In this passage, James deals with a particular problem within the Christian fellowship. The problem is "status serving" - favoritism. We are easily attracted toward the successful, wealthy and beautiful people. Yet for James, such partiality is something quite evil.
v1. Turning to the subject of showing partiality, James asks a pointed question, "My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?", NRSV. Favoritism in relationships demonstrates a total disregard toward Christ.
v2-4. Partiality, within the Christian fellowship, is described in the terms of discriminating in favor of someone on the basis of their wealth. To do this is to "become judges of evil thoughts", that is, judge in an evil way. By showing favoritism toward the wealthy we imply that they are more desirable than the poor person, when in fact, in God's eyes, both rich and poor are precious. Doing such breaks the law of God, ie. is evil, Deut.1:17.
v5-7. James makes an observation about life. Those without status and wealth seem to be the very ones who respond readily in faith toward the Christian gospel and thus are incorporated into the kingdom of God. Therefore, showing favoritism to the rich is a bit of an insult toward a group that represents the majority of church members. Also, those with wealth and status have been the very ones to oppose the Christian faith and to slander the name of Christ.
v8-9. To show favoritism is to break the divine rule of the kingdom of God, God's perfect law which is encapsulated in the law of love.
v10-11. James reinforces the point by noting that his comments may seem to be making a mountain out of a mole hill, but when we break the law, in but one respect, for example by showing partiality, we have broken God's law as a whole and are liable to God's condemnation. Disobedience at one point only makes us a lawbreaker.
v12-13. Finally, James encourages his readers to motivate their love with mercy. God's perfect liberating law is administered under His gracious mercy, a mercy that should motivate us to show mercy. If we show favoritism within the Christian fellowship, does this not imply that we have yet to experience God's favour? So, let us overcome favoritism with triumphant compassion.
The issue before us is one which is not very complex. We are "all one in Christ" and we are bound to "love one another." To seek out the "beautiful" people in our congregation and give them honour because of wealth, status in society, looks, youthfulness, race, education, breeding, success..... is a most ugly way to develop a Christian fellowship. Favoritism is rife in society, let it not exist in our church.
A number of related dangers present themselves to the church today and so we need to mark well what James has to say on the issue of favoritism:
Denominational churches, by their very nature, are tempted to promote a worldly image of "success" as a means of marketing the institution. Youthfulness, vigor, "bright" services, etc. are all promoted at the expense of genuine discipleship. The "electronic church" oozes success. If we have to sugar-coat Jesus with "success" to gain disciples then we had better give the game away now. So for example, when we are selecting this person or that person for positions of responsibility in our church, what are the motives behind our selection? What are the motives behind our advertising style, behind our programing and the shape of our services? May they be the right motives.
As we saw in our passage for study, the Christian gospel is attractive to non achievers rather than those who have made it. This is not because God actually predetermines that only the poor will respond to the gospel, but rather that his called-out people is a foolish and weak people and is therefore unattractive to the "beautiful" people. Our heritage comes from a despised Jewish Nation, while our leader is an executed common criminal.
Given this, we may well wonder why Christianity in the West tends to be upper middle-class. In fact, survey results show us that the Christian gospel is widely accepted by this group of people. If we want to grow our church, then the target group to aim at is young professional, well educated, middle-class marrieds. This seems to fly in the face of James' argument.
The problem is that Christianity has greatly influenced Western society. Middle-class values are by-n-large Christian values. It is therefore natural that people who espouse middle-class values will find the Christian church attractive. This will be especially so if the church markets itself effectively during a time of economic downturn when middle-class people feel most threatened.
It is exceedingly easy to market middle-class acceptance and end up filling the church with socialized believers. Beware!
1. In this passage James forbids favoritism. Discuss some of the ways we might fall into this trap within our church.
2. What does James mean when he says that God has chosen the poor? Why is it that churches in the affluent West seem to be made up of upper middle-class people instead of working-class people?
3. What is the "law that gives freedom", v12? In what sense does it give freedom?