James 2:1-13

Sermon: September 30, 2018

Show No Partiality

James calls out a major issue in the church.   Judging by the amount of space he devotes to it, it must have been a pretty big issue.  He writes: My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory (v.1). Partiality or favoritism is utterly incompatible with our faith.  It has no place in the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We show partiality when we favor some and discriminate against others based on an unbiblical criteria.  As the context makes clear, James is addressing a particular kind of partiality, economic partiality.

It’s difficult to discern whether the scenario he describes is hypothetical or not.   However, even if it is hypothetical, this kind of activity must have been taking place for James to address it.  The context is an assembly (v.2) of God’s people which could refer either to a worship service or, as some have suggested, the meeting of a church court.  A rich man enters wearing a gold ring and fine clothing (v.2) and is received with much fanfare being told You sit here in a good place” (v.3).  Meanwhile a poor man enters dressed in shabby clothing (v.2) and is nearly ignored being told “Sit down at my feet” (v.3).  This discrimination is something we might expect to find in the world, but James cries fowl when he sees it in the church.  It ought not to be!

Does this issue of partiality continue in the church today?  Are we favoring the rich and discriminating against the poor?  I think to some extent this issue of economic partiality continues today but what about a more obvious form of partiality?  What about racial partiality? Martin Luther King Jr once commented in an interview, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”  Much has changed in our country in the nearly 60 years since King has made this observation — and much change is still needed!  Our churches continue to be divided along mostly racial lines.

At the denominational level (the Presbyterian Church in America) our church has been reflecting on this issue of race in the church.   In 2016 at the annual General Assembly,  the delegates approved an overture confessing and repenting of racism in the church.  You can find the entire one-page overture here, but here is a short excerpt:

“Therefore be it resolved, that the 44th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America does recognize, confess, condemn and repent of corporate and historical sins, including those committed during the Civil Rights era, and continuing racial sins of ourselves and our fathers such as the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that “love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Romans 13:10)”

Racism has no place in Jesus’ church.  It is a wonderful thing to see our denomination commit itself to correcting this error.  Later in the statement we read that “this General Assembly praises and recommits itself to the gospel task of racial reconciliation, diligently seeking effective courses of action to further that goal, with humility, sincerity and zeal, for the glory of God and the furtherance of the Gospel.”

This is a fitting response because as James tell us partiality and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ do not belong together.   James gives us 4 reasons that partiality has no place in the church.

#1 It’s evil.

James does not mince words.  This is a serious matter.  If you show partiality, James asks have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and becomes judges with evil thoughts (v.4)? This isn’t just a bad idea.  James calls it evil.  It’s evil because we sit in judgment on others.  It’s evil to favor the wealthy over the poor or to welcome one race and not another.

Is there ever a place to make distinctions?  Is it ever okay to judge others?  First, we need to define the terms.  If you mean by judgment “to declare eternally guilty before the throne of God”, then, no, we have no place doing this.  This is for God and God alone to do.  But if by judgment you mean to “exercise discernment” or “to evaluate the actions of another according the biblical principles,” then the answer is yes.  For instance, we are right to “judge” the person who puts himself forward to be an elder in our church if he completely denies the teaching of the Bible and prefers instead to follow Buddha.  We wouldn’t cut this person off from fellowship.  Yet at the same time we recognize he has no place in Christian leadership.  We would be right to “judge” him unfit.  Jesus tells us in John 7:24, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”  Jesus does not say that all judgment is wrong but that we must judge rightly based on biblical categories.  Race or economics are not valid categories.  

#2 It’s opposed to the grace of God.

Not only is showing partiality evil, it is contrary to how God operates with us.  James writes with tenderness saying listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith (v.5).  Yet James says you have dishonored the poor man (v.6) and have shown favor to the rich who are the very ones who oppress you and drag you into court (v.6) and even blaspheme the honorable name (v.7) of Jesus.

God does not despise the poor, nor does he stand in awe of the rich.  Showing favoritism is not in line with the gospel.  God is building a kingdom from every nation, and tribe, and tongue (Revelation 7:9).

#3 It’s opposed to the law of God.

Partiality is opposed to the law of God.  If you really fulfill the royal law, this is great, you are doing well (v.8).  But if you show partiality, you have broken God’s law and therefore are a transgressor (v.9).

James tells us what the royal law is: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v.8).  Imagine a man pats himself on the back because he is very loving to his immediate family and he would bend over backwards for anyone down at the yacht club.  Every one of this man’s friends would tell you how loving he is to them.  But this man completely ignores the poor.  He sees their needs but won’t have anything to do with them.  James tells them that despite all the good he has done, he has still broken God’s law.  For whoever keeps the whole law but fails at one point has become guilty of all of it (v.10).  

If I am to keep God’s law, I must keep all of it.  He gives another example: if you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law (v.11).  Can you imagine someone in our court system who confesses to the judge and jury that, yes, it’s true, he did murder his wife, but at no time did he ever commit adultery?  It would be a really foolish defense.

#4 In the end it will bring about the judgment of God.

Notice the connection here between mercy and partiality.  For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy (v.13). What’s the connection?  Not showing partiality is act of mercy.  God was merciful to us in loving us despite or spiritual poverty and rebellion against him.  Even while we were still running from him, he sent his Son to enter into our mess and ultimately to die for us in our place.  There is no great mercy than this.  If we, in turn, fail to show mercy to others, and instead show partiality, we prove that we do not really understand mercy.  And not only do we not understand mercy, it’s possible we have never truly received mercy.

Mercy triumphs over judgment (v.13).  John Chrysostom, 4th century preacher has this to say about the art of showing mercy:

“Mercy is the highest art and the shield of those who practice it… It must not be despised by us.  For in its purity it grants great liberty to those who respond to it in kind.  It must be shown to those who have quarreled with us, as well as to those who have sinned against us, so great is its power.  It breaks chains, dispels darkness, extinguishes fire, kills the worm and takes away the gnashing of teeth.” (Ancient Christian Commentary, Volume 11, pg.25, emphasis added).

Showing partiality is contrary to the mercy of God.  God has been merciful to us and so we take great joy in extending mercy to others — even those who are different from us.

Discussion Questions

  1. What command does James give in verse 1?  How would you define partiality?
  2. What example of partiality in the church does James give in verses 2-4?
  3. In what ways do you see partiality as a problem today?  In your own life?  In the church?  In society?
  4. How is discrimination against the poor contrary to how God treats the poor (v.5)?
  5. What connection does James make in verses 8 and 9 between the royal law of loving your neighbor and showing partiality?
  6. How might a person be deceived into thinking they fulfilling the royal law when they really are not?
  7. With whom do you struggle to love as yourself?
  8. How is verse 10 bad news for anyone who hopes to go to heaven because their good works outweigh the bad works?
  9. What is the law of liberty in verse 12?  How does this law of liberty encourage us to show mercy to others?
  10. What is one thing God might be calling you to do as a result of studying this passage?





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