Doing Away with Favoritism in the Church
Topic: Church Life Passage: James 2:1–2:13
Doing Away with Favoritism in the Church
James 2:1-13 (NIV)
James is continuing to unpack what it means to be a “doer of the word” and he opens chapter two with a very practical aspect of doing God’s word: do not show favoritism. No room in the church for playing favorites. The word translated “favoritism” literally means “to receive according to the face” and it means to judge people based on appearances and superficial qualities. James paints a picture: a guy who obviously has money walks into the church – he’s well dressed, he’s got a gold ring, and at the same time right behind him a guy walks in whose clothes are shabby and tattered- he’s obviously poor. The wealthy man is given special treatment – please come sit here, this is the best seat in the house. The poor man is treated shabbily – go stand over there in the corner or sit on the floor at my feet. The church shows favoritism to the rich man. They look at the outer appearance, receive according to the face, and judge based on external things.
Favoritism isn’t just limited to the financial state of a person. We can be tempted to treat people differently based on other externals such as position or power, social status (who’s cool and who’s not), educational level, appearance, giftedness, politics, or ethnicity. James tells us doers of the word will do away with favoritism because favoritism violates God’s word and comes from evil motives.
- The evil motive behind favoritism
James describes the evil motive behind favoritism in verse 4: have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Favoritism judges and labels and treats people differently based on one hidden agenda: what can they do for me? That’s the dirty little secret behind favoritism: it’s not really about them at all, it’s about us. We tilt towards some people because we think they will give us something we want. We tilt away from others because we don’t think they can give us anything – associating with them might even cost us something. Favoritism reveals a heart that is selfishly tilted towards ourselves. In James’ example the wealthy person is treated as special because it is hoped that he or she will give prestige and a lot of money to the church. The poor person is passed over cause they have nothing to offer the church. Favoritism is just another word for using people. It makes us judges with evil motives.
By the way, favoritism can be a two way street. That rich person with the gold ring can leverage the special attention he gets to tilt things his way too. Years ago I made friends with a pastor from Texas named Jim Tucker. Jim told me about a situation that happened to him during a time when the church was in the middle of a large building campaign. A woman asked to meet with him and the pastors and when they sat down, she pushed a check for $75,000 across the table to him. As he went to reach for it, though, she began to lay out some of the things she didn’t like in the church and the ways she wanted the church to change. The implication was she expected her donation to be repaid by things being done the way she wanted them to be done. Jim said to me, “Allen, with the building campaign we could really use that money, but I pushed the check back to her and told her ‘thanks, but no thanks’”. She thought she could leverage favoritism to tilt the church towards her particular preferences. Favoritism can be a two way street, but it always comes down to tilting that street towards our own selfish agenda. We become judges with evil motives. We use people.
But it’s not just money. We hang out with the people we think can impart social status to us. Young people, you especially need to watch out for this. Choosing friends based not on whether they are good and decent people, but whether they are popular and by hanging out with them you will be more popular.
I can remember having “friends” in school who I felt gave me more social status but weren’t particularly good friends. Some who would treat me differently based on who was around. When it was just us, they’d be really friendly, but when there were others around to impress, they’d distance themselves from me, or make me the butt of their jokes. And I put up with it because I didn’t want to lose what I thought I got from them. They weren’t being good friends, and you know what? I wasn’t being a good friend to them either. I was in it for what I could get out of it. Favoritism reveals the selfish tilt of our heart.
This odd tendency to treat people as special who treat us badly if we think they have something we want isn’t new. James addresses the same thing in verses 5-7: 5 …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? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
It wasn’t the poor that was more likely to persecute and exploit the church and mock the name of Jesus, it was the rich. Yet here they are giving those who treat them badly special treatment and dishonoring those whom God had honored. When James says God chose the poor to be rich in faith and inherit the kingdom it doesn’t mean that the wealthy can’t be saved, but the only way for them to be saved is if throw off all confidence that their riches can save them and realize how poor in the eyes of God they are. We come to Christ poor or we don’t come at all. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matt. 5:3
Closely related to favoritism is what we call prejudice – it’s just the other side of the same coin.
Favoritism is “receiving according to the face”, prejudice is “rejecting according to the face”. Favoritism says, sit in this special place! Prejudice says, sit at my feet. We most often think of prejudice in terms of skin color but it’s not limited to skin color. Last week a man named Robert Bowers entered a synagogue where 3 Jewish synagogues had met together for a baby naming ceremony and he opened fire, killing 11 worshippers and wounding several others. As Bowers was taken to the nearby hospital he was heard shouting “I want to kill all the Jews.” He had a murderous hatred just because they were Jews.
It’s amazing how we can judge and reject people because the pigment of their skin is different. Talk about a superficial judgment made with evil motives: whether we have white skin or black skin or brown skin or whatever our pigment is, we are all the same in essence. There is only one race: the human race. Many ethnics and many cultures, but one race. We have all been created in God’s image and every single human being who ever lived was loved enough by God to send His Son to die for. God so loved the world. Not certain parts of the world, but the entire world. Jesus sends us out to all nations or ethnos. There is no room for favoritism or prejudice in the church!
- Doing God’s word means doing away with favoritism
James gives us three biblical reasons why doers of God’s word will do away with favoritism:
- Doers of the word won’t show favoritism because only Jesus is worthy of special deference and worship
James says in verse 1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. He purposely emphasizes Jesus’ glory and lordship to put our hearts in right alignment with Jesus, which will put our hearts in right alignment with each other. Only Jesus is glorious. Only Jesus is Lord. Only Jesus is worthy of worship. People are just people, no matter what their earthly position is. The rich and the powerful are not to be kowtowed to just because they have money or power.
People of all types will enter the doors of the church. Rich, poor, well educated, not so well educated, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, European, you name it. The church is to be a place of welcome and love to all – but no favorites. No special treatment. People are just people – and that’s not a put down. God loves people. Jesus died for people. If you’re a person, you are loved by God and special to him. We want to treat all people with love and respect and welcome them regardless of who they are. We want to “receive them according to their face” no matter what their face is. Why? Primarily not because of them at all, but because of Jesus. We worship and honor Jesus and he says love all people but worship none.
- Doers of the word won’t show favoritism because God’s word commands us not to
8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. (vv. 8-9)
James calls the command to love your neighbor as yourself the royal law. Jesus identifies this command as the second of the two greatest commandments, the first being to love God with everything we’ve got. Most of us are probably familiar with the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves but we may not be familiar with the context of the original commandment found in Lev. 19:18. When we put it back in its context, we find specific instructions about what loving our neighbor is supposed to look like:
15 “‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. 16 “‘Do not go about spreading slander among your people. “‘Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.17 “‘Do not hate a fellow Israelite in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in their guilt. 18 “‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. Lev. 19:15-18
Loving our neighbor as we love ourselves means we won’t show favoritism to the rich OR the poor. When someone comes into our meeting, we don’t see their gold rings or their shabby clothes. That’s not what love looks at. We don’t look outside to see whether they drove up in a rust bucket or a Rolls Royce. That’s not what love looks at. We see the person. Whatever their ethnicity, education, financial status, social status, appearance, love sees the person and values them for who they are.
That doesn’t mean we treat everyone the same. We don’t treat an untrustworthy person the same way we treat a trustworthy person. We don’t treat a divisive person the same way we treat a person of peace. Love looks different dealing with an oppressor than it does dealing with a victim. I appreciate that verse 17 tells us to rebuke someone frankly when they’re doing wrong. Maybe they’ll listen, maybe they won’t, but if we act like we don’t see it and don’t try to stop it, we’re guilty too. As has been said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” Loving our neighbor as ourselves sometimes means rebuking them frankly. But this is built on not showing favoritism which makes us judges with evil motives, but rather, judging our neighbor fairly. And that means judgment based on issues of character and morals, not appearances.
- Doers of the word won’t show favoritism because we know judgment is coming and we have received mercy
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (vv. 12-13)
Wow, this is strong language. “Judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.” We don’t escape judgment because we’re merciful, we escape judgment because God has shown us mercy in Christ Jesus. What James is saying, and the NT says elsewhere, is if we have received mercy we will show mercy. If someone has no mercy for others, they have never known God’s mercy for themselves. And if they have never received God’s mercy, they are damned.
When Jesus returns in his glory to judge the quick and the dead, our only hope is mercy. And all people, rich, poor, weak, strong, oppressed, oppressor, will stand before the Judgment Seat. People from every nation and ethnicity will stand before the Great White Throne and the Judge and there will only be one hope: mercy. That mercy is ours only through faith in Christ Jesus. And if we have known that mercy, we will show that mercy.
Jesus has called us to go into the world – all ethnics, all cultures, all economic spheres, all people – with the message that Jesus came to rescue us and restore us to a good and loving relationship with God through his death and resurrection. So that on Judgment Day they might get mercy instead of judgment too.
As doers of the word, that’s really what it comes down to. Everyday we need to ask God for His heart for the people in our lives. Rom. 2:11 says God does not show favoritism. God’s love isn’t tilted towards some types of people – the ground is level at the cross. Let’s ask God every day to give us a level-ground love for people that loves them for who they are inside, loves them for whose image they bear – God’s – and treats them equally with respect and dignity and worth. Let’s ask the Lord to help us do away with favoritism of any kind, so that we can love people the way He loves people.
As we close this morning, let’s take inventory of our own hearts and actions. James tells us it’s not enough to hear God’s word, we need to act on it. Here are some questions to ask ourselves:
- Are there people I fawn over or give special treatment to because they are rich or popular or powerful or have something I want?
- Are there people I treat with disrespect or disdain because they don’t seem to have anything to offer me socially?
- Parents – it needs to be said – do you show favoritism to one child over another? I had a friend who was a very talented athlete and he confessed he struggled to relate to his oldest son because his son didn’t have an athletic bone in his body. He didn’t even like sports. But this dad worked at getting to know and appreciate his son for who he was. Don’t show favoritism to one child over another.
- Is there prejudice towards any type of person (due to their ethnicity, financial status, culture, or any other external distinction)?
The good news is God hasn’t left us to work this out alone. He has given us His Holy Spirit to work His love in our hearts and cleanse our hearts of favoritism and prejudice if we will be doers of the word. Let’s pray and ask God’s cleansing, heart-changing work to take place in our hearts. If there’s a specific way God has convicted you – quietly confess that to the Lord.