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“Not Like Us!”

James 2:1-13
Bob DeGray
February 4, 2001

Key Sentence

Acceptance in the church must be available without partiality.


I. The Folly of Favoritism (James 2:1-7)
II. The Peril of Prejudice (James 2:8-13)


        John Wesley had no desire to start a denomination as he preached the gospel in the 1700's, but the Anglican church had no desire to reach the English people. For many years, still an Anglican, Wesley preached outside the church, in fields and town squares, to the poor, the coal miners, and the dissolute, bringing revival to many. Finally, reluctantly, because there was no room in the established church for these new believers, he agreed to the founding of the Methodist churches.

        Tragically 100 years later the same intolerance had grown up in Methodism itself. William Booth was a Methodist, but looking around him he noticed that the poorest and most needy were never in the church. Richard Collier describes Booth’s response: “The congregation of Broad Street church never forgot one Sunday in 1846: the gas jets dancing on the white washed wall, the minister, the Rev. Samuel Dunn, seated comfortably on his red plush throne, the voices swelling with the evening’s fourth Wesley hymn: ‘Foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Savior or I die.’

        The chapel’s doors suddenly burst open, with a gust of white fog. In came a shuffling shabby contingent of poor men and women, wilting nervously under the stares of the mill-manager, the shop-keeper and their well dressed wives. In the rear, on fire with zeal, marched “Willful Will” Booth. To his dismay the Rev. Dunn saw that young Booth was ushering his soiled charges into the very best seats; pewholders seats, facing the pulpit,whose usual occupants piled the plate with glinting silver. This was unprecedented, for the poor, if they came, entered by another door, to be segregated on benches without cushions, behind a partition, where they could not see, or be seen. Oblivious of the atmosphere, Booth joined heartily in the service, even hoping his devotion to duty rated special commendation. Too soon he learned the sad truth: since Wesley, Methodism had become “respectable.”

        This cycle has unfortunately repeated itself over and over in the life of the church: the evils of human nature crowd the mercies of God’s love from the life of God’s people and they begin to accept only those who pass an unspoken test of respectability. They begin to exclude and disdain those who are different, no matter how much they need practical help and the message of salvation. In the words of James, they begin to show favoritism. James addressed this same problem in the early church, and we need to let James speak to us today as he did then, and remind us that acceptance in the church must be available without partiality

I. The Folly of Favoritism (James 2:1-7)

        We can divide today’s text, James 2:1-13, into two sections. Verses 1 to 7 are ‘the folly of favoritism’ and 8 to 13 ‘the peril of partiality.’ Fanciful titles, but serious stuff. Let’s begin by reading James 2:1-8. My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, "Here's a good seat for you," but say to the poor man, "You stand there" or "Sit on the floor by my feet," 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?

        James has sometimes been accused of having little in the way of Christ centered content. But the letter is permeated with the teaching of Jesus, and here James bases his ethical command firmly on faith in Jesus. ‘Do these things because you believe.’ He describes Jesus as ‘the Christ’, the Messiah promised to Israel. He is ‘the Lord’, the one who is in supreme authority at God’s right hand and is in the process of bringing into submission all of God’s enemies. And ‘Lord’ implies the divinity of Jesus, as does ‘glorious’, a word often used of God himself in the Old Testament.

        It is based on their faith in this Jesus that James commands: ‘Don’t show favoritism.’ The Greek word literally means ‘receiving the face,’ - making judgments and distinctions based on external considerations, such as physical appearance, social status or race. We might say ‘don’t take someone at face value.’ or ‘beauty is only skin deep.’ The Bible repeatedly affirms that God does not show partiality. Moses, for example, in Deuteronomy 10:17 and 18, reminds the Israelites that “the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.”

        God’s people are to imitate him in this. The Bible repeatedly and categorically condemns partiality. Proverbs 18:5 “It is not good to be partial to the wicked or deprive the innocent of justice.” Malachi 2:9 “I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.” Leviticus 19:15 “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”

        Since God’s character and God’s desires for his people have not changed, this prohibition of partiality carries over to New Testament teaching. Simon Peter’s vision of the large sheet crawling with unclean things, and God’s command to eat them, taught Peter this lesson: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism” – literally, ‘God does not receive the face.’

        For us to practice partiality based on externals contradicts our faith in the one who came to break barriers of nationality, race, class, and gender. As Paul says, ‘here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian or Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and in all.’ At the foot of the cross where Jesus died to rescue men and women from every tribe, tongue, people and nation, there is no partiality.

        An illustration of the attitude James condemns follows. He describes two people of very different external appearance coming into ‘the assembly’. One bears every mark of wealth: he wears a gold ring, such as members of the upperclass Roman citizenry would wear; he is dressed in fine, ‘brightly shining’ clothes. The other man is poor, dressed in shabby clothes. The rich man is singled out for special attention and conducted politely to his seat. But the poor man is told abruptly to ‘stand there’, or as Philips paraphrases ‘if you must sit, sit on the floor’.

        By making these distinctions between the rich and the poor, or perhaps the educated and the uneducated, those in one’s social class versus those in another, those dressed to conservative Christian standards, and those dressed to secular standards, those who have made certain choices for their families or haven’t by distinguishing based on these externals, James says that we have become judges with evil motives. In fact all such distinctions forebode evil. To the extent our attitudes exclude or discourage those for whom Christ died, we are doing the work of Satan and not of God. We must do the work of Jesus who had loving compassion for even the worst of sinners.

        That these attitudes are completely inconsistent with God’s way of viewing things is shown by his special emphasis on salvation for the needy: ‘Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised.’ Those in need are often rich in faith: they trust the only one who can offer them rescue and promise them a kingdom. As we said a few weeks ago, those with material wealth are often hardened to spiritual realities - they think they can depend on something else. Thus Paul writes, “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.”

        The attitude held by the people James wrote to is far different than God’s attitude. Quite irrationally, they insult the poor, who would likely be most responsive to the Gospel message, and fawn on the rich who exploit them, drag them into court, and slander the name of Jesus. The word exploit or oppress has economic overtones. The rich manipulate the poor to increase their gain, driving the poor further into poverty.

        But James’ readers are not only experiencing economic oppression, they are also suffering religious persecution. Probably the two are related – court actions against Christians on apparently financial matters may have been motivated by scorn for their faith.

         Some of these rich persecutors even slander or blaspheme the Lord. As those who confess allegiance to Jesus, these poor people bear his name – they are ‘Christians’. How incongruous that those who blaspheme that ‘honorable name’ should be accorded preferential treatment in the church.

        But how does all this apply to us? In a direct sense the rich are not our oppressors, nor are we directly antagonistic to the poor. What we need to ask ourselves is this: who, walking into our assembly, would be well and warmly received? And who, walking into our assembly would be less so? I’m afraid the answers are obvious, and I’m afraid James has us, Trinity Evangelical Free Church, in his sights in this passage.

        Who would be comfortable here? Principally, the family with two parents and 2.5 to 6.5 children. Why? Simply because they are most like us. Our identity is families with children. And that’s not necessarily bad: I believe God has equipped us to reach those families, your neighbors, whose children go to your schools, the families of your co-workers. They should be well and warmly received, thought about, prayed for, followed up. But – and this is the key – people who don’t fit that stereotype are just as deserving of our care and concern. The gospel is not limited to people who are like us. The gospel is for every tribe and tongue and people and nation.

        So who would be less warmly greeted in our assembly? Less conscientiously pursued? I’m afraid it would be people like single moms. In fact I’ve had a conversation with a single mom who has visited our church, and unlike reports I get from traditional families, she found us cold and uninviting. Why? I’m afraid it because she doesn’t fit our stereotype, so we’re uncomfortable in relating to her as a person and to her situation. I don’t know all the reasons - but it’s not right.

        Who else? Sometimes singles themselves. There have been young or single adults who have walked into our fellowship and not stayed. This is somewhat inevitable, for in God’s design we may not be what they need in a fellowship. But to the extent that it is our attitude that discourages them, to that extent we are in sin. The young man who doesn’t dress quite the same as we do, who may have an earing in his ear, who may not have the most refined manners, that young man needs the church’s care and concern. The awkward young lady who visits the youth group needs to be reached. At the other end of the scale, older people can easily become discouraged if they see that our focus is not extended to them. Again, I’m not talking programs here: we can’t do every program but what we must do is care, love, make them welcome.

        Perhaps the most difficult of all these barriers is one that nonetheless several of you have crossed. Our church tends to be characteristically white-collar and college educated. Yet several have made the effort to get to know the people behind the stuffed shirts, and have found fellowship here. We stuffed shirts need to reach out and care for people at all educational levels. Individually and as a church we will benefit. You know in your heart that no one is exactly a stereotype. You know you’re not. Every one is unique and fits uniquely into the body of Christ. All the more reason why you need to be reaching out to all who come through our door, reaching beyond your comfort level to help care for the people God sends your way, the people God sends to our church, to your workplaces, and to your neighborhood. Make a decision to reach out to people and enjoy the differences God has made. My brothers and sisters, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favoritism.

II. The Peril of Prejudice (James 2:8-13)

        In verses 8 to 13 James highlights the seriousness of this call - the peril of prejudice. 8If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, "Love your neighbor as yourself," you are doing right. 9But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11For he who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. 12Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!

James begins positively: “if you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.” As is so typical of James, his thought parallels that of Jesus who said this command was one of the two great commands in Scripture, along with ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.’ James calls this command the ‘royal law’, again using adjectives which imply a somewhat different law then the Old Testament Law. He has called it ‘the perfect law’ and ‘the law of liberty’. Like those two phrases the ‘royal law’ implies a distinctly Christian concept. Jesus did not nullify the old Law, but fulfilled it so a new Law could be written on our hearts. As Christians who have humbly received the Word planted in us, who have received Christ’s righteousness by faith, we have also received the Holy Spirit, so that we can begin to love God and love people as we ought - to live the royal law of love as Jesus the King lived it.

        But if we are truly indwelt by the Holy Spirit and empowered to do something which non Christians and even the Jews could never do, why don’t we do it? Because even as believers God won’t compel us. He enables us to obey, but doesn’t force us. And since our motivation for obedience is now love, not fear, if we have not learned to love God for who he is and what he has done, we won’t learn to live the royal way.

        James is right to call this failure sin. If we show partiality, we break the royal law. And this is an area in which it is easy to deceive ourselves, to feel that since we are in Christ, saved by grace, small sins are of no account. James doesn’t agree. He says if you keep the whole law and stumble at just one point you are guilty of breaking all of it. He sees the Law as a seamless garment in which one rip tears the whole.

        One of the purposes of the law, whether from the lips of Jesus, or from the lips of Moses, is to convince us we are sinners. If we begin to excuse small sins, we have abused that purpose of the law. Instead we should allow the law’s wisdom to open our eyes, so each of us sees where we need to change, our need of God’s sustaining grace and daily forgiveness. If anyone says he has no sin he deceives himself. It may seem James is making a “big deal” of the rather common sin of favoritism – “everyone does it.” But he isn’t, for favoritism indicates the tilt of one’s soul.

        James makes favoritism a notorious sin, listing it with murder and adultery, and implying that it carries the same penalties. Verse 12 “speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom.” Again James carefully chooses to modify the word law, calling it the law of liberty. James is not asking us to strictly observe the Old Testament law in all its details. Rather we are to observe the law the way Jesus observed it - as a law that gives freedom to do the will of God, a law that gives freedom to be compassionate toward others, a law that lives in the heart.

        Yet there is judgment associated even with this law of freedom. The New Testament makes it clear that believers will see judgment. It will not be a judgment that determines their salvation, or their eternal righteousness, for these things have been determined by Jesus at the cross. But it is a judgment for rewards, in which the life we have lived for Jesus will be tested, and only the worthwhile will remain. Paul says, if any of us has built in Christ “using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”

        Love for God and love for others are the gold and precious stones in the life of a believer. “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” Showing mercy is exactly what the love command requires. If the readers of this letter continue to discriminate, they will suffer loss in that judgment. But for the merciful, mercy will speak. As one commentator said “judgment comes to stand as the accuser before the tribunal of God, and mercy speaks up fearlessly to resist judgment’s claim. The believer, in himself will always deserve God’s judgment: our conformity to the ‘royal law’ is never perfect. But our merciful attitude and actions will be evidence Christ’s presence in us, who perfectly fulfilled this law for us.

        So James has said real faith is indicated not only by avoiding notorious sins like murder and adultery but by how we treat people, especially the needy. Acceptance in the church must be available without partiality, because such acceptance is a sure sign of the Spirit of Jesus among us. He freely accepts all of us sinners as his children.

         R. Kent Hughes applies these words to his church in almost the exact way that I would apply them here. He says “there is a specific application for any church which is made up of educated, upwardly mobile people. It is easy for today’s affluent church to practice an urbane, omni-smiling favoritism, offering a brighter fraternal smile to well-dressed professionals and a cordial but less enthusiastic greeting to the less favored, or troubled. Such subtle discrimination may defy human detection, but God always sees it. And if it is practiced long enough it can devastate a church.

        If a church is strong in worship, missions, evangelism or youth ministry, it is because it has worked to strengthen those areas. By God’s grace, a church can also be strong in caring for the needy, the troubled, the struggling, and the broken, if believers will intentionally submit to God’s Word. This is a choice God wants us to make.

        Back in the early 1970's, during the "Jesus Movement" a church in Massachusetts began getting some strange visitors. They were called hippies. Remember them? They didn't exactly fit in that church, and people began to complain. The showdown came one Sunday. One hippie, a young man with hair down to his waist and patched_up blue jeans came into the middle of the service. He sat down _ right in the middle of the aisle, cross_legged. Members started to murmur and glance at him. Finally an old crusty deacon got out of his seat and walked down the aisle. The whole church held its breath. That 70 year_old deacon came right up to the young hippie, and without saying a word, sat down cross_legged next to him in the aisle.

        It is a wonderful thing when acceptance in the church is offered without partiality.