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The Secret Sin of Prejudice and Partiality (2)

In an earlier blog post I mentioned the scenario described by James in chapter two of his epistle and the way it challenges us concerning the secret sin of prejudice and partiality. I’d like to revisit that subject/text yet again. Continue reading . . .

In an earlier blog post I mentioned the scenario described by James in chapter two of his epistle and the way it challenges us concerning the secret sin of prejudice and partiality. I’d like to revisit that subject/text yet again.

The scenario James describes in these opening verses is easy to understand. Two men (or women) walk into your church gathering and you immediately notice the differences between them. One is decked out in the finest of clothes and the most expensive of jewelry. The other is dressed in old and dirty clothes and is obviously lacking in financial resources. It becomes obvious from the start that one is more likely to give generously to the church than the other. One is more likely to be of benefit to you than the other. And so you lead the wealthy man or woman to the best seats in the house and you treat them with kindness and respect. But the poor man or woman is marginalized and pushed off to the side and may not even be given a seat but rather shown a place on the floor, over against the wall or in the corner where they might sit.

It’s important that we not draw the wrong conclusions from this illustration. So let me draw your attention to several things James is not saying to us.

(1) James is not saying that we should ignore the rich as if they had no business being at the corporate assembly of God’s people. Wealth does not disqualify someone from attendance on Sunday or during the course of the week. He is not saying that Christianity is only for the poor. We must be careful lest we discriminate against the rich in favor of the poor, in the same way that the people of James’ day discriminated against the poor in favor of the rich.

James wants us to treat all alike, without any consideration for socio-economic factors whatsoever. In other words, he is not saying that showing kindness and courtesy to rich people is wrong. It is wrong only when we do it to the exclusion and detriment of the poor. We must show both equal consideration and courtesy.

(2) We must also remember that whereas James is denouncing sinful snobbery in which we cater to the wealthy, he could just as easily have denounced that condescending humility in which we falsely pity the poor. God wants us to avoid both extremes. We should neither identify with the rich and look with disdain upon the poor, nor identify with the poor and look with indignation upon the rich.

(3) Furthermore, James is not denouncing all rich people any more than he is praising all poor people. There is no inherent virtue in poverty nor is there any inherent vice in wealth. As James says in v. 5, one can be physically poor in this world but spiritually rich in the next. You may inherit nothing in this life at the same time you are made an heir of the kingdom of God! He will also say later on in the epistle that one can be physically rich in this world but spiritually poor in the next (i.e., lost and separated from God!). But it is also possible to be physically poor in this world and spiritually poor in the next (not all poor people are saved). Likewise one can be physically rich in this world and spiritually rich in the next (some rich people are saved).

(4) Also, James is not denouncing all forms of discrimination. He does not want us to be morally undiscerning. Here he is denouncing discrimination in the church that is based on non-moral grounds. That is to say, he opposes showing personal favoritism in the church to people according to race, wealth, social rank, and popularity.

I don’t want to be misunderstood when I say this, but at times discrimination is absolutely essential and is not morally sinful. If you are going to hire someone to watch your home while on vacation, you probably wouldn’t hire the person who has seven prior felony theft convictions. You would more likely hire the person with a spotless record who comes highly recommended. James isn’t saying we shouldn’t take into consideration someone’s moral or criminal background.

Again, if the two people described in James 2 applied for work in your company, it is always possible that the poor man has very little education and lacks the skills that would make him suitable for the job in question, while the rich man has both. You are discriminating between the two even though it is on grounds other than their comparative wealth. You are discriminating in the sense that you are making an evaluation as to which man is better qualified or suited to the job in question. Neither their wealth nor race has any relevance for the job in question, but their education and skill set do. James wants us to understand that education and social rank and wealth and ethnicity are irrelevant to a person’s moral dignity, individual worth, or acceptance and standing with God. God loves and redeems the uneducated and the genius, the rich and the poor, the black and the white, the Asian and the Hispanic, etc.

(5) We should not interpret James as if he’s saying that it is wrong to give honor to whom honor is due. The grounds on which Paul “honors” Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:29) are moral and spiritual. He has a proven record of righteousness and self-sacrifice. Paul commanded the Philippians (and us) to “honor” men like Epaphroditus. If you do, that doesn’t mean you have sinfully discriminated against those who aren’t deserving of honor. James’ point is that we must never give preferential treatment to someone based on physical appearance or the size of their bank account.

So don’t be afraid to congratulate someone for an accomplishment. Don’t be hesitant to point out to others the spiritual growth of a particular person.

(6) James is not saying that it is wrong or sinful for wealthy people to wear their jewelry or fashionable clothes to church, any more than he is telling poor people that they should deliberately dressed in ragged and dirty way. Some people dress worse than they have to as an act of rebellion against the cultural trends of their day or as a symbolic expression of their disdain for the establishment or even as an expression of false piety, hoping to evoke pity for themselves. Similarly, some wealthy people overdress to be noticed, to show off, to let everyone know just how well they have succeeded in this life.

James couldn’t care less how you dress as long as you do so with propriety, dignity, and modesty.

(7) Finally, James is not telling the poor to come to church ragged and disheveled even if they have the opportunity to improve their lot in life. Nor is he telling the rich to dress down and hide their wealth as if it is something of which they should be ashamed.

What James is saying is that as long as you did not become poor because of sloth and negligence or rich because of deceit and theft, your socio-economic status is absolutely irrelevant in the eyes of God and should be equally irrelevant in the eyes of the church. James wants us to treat others the way God has treated us, which is to say, without regard for any external, financial, physical features.

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