A wealthy, well-dressed dignified man in fine clothes and wearing gold rings comes into church. The sexton respectfully ushers him in and gives him a seat in a place of honour. Then a poor humble man in old, stained clothes comes in. The sexton tells him to stand at the side or sit on the floor. That’s the picture the epistle of James paints (2:1-13). James says that this sort of partiality or discrimination is evil, and he reminds his readers that God has been particularly gracious to the poor. Has not God chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom? Though poor by worldly standards, they had faith in Christ, in His Word, the Truth, and this put them in possession of the choicest blessings and gave them the right to the kingdom of heaven.
Oh, we might say, that sort of partiality or favouritism happened in those days; we can’t imagine it happening today. After all, we live at a different time in history and people are aware of the dangers of that sort of unfair discrimination. And anyway, is it really such a big deal? So what if the rich man has a privileged position and the poor man is treated less honourably; is it really necessary for James to warn the church against it? Does such partiality have relevance for us today?
Evidently it does; otherwise it wouldn’t be in the Bible. God, we are told, does not look at the outside, at appearances, at one’s position in society; God looks at the heart, at whether the person loves the Lord; and he looks for the fruits of that love, at whether the believer is submissive to His Word. Whether a person is rich or poor, intelligent or simple, black or white, Greek or Jew, a ruler or a slave is not the determining factor with the Lord. He is not a respecter of persons. He knows that whatever goods or position we may have has been given by Him. Moreover, compared to the brilliance of God even the richest and most decorated person is like a candle flame next to the sun. As the apostle Peter said after God showed him that gentiles, too, could belong to Christ’s church: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34). God is the God of election and chooses people irrespective of blood, race, class, riches, etc.
He is also the God of justice and truth. Judges in Israel were to reflect God’s impartiality. Moses’ law forbade judges from being respecters of persons. They were told: “You shall not be partial in judgement. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone for the judgement is God’s” (Deut. 1:17). Judges were not allowed to let themselves be bullied, nor to look more favourably at impressive people than on poor people, nor to accept bribes or in anything else to feather their own nest at the cost of truth. God is perfectly just and hates injustice. Justice is based on truth and God is the God of Truth.
That Truth is undermined by partiality, and that’s why partiality is so wrong. It’s why Paul was critical of the Jewish Christians who looked down on heathen Christians (Rom 2) and why he even lashed out at the apostle Peter who succumbed to partiality when he sided with the Judaists rather than the gentile Christians. Said Paul:
“I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:11-14).
Notice how Paul reacted strongly because he saw “that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel”.
The matter of partiality is of far deeper significance that merely affecting people’s feelings. James says, “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality” (2:1). Evidently partiality has everything to do with “the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ”. What is that faith? It is the faith in our Lord, whose teaching we summarise in our confessions. In other words, don’t be partial to people at the cost of the faith which is based on God’s Word.
That’s where the false church goes so wrong. It shows partiality to people, elevating them above the truth of God’s Word. The Roman Catholics showed partiality when they elevated the pope and clergy and their teachings above Luther’s appeal to the Word. The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands showed partiality when they elevated the wrong teachings of Kuyper and the authority of synods above those faithful believers who exposed these teachings as being contrary to Scripture and confessions. In other words, they showed partiality to people above the Word of God. This led to the Liberation of 1944. After half a century or so these Liberated churches themselves showed partiality when they elevated the ideas of people in relation to Sunday observance (4th command), marriage and divorce (7th command), sacraments (2nd command), etc., above those who exposed these errors as being contrary to the Word and confessions. The false church is guilty of partiality in that it “bases itself more on men than on Jesus Christ” (BCF 28).
Partiality or ‘respecting persons’ is a great danger to the church. If a church is guided by WHO speaks, instead of by WHAT is said, it has lost the right to call itself the church of Jesus Christ. If Luther had been guided by the pope, in all his splendour and opulence, instead of by the Word of Christ we wouldn’t be commemorating the Great Reformation this year. And if, in the 1940s, we had clung to the teachings of Abraham Kuyper (as insisted upon by the majority at synod) instead of listening to Scripture, the Free Reformed School Association in Western Australia would not be celebrating 60 years of Reformed schooling this year. Around 1944, 10% of the Reformed people liberated themselves in obedience to God’s Word; but 90% stayed in what had become a false church. They listened to the synods, or to the majority, or to their family and friends, or own inclinations instead of to God’s Word. In that sense they were respecters of persons and showed partiality to people rather than to God.
When James appeals to us not to hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality (James 2:1) he is reminding us that our Lord sits in glory at God’s right hand. Christ is far, far above every person or every authority. He sees whether His people will show partiality or simply be obedient to their Lord and Redeemer. Christ confessors know that every pretension, every outward appearance of dignity, every appeal to numbers and earthly authorities arrayed in glory and human importance, is as nothing in comparison to the splendour of the glory of Christ. This Christ gives us His Word as THE STANDARD on which we test every spirit to see whether it is from God. No partiality, for not WHO speaks is the criteria but WHAT our God says in His Word, the Truth.