this kind of practice.
James provides at least five reasons why partiality is unbiblical:
1. It is inconsistent with God’s command: “show not partiality” (v. 1). One version puts verse one this way: “My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism” (NAS). In other words, do not profess your faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and discriminate against the poor. Claiming to be Christian yet not caring for the poor is contradictory to God’s Word.
2. It is inconsistent with our religion in Christ: “my brothers” (v. 1). Our religion, biblical Christianity, teaches us that as believers in Christ we are all equal in God’s sight. We are brothers and sisters in the Lord. We belong to the same family of God in which partiality does not exist. We are all sinners saved by God’s grace alone. In God’s family, no one can say that he or she is more important than others. I remember attending a conference in British Columbia in 2009. One of the speakers was Jerry Bridges, who was 80 years old at that time. Bridges is known for his classic book—The Pursuit of Holiness. Bridges mentioned something that struck me. He said, “What differs us from others is nothing but the grace of God.”
3. It is inconsistent with the gospel: “faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 1). In the Bible the gospel and the person of Jesus Christ are sometimes used interchangeably. For example, in Mark 1:14-15 we read, “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” Then when the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas in Acts 16:30, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?,” Paul and Silas replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:31). Now this glorious gospel by which sinners can be saved is offered to all kinds of people—rich or poor, Jews or gentiles. God does not confine the gospel to Israel. He offers His Son to all nations. And God will give anyone who receives His Son the right to become His child (John 1:12).
4. It is inconsistent with God’s character: “has not God chosen those who are poor in the world” (v. 5). As far as salvation is concerned, God did not choose us on the basis of our status in life. God does not save people according to their economic, physical, racial, or social condition. Talking to his countrymen, Moses writes,
For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you (Deut. 7:6-8).
If you are a believer, God has chosen you in Christ on the basis of His unconditional love alone. Therefore, do not just pay special attention to the likable people. Show love even to the less fortunate.
5. It is inconsistent with the royal law: “love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 8).
Now the professing believers who practice partiality might say to James, “Well, the reason why we treat the rich with special respect is because we love them. In fact, we are just fulfilling the royal law: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” In verse eight James responds to their justification of their unchristian practice of favoritism: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture…you are doing well.” In other words, if you truly observe the royal law, then you are pleasing the Lord. But the truth is you are not really keeping the royal law because of your partiality toward the rich. You do not show love to your poor neighbors.
Note: To listen to the message on partiality, click here.