Avoiding partiality – By Sean Savides
As South Africans we are no strangers to impartiality. We are no strangers to the concept of favouritism, or its twin brother discrimination. We see partiality all around us. We see it in our country’s history, we see it in our current government, we see it in business and sport, we see it in Xenophobia, and we see it in our own hearts.
The Bible is clear that favouritism is a sin and God calls us to avoid discrimination. There are a number of places we can turn to, but none clearer and more poignant than James 2:1-13.
Getting the main idea…
Here James uses an example from the early church. He speaks against discriminating against the poor and favouring the rich. This was clearly a particular problem for the early church, and still continues to be a problem today. Many sermons have been preached, and books written, about the rich and the poor from James’ letter, but two things must be remembered when reading these verses.
Firstly, James is addressing Christians. He is speaking (first and foremost) to the church about how we treat one another. In v. 1 he addresses his audience as brothers (or brothers and sisters), believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. So James is not talking mainly about how we treat outsiders or even visitors on a Sunday. He is talking mainly about how we treat one another within the body of believers.
Secondly, James is using the rich and the poor as one example of favouritism/discrimination. This passage is not only about the rich and the poor. The principle can, and must, be applied more broadly. We so easily discriminate against people based on their age, their sex, their social standing, their education, their personality, their race, their culture etc. Truth is, we show partiality based on pretty much every single human character trait. Often against those who are different to us, or do not have much to offer us, or who pose some sort of threat to us. And when we judge people based on things they cannot do anything about (the way God has made them) then we “… become judges with evil thoughts…” (v4). And when we do this we actually undermine the God who created them. We place ourselves above Him.
Of course James is not talking about sin. He is talking about neutral attributes that people possess that we (sinful) human beings then judge them on. Sinful thoughts, deeds and attributes, which go against the Bible’s teaching, are surely to be condemned and battled by the believer.
Well, James goes on the give a few reasons why showing partiality is wrong. Here are a few of the things this passage touches on:
Reason 1: Partiality is not God’s way (vv. 5-7)
James nails discrimination and favouritism by explaining that it is not how God acts. In fact, says James, God has chosen those who are often despised and he has given them faith and promised them his kingdom (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-29). God shows no partiality. He uses foolish things, weak things, poor things, lowly things, despised things, ordinary things (and people) to accomplish his plans. Things and people that the world looks down on… God raises up, blesses and uses (cf. Deuteronomy 10:17&18).
James is calling on Christians to be impartial, just as our God is impartial. In fact, we are to take special care of those who are less fortunate, or vulnerable, or different to us – because that is what God does!
Reason 2: Partiality is sin – it breaks God’s law (vv. 8-11)
We cannot hide away from or cover-up our discrimination: “Look, I’ve done a bunch of good things. I give money to the poor, I help in Sunday school, I come to church every Sunday, I even try keeping the laws of the country… But, I’m going to keep thinking that some people are better than others…” All of us, if we are honest, give special attention to some people and act condescendingly towards others. Our default is to judge with our evil thoughts and we break God’s law in the process. We are all woeful sinners in this area!
Thirdly and lastly…
Reason 3: Partiality will result in God’s judgment (v12-13)
James is very clear in vv. 12&13 that those who are law-breakers will face God’s judgment. Judgment without mercy will be shown to all those who have shown partiality towards others. Surely, we cannot expect God to act mercifully towards us if we are not prepared to show mercy to others. Discrimination shows that we lack mercy and will therefore come under judgment.
And notice the answer to the favoritism and discrimination that flows so naturally from our sinful hearts. The answer is: mercy. We are to treat others kindly, with compassion, and sympathy, and understanding… That’s what God does, and that’s at the heart of “loving our neighbor as ourselves”.
Notice the humdinger at the end of this section: Mercy triumphs over judgment. Those who act mercifully towards others will experience God’s mercy and they will avoid his judgment. What a profound phrase… Think about it… We cannot expect God to not discriminate against us (and show us mercy) if we are not prepared to fight our sinful tendencies to discriminate against others.
The gospel of the Lord Jesus tells us that there is forgiveness to be found in Him for the sin that fills our hearts. Pray that God will forgive our sins of partiality and that He will help us to love all His people, just the way He has made us.