For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Back in the mid ’90s when I was a short-term exchange student at our seminary here in Brazil I had the privilege of spending my weekends working in a little church in a small interior town. Another student and I would travel the two hours by bus every weekend to minister to those dear people.
As time progressed God began to work in some interesting ways at that church. Several high-profile people began to attend – as in, the local chief of police, the District Attorney, a banker…that kind of “high profile”.
One particular weekend we had planned a fellowship dinner where members of the community were invited. As preparations were being made the student who worked with me saw one of the church ladies bringing in a box containing some really fancy plates, cups, and silverware – much fancier than the normal plastic ware that were common at such events.
“I guess we’re really going all-out for this dinner!” he exclaimed, indicating the box.
“Oh, the regular people can eat off the the plastic plates,” the woman replied. “The nice tableware is for our special guests.”
In last week’s study we saw how James condemned partiality across the board. There is no room for special treatment within the family of God. Now he takes us to a very specific example – partiality based on economic situation.
Interestingly, James treatment of this gives us a fascinating look at the culture of the early church, and at the same time helps to smash a common myth.
The fact that James consistently deals with the rich/poor dynamic within the church indicates to us that there were indeed wealthy people among the number of early believers. In fact, his persistence in dealing with them indicates that their number was not insignificant. This dovetails nicely with research done by historian Rodney Stark, whose books I highly recommend. The early church was not the exclusive domain of the outcast and the downtrodden, as is sometimes claimed.
We’ll deal with that more next week. Right now, I want to focus on the last phrase of this passage: “judges with evil thoughts”.
Once again, James is challenging the way we think. And for him, showing partiality is not just a question of being mistaken – like thinking two plus two is five or that the Earth is flat.
No, treating one group of brethren better than another based on economic status, according to James, is evil. It’s sin, and needs to be repented of. Specifically, we are using human metrics to categorize people who are created in God’s image and redeemed by the blood of Christ. It’s a heart condition, and one that we can conquer with the help of the Holy Spirit.
This specific kind of partiality can happen many ways in the local church, many not nearly as blatant as the situation I mentioned above.
* The opinion of a well-to-do individual is given more weight because, well, after all, what would happen if he stopped tithing?
* Activities are routinely planned with involve a financial outlay that excludes the needier members of the church.
* Social circles within the church exclude those of a lower economic status.
This list could go on. The point is, if this is happening in your church, it needs to be stopped.
More on this subject next week.
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