Writings

James 2:1 – How Not to Build a Cathedral

My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality.

Some of the most interesting places to visit in the four-hundred-year-old city of São Luís – where God has given us the privilege of ministering – are the old churches built by the Portuguese during colonial times. Ornate architecture, hidden masonic symbols, secret tunnels leading from one church to another, these churches are treasure-troves for the history lover.

The main cathedral in São Luís.

They also serve as a warning of how easy it is to disobey this clear warning in the book of James. A common feature of these churches is social stratification. You see it in the way the buildings are laid out. Second-story booths line the sides of the sanctuary. These were reserved for the ruling class. At the back is a balcony reserved for the wealthy merchants. The ground floor level was reserved for the hoi poloi.

One of the luxury booths in the principal cathedral in the nearby city of Alcântara.

Actually, the ground floor level was reserved for the white hoi poloi. After conducting their masters to these opulent cathedrals, the African slaves had to make their way to rudimentary churches halfheartedly erected for their benefit in suitably out-of-the-way corners of the city. It’s no wonder that these African churches are to this day associated with the syncretistic worship of African tribal deities.

The church reserved for the slaves in Alcântara. Decidedly less ornate.

Back to our verse. The phrase that jumped out at me as I prepared this devotional was “Lord of glory”. It is interesting – and I believe key to understanding James’s point in this and the subsequent verses – that he uses this phrase, in this context. He is drawing a stark contrast between our natural tendency to stratify society, and the glory of God. Seen this way, his point becomes crystal clear: partiality among the brethren is an affront to the very glory of God.

Theologically, this makes perfect sense. When we treat another human being as somehow less than a human being, we are making a mockery of the image of God in that person. And God will not be mocked.

As we will see in the following verses, there is absolutely no place for division along racial, economic, or social lines within the body of Christ. We are all created in His image and redeemed by the blood of His Son. So if you find yourself looking down on the black, the white, the poor, the rich, the young, the old…you need to repent. You are offending God.

One more observation about cathedrals of São Luís. It is often said – indeed I have said it – that, momentarily setting aside all the idolatrous statuary, those old Catholics knew how to construct buildings that induced one to reflect on God’s greatness. One steps in and is immediately brought to a sense of awe and wonder. Conversation is instinctively reduced to a whisper.

The fatal flaw in that theory, however, is the seating arrangement. Good thing we don’t do anything like that today in our churches, right?

Or do we?

Stay tuned for next week’s devotional.

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