It’s Sunday morning and it’s time for church. The musicians inside are winding up rehearsals, the service leader is going through the run sheet with the slide operator, and the welcomers are ready with their name tags and neatly folded service sheets. Groups of regulars, visitors and new members are coming through the doors.
But as they do and as we welcome a diversity of people from varying economic and social backgrounds in our congregations, a question arises: how will we devote our time and energy to each individual? Who do we naturally gravitate towards, and who do we find harder to relate to? Who are we quicker to welcome onto the pitch as a church family member, and who might be fated to sit on the social sidelines?
The way we show partiality—that is, “favouritism”, the sinful inclination that each of us has to favour one sort of person over another unfairly—is an area of thought that might seem niche at best and controversial at worst. But what we do in this area can reveal a great deal about our understanding of the gospel and the heart of the God whom we serve.
God and partiality
The Bible has a fair bit to say about partiality—concerning God and concerning us. Concerning God, Peter experienced it first-hand in his interaction with Cornelius in Acts 10. After God gives him a vision of unclean animals that Peter is encouraged to kill and eat, Peter is summoned to the house of a Gentile centurion, even though Peter is a Jew and even though Jews do not usually consort with Gentiles. But Cornelius has also received a vision from the Lord—a vision about Peter.
When this is explained and when he finally understands what God is doing, Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35). In other words, in matters of salvation, God is perfectly impartial: he plays no favourites and is not swayed by the superficial, welcoming all who come in faith and obedience.
This is echoed in other parts of Scripture: Moses declares, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe” (Deut 10:17). Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, echoes him when commissioning his judges: “There is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes” (2 Chron 19:7); and in the New Testament, Paul also takes up this refrain: “For God shows no partiality” (Rom 2:11); “God shows no partiality” (Gal 2:6) (cf. Eph 6:9).
Us and partiality
God may be impartial, but we certainly are not: we followers of Jesus can be poor reflections of our impartial God. This was certainly true in James’s time: writing to the early church, he addressed the issue head-on because it was a significant one that warranted firm instruction:
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? (Jas 2:1-4)
James’s letter often goes under the radar in the modern church: perhaps the same instinct that caused Martin Luther to denounce it as an “epistle of straw”1 also lurks in the backs of many Christian minds. The book not only surprises us with what an epistle could say, but challenges expectations of what a Christian epistle should say. But this God-breathed letter speaks about partiality with surprising ferocity, demanding that Christians see their double-mindedness in this area corrected (Jas 1:5-8).
James says that the sin of partiality or showing favouritism is a matter of high stakes:
If you really fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (Jas 2:8-9)
Partiality and love cannot harmoniously coexist; one must yield to the other. So to show partiality in our lives is not merely to permit sin, but to restrain love. Partiality violates the heart of Christian morality, harms those around us, and is condemned in the strongest terms—such that even a Christian who shows partiality might be convicted as a transgressor.
The early church and partiality
For James’ original readers, partiality looked like treating the rich better than the poor in the church gathering. Who were the “rich” and “poor” in God’s eyes? James doesn’t split the world—or the church—into two neat groups; instead, he describes those at the extremes of society—those who will tend to stand out from the norm in the church environment and, therefore, may receive vastly different treatment by Christians tempted to play favourites.
While James begins by tackling how Christians treat people with varying economic status, he develops the distinction between “rich” and “poor” and even broadens them in the following verses:
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 dishonoured 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 honourable name by which you were called? (Jas 2:5-7)
The small, the vulnerable and the outsiders, while poor in the world’s eyes are welcomed with open arms by the Lord Jesus—and therefore must be warmly received by Christians and churches. Conversely, those who are strong in the world face greater temptation to reject the crucified Christ (cf. 1 Cor 1:20-31). In James’ day, the “rich” even used their power to harm the church (Jas 2:6), and yet the church still gave them preferential treatment over the vulnerable! At first, this behaviour might confuse us, but when we consider that James’s readers were likely economically vulnerable and dispersed from their homes by persecution (Jas 1:1), we might begin to empathise with their desire to win favour with the movers and shakers.
In contrast, James wants his readers to have their eyes attuned to the gospel realities, for the kingdom of God doesn’t align with the world’s values. The kingdom of God values the lowly, the weak and the poor (Mark 10:13-22)—those whose existences are not buoyed by worldly security or prowess, but instead are sustained by hope in a God who richly provides for those who humbly depend on him.
All this should cause us to ask ourselves some piercing questions: do we think in worldly ways about the people around us? As they step into our church gatherings, when and how might we dishonour the vulnerable and favour unreasonably those who are influential in the world?
While today’s church context may differ from James’s, God’s word still challenges Christians to have integrity as kingdom members by loving and serving others impartially. The more we recognise that each one of us is a pauper made rich by the gospel and an outsider made heir of God’s kingdom (Jas 2:5), the more we will recognise the dignity of the small, the vulnerable and the outsiders in our midst, and welcome and honour them, accordingly.
Who might these people be? Each church will inevitably have some degree of homogeneity in its “culture”, whether it be commonalities in class, ethnicity, gender, age, educational background and life stories. Some of this uniformity may be celebrated and even designed in our church contexts, and it can indeed make church life easier for people who are similar to their leaders and core membership.2 But God has a heart for those who don’t adhere to the norm. James’s instructions don’t mean that we should treat those who do fit the mould with any less love, but that we throw off our worldly ways of thinking and honour the “least” in the congregation with the wholehearted and impartial love of God. In addition, James’s instructions ward against our sinful tendency to be wowed by the worldly and to place too much stock in societal power in our appraisal of others.
Even so, throwing off our worldly ways can be challenging, particularly when we do not feel naturally drawn to certain people. What principles might we call to mind to put impartiality into practice, especially when it’s hard?
1. Christian hospitality is costly—and that’s what makes it Christian
Firstly, the pattern of loving the “stranger” is a distinctive of God’s people. Christian hospitality is costly. That’s what makes it Christian. Even the Israelites were commanded to love strangers, remembering that they themselves were foreigners in Egypt (Deut 10:19). God exemplifies this love as he graciously turns foreigners into family members (Eph 2:17-19). Genuine Christian hospitality is one that reaches out to those alien to us and treats them like our own.
It’s easy to recoil from situations where it will cost us to love others in the name of Christ. Our self-preservation instincts are quick to kick in. But tasks like these are the essence of the Christian life (Mark 8:34-38) and they’re how the kingdom grows. At its heart, following Jesus is about the joy of serving the true God, even when doing so offers us no prospect of earthly repayment (Luke 6:27-36).
2. Love is the chief virtue, not efficiency
Secondly, we need to remember that love is the chief virtue, not efficiency. Our lives are generally organised around the minimisation of personal inconvenience and the maximisation of personal benefit. The delicate economy of these two factors governs where we choose to live, what jobs we vie for, and even the people we spend time with. We crave efficiency. Our churches may even gear their ministries around efficiency. But if an efficiency mindset controls our ministry ethos, we may find ourselves veering away from those who require more thoughtfulness and energy to love in our churches.
Impartiality and efficiency are at natural loggerheads because love is not efficient. But choosing impartiality means being liberated to give ourselves to loving others and entrusting the results to God, as we ought (1 Cor 3:6).
3. God has designed the church to thrive on diversity
Thirdly, God has designed the church to thrive on diversity. Humanity, at its most Darwinian, looks down on the weak and favours the strong. The world’s pecking order is set in echelons, and these tiers of society rarely mix. But Scripture attests to the design of God’s church that defies worldly convention by thriving on variation.
The Apostle Paul’s metaphor for the church is a human body: each church member is like a different body part that enables the church to function healthily in concert (1 Cor 12:12-14). Distinctions of race and economic status are neither ignored nor despised: as the diverse church comes together, each member plays a crucial role, just as an organ or limb does in our bodies.
When we encounter a visitor to our church gathering who doesn’t seem to fit in, ask yourself: might they be a vital organ or limb that the church body sorely lacks? Might they be someone whose uniqueness may present unique challenges for them settling in, but which promises unique benefits to the body as they do?
Putting impartiality into practice
If we are to take James’s instruction to heart, it first must take root in our thinking. James wants his readers to be judges who think well about those who step into their church gatherings, not judges with “evil thoughts”:
“…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?” (Jas 2:3-4)
If we judge righteously, we can act accordingly. This overhaul means cultivating a love for the outsider that longs for their inclusion. It means that we aren’t simply drawn down the “path of least resistance” to interactions with insiders, but instead are willing to take the initiative in incorporating strangers in our midst. It means seeing them as people with dignity who are worthy of experiencing the love of God that he has already shown to each of us.
But the key to putting it into practice is to put it into practice, heeding the imperative of James’s command: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (Jas 2:1). Our great challenge is equitability, treating those who seem harder to love with the same level of commitment, affection and investment that we would show for any other soul in our church gatherings. This will look like stepping out of our comfort zones and making ourselves vulnerable as we seek to love those in our congregations who need it most.
Partiality might not naturally be at the front of our minds when we reflect on our Christian lives or our congregational experiences. But we must remember that the call for us to treat others impartially is, at its core, a summons to express our allegiance to Christ by exuding the righteous love of God. The challenge to treat others with impartiality may daunt us, but its goodness should excite us far more.
Adriel Stephen has completed his first year at Moore College.
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Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® UK version), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Martin Luther, Word and Sacrament I, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann, Luther’s Works 35 (St Louis: Concordia, 1960), 358 n. 5, 362. He later repented of his position, subsequently preaching from the letter.
2 Kids church and youth group are examples of good, designed homogeneity, though James’s exhortation for impartiality is to be equally championed in these venues.