My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you 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? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?
If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
As GLBT Christians, James gives a very poignant message. We are often rejected by churches, yet James discusses the seriousness of the sin of partiality. He says that the members of the church should not look down on someone or treat someone as having less value. This is the first sin in James in a list of sins that the first chapter tells us to “put away” (James 1:21) and ways in which we must be “doers and not just hearers,” (James 1:22) which we discussed last week. For some reason partiality was a sin that was a higher priority for James to address than the dangerous tongue which he discusses in depth in the next chapter.
James takes partiality much more seriously than probably most Christians today take it. If most of us were making a list of sins, partiality probably would not make it on the list, but as GLBT Christians, it should. In James 2:4, he says the person who does it “judges with evil thoughts” and in verse 6 he describes the partial person as “dishonoring the poor man.”
In our view of sin that includes “white lies” and “the seven deadly sins,” one would think showing partiality would barely make it to the status of a white lie. However, in verses 8-11 James equates partiality with adultery or murder.
Why does James emphasize the seriousness of partiality? At a fundamental level, partiality denies the power of Jesus on the cross. The sacrifice Christ made in the crucifixion is the great leveler of humanity. Without it we are all sinners, regardless of what we have done. Only because of it are any of us redeemed. Partiality is a way for humans to make themselves elevate themselves or others. It does it by allowing us to create tiers of people who are holier than others, and tiers of people who are worse sinners than others. When I claim to be more holy or righteous because of externalities than another believer, I am denying that it is only Jesus on the cross that accomplishes this. When I claim someone is a worse sinner for whatever reasons, I deny that God has saved me from the exact same place through the death of His son. When we see each other for who we are in light of Christ’s sacrifices, partiality becomes quite petty.
C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory made a powerful and poignant quote about who we are in light of eternity.
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
If we truly see each other in this light, how can we show partiality to each other?
Closely related to this is that very simply, we have no justification for partiality. We had nothing in us that warranted our salvation, yet Christ saved us. Whatever we can think to hold against someone, God can hold much more against us. He chooses continually not to.
The Bible shows us two types of partiality we should watch out for: partiality based on appearance or titles and partiality based on sin. Partiality based on appearance or titles is the partiality specifically addressed in this passage. In a social setting, a school setting, or any other setting we should not show partiality based on the many socioeconomic reasons we contrive to divide ourselves. Race, fashionable clothes, income, education, etc. Just because you may be more inclined to be friends with people you are more similar to, there is no justification or reason to look down on someone for these kind of external reasons.
Tragically this occurs far too often in many churches. How often have you seen someone get weird looks because they did not dress well enough for that churches standards, or when was the last time you saw someone being kept at a distance or avoided because they did not meet that churches standard of modesty? We may not show partiality by bringing the person with the good clothes to the front of the room, but how often do our churches exclude whether directly or indirectly because someone isn’t dressed well enough? With my particular church we don’t judge people by appearance, but I have seen it many times in other churches.
The other partiality mentioned in the Bible is partiality based on sin or perceived sin, which is the most important lesson for us. Jesus regularly interacted with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were the worst form of the greedy bureaucrat. They were known as thieves and extortionists, and they were viewed as traitors who were agents of Rome’s effort to subjugate the Jews. The word “sinners” is largely a euphemism for prostitute. It could also refer to people who lived such generally evil lives that they were known by all to be living lives of sin.
Matthew 9:10-13 describes the conversion of Matthew/Levi and his subsequent eating and drinking with Matthew’s friends who are described as “tax collectors and sinners.” This story is told in both Luke and Mark as well. In Matthew 11:19 it appears that Jesus was known by the people at large as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” In Luke 15:1 Jesus tells the parables of the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, and Prodigal Son after “the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.”
These were the people who were attracted to Jesus and who he came to preach to. Much like the pharisees did, it is far too easy for us to look down on and disassociate ourselves from someone because they are a “worse sinner” than we are. Jesus would have none of that. If a pastor spent his time with and ministering to cheats and sexually immoral people, would we be able to view him as following the pattern of Christ, or would we criticize him for “putting himself in the way of temptation” or for “not having enough hedges in place to guard against temptation?” Should churches accept GLBT Christians, or do we know they will be looked down on and judged instead of loved? Jesus rebuked those who looked down on others as being worse sinners than ourselves. I believe that many modern Christians need to be similarly rebuked for looking down on GLBT Christians and rejecting them.
Everyone who is in the church is a brother—everyone stands on an equal footing before Jesus Christ. Wealth, status, social standing, position, appearance—none of these matter except all men should come to Jesus Christ and worship Him. Everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ bows before Him as Lord. The charge is clear: believers, those who truly believe in Jesus Christ, are not to show partiality or favoritism. It is strictly forbidden. Leviticus 19:15 says, “You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.” Job 13:10 says “He will surely rebuke you if in secret you show partiality. “