The Incompatibility of Faith and Favouritism (James 2:1–13)

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A Christian caste system?

In his autobiography, Mahatma Gandhi, the late Indian activist and Hindu leader, wrote that during his student days he read the biblical gospels seriously and considered converting to Christianity. He believed that in the teachings of Jesus he could find the solution to the caste system that was dividing the people of India; a type of social stratification.

So one Sunday he attend a nearby church looking to speak with the minister about becoming a Christian. However, when he entered the sanctuary, the usher refused to give him a seat and suggested that he go worship with his own people. 

Gandhi left the church and never returned. “If Christians have caste differences also,” he said, “I might as well remain a Hindu.”

We read that account and we rightly shake our heads in disgust.

Discrimination can have dire consequences in the lives of people and in the mission of the church. And as we come to the second chapter of James, we find that the apostle sets his sights on just that issue.

The matter at hand

James states his thesis right away: Faith and favouritism are incompatible.

My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favouritism (2:1).

Clear and forceful: Don’t play favourites in the church! Don’t discriminate! Get rid of any prejudices. Those are all inconsistent with the faith you profess to have.

In verse 22 of chapter 1 James had encouraged these believers to not merely be hearers of the word, but doers. If we’re hearers only it’s like we’ve looked in the mirror of the Word of God but quickly forgot what it showed us about ourselves. 

In many ways, the passage we’re looking at here is a direct application of that same truth.

James isn’t telling believers anything new when he says “don’t play favourites in the church.” All believers, including us, know that prejudice and discrimination is wrong.

What James is doing is holding up the mirror of God’s Word and calling for us to look at ourselves. Does our walk match our talk? Are our actions and attitudes consistent with our values? Do we say favouritism in the church is harmful and dishonouring to God, but in actuality, allow its stench to linger in our midst?

Now, in case there’s any confusion as to what he means in his thesis, James presents an illustration in verse 2 to bring clarity.

For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in afine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes (2:2).

Two men are arriving at a meeting of God’s people. The first in a new luxury vehicle from which he emerges in a cloud of brandnames and expensive jewelry. First impression: he’s affluent, important, and influential.

Across the parking lot, a second man arrives. This one in mid-90’s Civic with a hole in the muffler and dressed in dated, well-worn clothing. This man appears relatively inconsequential, unpopular, and relatively impoverished.

James condemns neither man for their level of wealth. But he does condemn the congregation for their response; for the two different seat assignments given to the two men.

… and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool” (2:3),

Based on nothing more than first impressions, the people of God treat these two men radically different. To the one who appears wealthy they give prime seating while the poorer looking character is relegated to the row behind the pastors’ kids. This is an illustration of the thesis: “Don’t show favouritism.”

And James concludes with an obvious implication of this scenario:

… have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives (2:4)?

If you behave like this, James says, have you not caused division based on the assumption that one believer is better and more worthy of attention than another based on appearance? This is evil and directly opposed to the unity we’re supposed to be celebrating, enjoying, and modelling.

And we know that favouritism, biases, and prejudices don’t only show up around issues of wealth. There are many opportunities for us to discriminate: Occupation type, marital status, if you have kids or not, if those kids go to public school or private school, assumed spiritual maturity level, eye colour, hair colour, skin colour. Martin Luther King Jr. famously observed, “that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning.” 

The ways we can potential play favourites are many. And James is holding the mirror up to us today, reminding us of what we claim—that favouritism is wrong—and encouraging us to take an inventory of our hearts. 

Who are the people I gravitate toward when I arrive at church on Sunday morning? Who are the people that are typically at the top of my prayer list? Who are the people I’m most likely to serve, love, feed, think about, and contact throughout the week? Are there people I try and avoid? Are there individuals that I would be disappointed if they turned-up at my small group?

Do I play favourites? And, if so, what is the motivation? Is it because they look like me and sound like me? Is it because they seem like the type of people who won’t ask anything of me in return or because they look like they could eventually do something for me in the future?

May God help us search our hearts and expose any resemblance to that near-sighted usher in James’ illustration.

Why should we bother?

And to spur us on toward this goal of unity, now James provides us motivation. In the remaining verses of the section, James gives us five reasons why we should long to put to death all favouritism and discrimination from our midst.

First, we want to act like God.

Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose 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 (2:5–6a).

When we show favouritism we are not behaving like the God we serve.

Who and what does God favour? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). God favours those who understand their spiritual bankruptcy and come to God in dependance—who roll up in spiritual rags and not in designer clothes—are promised the kingdom.

If that’s who and what our God values, then we’re like him when we do likewise. We want to avoid playing favourites in the church because we want to act like the God we love and serve.

Second, we don’t want to be like the world.

Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called (2:6b–7)?

The original readers were experiencing persecution. Apparently, those who were rich and powerful, those who drove the proverbial luxury cars and wore the gold jewelry, were particularly adversarial. 

And James is simply asking the believers, do you really want to be like them? Like those who don’t know Christ? Who abuse and exploit their position? When we play favourites, we are. We don’t want that.

Third, we want to take seriously what God takes seriously.

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing well (2:8).

James is quoting Leviticus here and, possibly even Jesus who also quoted Leviticus when asked what the most important command of God was. 

But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not commit murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law (2:9–11).

Just like today for us, we don’t have to commit every crime to be a criminal. It takes one.

Similarly, James is saying if you break one of God’s laws—playing favourites, for example—you’re a lawbreaker. Discrimination violates one of the two commands Jesus held up as most important.

As people, we love to create continuums to make ourselves feel better by comparison. I’m not a good driver, but I’m not as crazy as some and they make me look like Captain Cautious. We do the same with God’s laws. I may look at porn, but I’m not sleeping around. I may get angry, but I’m not a serial killer.

James removes the scale. You may not murder and commit adultery, but if you discriminate in the church, you are a lawbreaker. Don’t let yourself off the hook by creating a continuum God doesn’t give you. Favouritism in the church is a big deal to God, and we want to take seriously what he does.

Fourth, we want to live in freedom.

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty (2:12).

We’re under “the law of liberty.” Let’s live like it!

In Romans 8, Paul contrasts the old law of bondage with the new law of liberty when we says, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:2). Christians have been liberated from sin and unburdened from the Law of Moses. The prison door has been flung open; the weight removed from our shoulders!

However, when we sin—including the sin of favouritism—we’re voluntarily stepping back into the jail cell and picking up that weight again. We don’t want to volunteer for slavery? We want to live in freedom.

Fifth, we want to be judged with mercy.

For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment (2:13).

You and I, as Christians, will stand before a judgement seat one day. Not one that determines heaven or hell—for those who are in Christ there is no condemnation. 

We will all be given eternal life, just as the Father planned, the Son promised, and the Spirit secured. But we will be judged on how we used our time on this earth for God’s glory.

Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad (2 Cor. 5:9–10).

Can you imagine the weight of standing exposed before an all-knowing and perfectly holy God? All our secrets and true motives will be exposed and rewarded accordingly.

It’s a sobering thought. What will be needed on that day is mercy and, according to James, we can store up mercy for ourselves by showing mercy to others, and not favouritism. Indeed, mercy will triumph over judgement.

James calls the church to avoid showing favouritism—treating people different based on how we perceive them. And he gives us a list of potential motivations: We want to be like God, we don’t want to be like the world, we want to take seriously what God takes seriously, we want to live in the freedom he offers us, and we want to be judged with mercy in the end. Any one of those reasons should be enough motivation let alone the cumulative impact of all five. 

Where we go from here

As God’s people we are to love the whole family of God. Without hesitation, bias, or discrimination. We are to love the poor, rich, talented, average, sick, healthy, youthful, senior, white, black, green, whatever! We are to love the whole family because we are just that—family, united by God’s power and for his glory.

May God help us be churches full of people who refuse to play favourites and, instead, generously lavish love upon one another.