You could argue that this problem of favoritism is one of the major problems throughout history.
Think slavery, think civil rights, think caste system, think Oliver Twist, think the parable of the Good Samaritan, think World War 2, think Hitler, think Aryan nation. All just extreme forms of this very common problem: the sin of partiality, or favoritism, making decisions about people on the basis of external factors alone.
Anytime you see the same problem occurring repeatedly throughout history it should cause you to put your guard up, because you realize, that biblically speaking, the same sin nature that resided in those individuals resides in you.
Man because of his sinful nature is instinctively prejudiced. Ultimately prejudice isn’t about color. It’s about hateful hearts. If we were all the same color we’d still have problems with racism. Because the problem is deeper than color, it’s in our hearts.
It’s this sin of partiality or favoritism. It’s the sin of making evaluations of people on the basis of the world’s standards, not God’s.
This was a particular problem in the early church. God commanded His people to be impartial, but it was difficult, because the church was the one place in all of society where it wasn’t about social status. Slave, master, rich, poor, male, female, one in Christ. Besides that most everyone in the early church was poor, so if a rich person was converted it would be very easy to get real excited not about his conversion but about what he had to offer the church.
That’s the issue James addresses at the beginning of James 2. He’s writing to believers who are suffering. And they are struggling in how they are responding to that suffering. And he’s aware that one of the sins they are going to struggle with in particular is this sin of partiality. Evaluating people the way the world does. And so he presents an air tight argument against favoritism.
He begins with his thesis statement in verse 1: Favoritism and True Faith don’t mix.
“My brethren do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” He addresses these believers with a term of affection, my brothers. Perhaps he does so to soften the blow they are about to receive. I love you and that’s why I am about to rebuke you.
Notice exactly how James puts it. He doesn’t merely say “Don’t show favoritism.” He says, “Don’t hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” This verse is not a suggestion. So it must not be read that way. It’s a command. James is laying down the law. To put it another way – he’s saying – true authentic faith in Jesus Christ is absolutely incompatible with an attitude of favoritism.
Favoritism is not merely being discourteous, it’s not just bad manners, it is anti-gospel.
In most of our Bibles the term favoritism comes at the end of the verse. In the Greek, it’s right up front for emphasis. Imagine it in bold print, almost like a title for the essay that follows. The word for favoritism is a ‘distinctively Christian word.’ In fact, many scholars suggest that the writers of the New Testament actually coined it. MacArthur explains that “perhaps the reason they had to come up with this new word is because favoritism was such an accepted part of most ancient societies that it was assumed and not even identified as it still is in many cultures today.” It literally means ‘receiving of face’ or ‘lifting of face.’ And it came to be a well-known term denoting the partiality of a judge who made biased judgments based on external circumstances, and more generically of preferring a person because of something you are enamored by.
Here favoritism is in the plural, which means that James is not just talking about an isolated act of favoritism, but instead about a pattern of life and a problem with wide-ranging applications. That means he’s forbidding favoritism of any kind. He’s about to show us one example of favoritism in verses 2-4, preferring the rich, but that is not the only kind of favoritism that’s sinful. Christians must not make a practice out of favoritism and they must not show favoritism in any way.
The grammar of this passage strongly suggests that he’s calling on the church to stop a habit or action that is already in progress. In other words, he’s not merely telling them to not do something in the future. He’s commanding them to stop something they are doing now.
Just because we are believers doesn’t mean we are perfect, and we constantly need to humbly evaluate our lives and our church in the light of God’s Word, to determine whether or not we have slipped into worldly patterns unaware. Wordliness is especially dangerous when it is subtle. It often sneaks into our lives through the back door and instead of showing up in what we wear or what we do, shows up in how we think and what we desire. And that’s what seems to have happened here to these believers. They were going about their religious activities, while thinking the way the world thinks.
James is going to tell us exactly why favoritism is such a serious sin down in verses 5-11; but for now I want you to notice the hint he gives us here in verse 1. And I’ll share exactly what I think that is next time.