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9. Why Prejudice Is Incompatible with the Christian Faith Pt 1 (James 2:1-7)

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My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if someone comes into your assembly wearing a gold ring and fine clothing, and a poor person enters in filthy clothes, do you pay attention to the one who is finely dressed and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and to the poor person, “You stand over there,” or “Sit on the floor”? If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to?

James 2:1-7 (NET)

Why should believers not practice prejudice?

James is writing to Jewish believers who are scattered throughout the ancient world because of persecution. It seems that during this persecution these believers were being tempted to live worldly lives (Jam 4:4) and to accuse God of evil (Jam 1:13). In this letter, James challenges them by giving them tests of true faith. Later in Chapter 2, he will say that faith without works is dead (v. 17). Being a follower of Christ should change the way we live in various ways. If our faith is just a profession but does not change our hearts and the way we live, our faith is not genuine.

In James 2:1-7, he challenges these believers about showing partiality to the rich and prejudice to the poor, which for James is incompatible with true faith. He gives an illustration about a rich man and a poor man entering one of their services. In response, the rich man is honored by being offered a preferred seat while the poor man is dishonored. He is told to stand or sit on the floor. James said showing partiality and prejudice is to harbor evil motives (2:4).

Partiality and prejudice were common throughout the ancient world. People were labeled based on their status in society. Women and children, in general, did not have a high status. In the work force, working with one’s hands was looked down upon and left to the poor and slaves. Marriages were often arranged based on status. It would have been dishonorable to marry someone from a low standing.

Though James focuses on prejudice between the rich and poor—his challenge applies to all prejudice including racism, classism, chauvinism, etc. Unfortunately, the early church commonly struggled with forms of racism and classism. In fact, the role of the deacons came about primarily because the Greek speaking Jewish widows were being neglected in favor of the Hebrew speaking widows in Acts 6. A Jew that did not speak Hebrew was looked down upon as lesser—like he or she wasn’t a true Jew. In addition, God judged the Corinthians not only because they mistook the Lord’s Supper but because, in doing so, they were dishonoring the poor—leaving them without food (1 Cor 11:22).

Sadly, prejudice has been continually found in the church since ancient times. Similar to James’ illustration, Gandhi, the famous Indian leader, once considered becoming a Christian. After studying Jesus’ teachings, he felt that Christianity held the answer to fixing India’s caste system. Being convinced of this, he tried to attend a local church. When he entered the church, which was filled with white people, he was told to attend church with his own people. He left and never went back. He said to himself, “If Christians have caste differences also, I might as well remain a Hindu.”1 No doubt, many have experienced this in the modern church today. It’s commonly been said that the most divided hour in the world is on Sunday when people huddle together in churches of the same ethnic and cultural background—often showing that culture rules over faith.

This is exactly what James is rallying against. True faith should change how believers view and treat people of different backgrounds than their own. God has made the church a body, which includes Jews and Gentiles—people from different backgrounds. Having different backgrounds makes us more prone to discord, but it is also a tremendous opportunity to grow in love. In fact, Christ taught that by demonstrating our love to one another, people will know that we are his disciples (John 13:35). James essentially makes the same argument except by focusing on the negative. True believers should not demonstrate prejudice to others. In this study, we will consider reasons why believers should not practice prejudice.

Big Question: Why should believers not practice prejudice according to James 2:1-7?

Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because It Is an Ungodly, Worldly Practice

Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James 1:27

James’ challenge to not practice prejudice should be considered in the context of the previous verse. In James 1:27, he describes religion that God accepts as “pure and undefiled”; it cares for the needy in society and keeps itself “unstained by the world.” When James talks about the world, he is talking about a system of values and practices that are antigod—against a biblical worldview. In James 4:4, he says friendship with the world is enmity with God. Likewise, John teaches that loving and embracing the evil world system is a proof of not having genuine faith. In 1 John 2:15-17, he says,

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him, because all that is in the world (the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the arrogance produced by material possessions) is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away with all its desires, but the person who does the will of God remains forever.

He says the person who loves the world does not have the love of God in him. He also describes an aspect of worldliness as the “arrogance produced by material possessions” (v. 16). This “arrogance” produced by wealth often leads to classism and prejudice. This evil world system will pass away but the person who does God’s will remains forever (v. 17).

Again, following Christ means to go in a different direction from the world. If a person professes Christ and as a pattern lives just like the world including its racism, classism, sexism, etc., this person may not have true faith. Only those who do God’s will have eternal life.

Therefore, if we dislike people of other races and look down upon them, if we exalt the rich and dishonor the poor, if we mock those with developmental needs or other physical ailments, etc., we must question if our faith is real. Are we living for the world or living for God? When reading in context, James clearly is alluding to religion that God “accepts” (1:27 NIV), which keeps itself unstained from the world and cares for the poor—needy widows and orphans.

Are we keeping the worldly stains of prejudice off our clothing?

Application Question: In what ways is prejudice a normal pattern of the world? In what ways has prejudice slipped into the church, among Christians? How have you struggled with it when considering people different from you? How should believers break patterns of partiality/prejudice?

Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because Our Glorious Lord Was Likewise Misjudged

My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.

James 2:1

In calling Jesus Christ “our glorious Lord,” James declared that Jesus was God. In the Old Testament, God would often appear to Israel in a glory cloud. When leading Israel through the wilderness, he led them by cloud during the day and fire at night. At times, his presence would come down to the tabernacle and later the temple in a glory cloud. However, when Christ came to the earth, his disciples declared that he was the glory of God. John said this, “Now the Word became flesh and took up residence among us. We saw his glory—the glory of the one and only, full of grace and truth, who came from the Father” (John 1:14). When John said Christ “took up residence,” it literally can be translated, he “tabernacled.” Christ was the tabernacle of God on the earth. He was the place that God’s glory dwelled. The writer of Hebrews, likewise, called Christ the radiance of God’s “glory” and the “representation of his essence” (Heb 1:3). It seems that James is referring to this reality when he calls Christ “our glorious Lord.”

This should have challenged believers who were judging the poor by their outward appearance, since Christ was likewise misjudged because of his humble outward appearance. Those who dishonored Christ did not recognize the glory that resided in him and what was his from an eternal perspective. When most people saw Christ, they saw a man who came from the ghetto of Nazareth, Galilee. People declared, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46), “No, for the Christ does not come from Galilee, does he?” and “No prophet comes from Galilee” (John 7:41, 52). Christ came from the wrong neighborhood. His family was poor. When they offered sacrifices to God, they had to offer two doves which was only allowed for the poor to offer (Lk 2:24). In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul said this about Jesus, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, he became poor for your sakes, so that you by his poverty could become rich.” Our Savior was poor. He didn’t have the educational background that those from Jerusalem would have. He worked with his hands as a carpenter in a society that despised manual labor and those who did it for a living. He didn’t have the handsome looks that many would esteem in society. Isaiah 53:2 says, “he had no stately form or majesty that might catch our attention, no special appearance that we should want to follow him.”

Everything that society exalted—beauty, education, wealth, and family background—Christ did not have. When they saw his poor appearance, they did not realize it veiled the very glory of God. In the same way, there are poor people in this world who are uncomely in outward appearance but gloriously rich because of their relationship with Christ. They have every spiritual blessing in heavenly places (Eph 1:3) and are co-heirs with Christ—everything Christ has is theirs (Rom 8:17). And there are those who are rich and attractive on this earth but are extremely poor and haggardly as far as eternity is concerned.

In 2 Corinthians 5:16, Paul said, “So then from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view. Even though we have known Christ from such a human point of view, now we do not know him in that way any longer.” Likewise, as believers, we should not view people from a secular viewpoint; we should see everyone as God sees them—in relation to Christ. We should see people as those who need to experience Christ’s saving love and those who are related to Christ because of his love. Therefore, it is incompatible with our faith in Jesus Christ—"our glorious Lord”—to show prejudice. Our Lord was poor but glorious on the inside and from an eternal perspective. We must view people from an eternal perspective as well.

Application Question: Why is it so easy to judge people based on outward appearance? How should the fact that Christ was not esteemed by worldly standards (beauty, education, wealth, and family background) challenge us about how we view ourselves and others?

Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because It Makes Us Unjust, Evil Judges

My brothers and sisters, do not show prejudice if you possess faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ… If so, have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?

James 2:1, 4

When James says, “do not show prejudice” or “show no partiality” (ESV), the Greek construction means to stop an act that was already in progress.2 It literally means, “don’t receive the face.”3 It refers to not receiving somebody based on external appearance only, without considering their true merits—such as character and abilities.4 Leviticus 19:15 says, “You must not deal unjustly in judgment: you must neither show partiality to the poor nor honor the rich. You must judge your fellow citizen fairly.”

When Samuel was searching for the next king of Israel, he went to Jesse’s house to consider his sons. As the first son came out, Samuel thought to himself, “Surely, here before the LORD stands his chosen king!” as he considered the man’s height and appearance (1 Sam 16:6). However, God rebuked him saying, “Don’t be impressed by his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. God does not view things the way men do. People look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). No doubt, God often desires to rebuke us as well because of the way we view and rank people based on external things. When we do this, we are acting like unjust, evil judges. If a courtroom judge gave people favor or condemned them based on their appearance or wealth, he would be evil and unjust. We would despise him for doing so. Unfortunately, we often do the same daily when viewing people.

As believers, we must view people the way God does, by considering their character and relationship to God. When Solomon’s mom counseled him about finding a wife, her focus was totally spiritual. In Proverbs 31:34, she said, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised.” Similarly, when talking about the beauty of women, Peter described how God doesn’t focus on the external but on the “lasting beauty of a gentle and tranquil spirit,” which is precious in his sight (1 Pet 3:3-4).

When considering people, we must be like God who is a just judge. We must focus on a person’s character and relationship to God rather than mere externals. It has been wisely said, “We should not judge a book by its cover.” If we do this with people, we are harboring evil thoughts and have become unjust judges—exactly what everybody hates in society, corrupt leaders. God hates it as well, as it falls short of his glory and plan for his people.

Application Question: Why are we, and society in general, so prone to judge people by external factors such as education, beauty, clothing, and family background? Why is making judgments based off external factors alone wrong and deceptive?

Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because God Has Elected the Poor

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?

James 2:5

When James said, “Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith,” the Greek word for “choose” is the same word we get the English word “elect” from.5 Though controversial, Scripture teaches that God chose people before time for salvation (Eph 1:4). This election is not based on any merit of our own, but simply God’s right to choose from those who deserve wrath. That’s why salvation is by grace—the unmerited favor of God. James had already mentioned this previously when describing how believers are born again. James 1:18 says, “By his sovereign plan he gave us birth.” The NIV translates it, “He chose to give us birth.” In the same way nobody planned their natural birth, nobody planned their spiritual birth. Though we responded to the gospel, Scripture teaches that even our faith is a gift of God, planned even before time (Eph 1:4, 2:7-9, Phil 1:29)).

Now, when James says God chose the poor, he is speaking in generalities. God did not elect all the poor to salvation, but when considered historically, the majority of believers have always been poor. The majority of the early church were slaves and poor people. Paul described this in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29:

Think about the circumstances of your call, brothers and sisters. Not many were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were born to a privileged position. But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, so that no one can boast in his presence.

When describing the “circumstances” of the Corinthians’ “call” to salvation (v. 26), Paul noted how God often did not choose the privileged and powerful. Instead, he chose what the world thinks is foolish and shameful. God chose to bring his Son out of poverty. He chose people often looked down upon by society, such as fishermen and a tax collector, to be his apostles. He chose to save the person who was persecuting and having Christians killed to be his greatest apostle. He chose the poor to hear the gospel. In Luke 4:18, Christ said the Spirit of God had anointed him to preach the gospel to the poor; they were the first recipients of the gospel and the primary ones to accept it. As mentioned, the early church was primarily poor people and slaves. In God’s sovereignty, he chose what was shameful, “weak,” “low,” “despised,” and “regarded as nothing” by the world (1 Cor 1:27-28). In fact, Christ praised God for this reality in election:

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your gracious will.

Matthew 11:25-26

We may not fully understand God’s purposes behind electing the poor, but like Paul, James, and Jesus, we can clearly see that it is true.

Certainly, on the human side of salvation—meaning our decision to follow God—there are factors that affect this reality. The poor are more prone to accept God and trust in him because they have nothing else. Their outward circumstances of poverty commonly make them poor in spirit (Matt 5:3)—dependent upon God like a child, which is the door to salvation (Matt 18:3). And likewise, the rich are more prone to trust in their riches than God, which makes it hard for them to enter the kingdom (Matt 19:23). Wealth tends to make us proud and independent, while the door to the kingdom is humility and dependence.

Either way, James’ point is that showing partiality to the rich over the poor is incompatible with election. From the divine standpoint, God has chosen the poor to be rich in faith. And on a human standpoint, the poor are more prone to accept God, while the rich reject him. If we dishonor the poor, we dishonor those God has commonly chosen for salvation and to care for in a special way.

It must be remembered, that when God elected Israel to be his people, in his covenant with them, they were called to care for the poor. They were to leave grain in their fields for the poor (Lev 19:9-10). The poor were to never be charged interest on a loan (Lev 25:35-37). The poor were to be released from their debts every seventh year (Dt 15:1-2), and slaves were to be released from slavery on the year of Jubilee, if they wanted (Lev 25:8-13). The Jews were to care for the poor, and if they did, God would bless them, and if they didn’t, God would judge them. Psalm 41:1 says, “How blessed is the one who treats the poor properly! When trouble comes, the Lord delivers him.” Proverbs 28:27 says, “The one who gives to the poor will not lack, but whoever shuts his eyes to them will receive many curses.” Therefore, even when Paul and Barnabas were commissioned to share the gospel with the Gentiles, the apostles encouraged them to “remember the poor” (Gal 2:10).

One of the reasons we should not show prejudice is because it’s incompatible with God’s election of the poor and his special care for them. Like Israel before us, we are called to care for them and honor them.

Application Question: In what ways can we see God’s election of the poor biblically and historically? In what ways can churches better honor the poor by making them feel comfortable in church and reaching out to them in the community?

Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because It Honors Those Who Dishonor God and His People

But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to?

James 2:6-7

Finally, James says that believers should not honor the rich over the poor because the rich have typically persecuted believers and slandered God’s name. Certainly, this appears to have been commonly happening to these early Jewish believers. In James 5:1-6, he specifically rebukes the rich who were persecuting believers. They were withholding the pay of their workers (5:4); they were condemning and murdering righteous people (5:6). Some believe that James may specifically have in mind the Sadducees who were the wealthy, liberal Jewish teachers who partnered with the Pharisees to kill Jesus. Even as they persecuted Christ, they were probably dragging believers to court—suing them and blaspheming Jesus.6

No doubt, this is still true today. Much of the litigation against Christians in modern day courts are carried out by wealthy, powerful, liberal groups. They attack those who believe that marriage should only be between a man and woman. They persecute those who advocate for the rights of the unborn. They seek to silence the preaching of the Bible—calling it hate speech and divisive. In many countries, believers have been muzzled by the rich in power. James challenges these believers to consider who they were exalting.

Now with that said, James is not saying the poor should be honored and the rich dishonored. He is also not saying that we shouldn’t honor those in authority over us. Scripture consistently calls us to submit to those in authority over us because all authority is from God (cf. Rom 13:1-7). However, James is saying that the rich should not be honored over the poor. Believers should give a poor farmer the same respect given to a wealthy doctor.

The world often honors the wealthy to seek favor from them and dishonors the poor because they can give nothing in return. However, for believers, we are part of another kingdom. In this kingdom, the first will be last and the last will be first (Matt 20:16). There is a great reversal. Therefore, we are not bound by the culture of this world and shouldn’t live by it. As believers, we should not practice prejudice or partiality at all. We should honor and respect all people, as made in the image of God.

Application Question: In what ways are the wealthy persecuting believers throughout the world today? How should Christians respond to this persecution both privately and publicly?

Conclusion

When considering God’s characteristics, we often think of his omnipotence, omnipresence, holiness, mercy, and love; however, we often don’t consider God’s impartiality—that he is not a respecter of persons. In Deuteronomy 10:17-19, Moses said this to the Israelites:

For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God who is unbiased and takes no bribe, who justly treats the orphan and widow, and who loves resident foreigners, giving them food and clothing. So you must love the resident foreigner because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt.

Because God is impartial, not exalting people based on race, socio-economic status, beauty, or abilities, Israel was supposed to be impartial as well. Like Moses before him, James challenged these Jewish believers who claimed to follow Christ, to not practice prejudice as it was incompatible with their faith. As followers of Christ, we must also never practice it!

  1. Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because It Is an Ungodly, Worldly Practice
  2. Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because Our Glorious Lord Was Likewise Misjudged
  3. Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because It Makes Us Unjust, Evil Judges
  4. Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because God Has Elected the Poor
  5. Believers Should Not Practice Prejudice Because It Honors Those Who Dishonor God and His People

Prayer Prompts

  • Pray for God to forgive and deliver the church from ethnocentrism, racism, classism, sexism, nationalism, and any other worldly vices.
  • Pray for believers to see people as God sees them—based on their innate worth as bearers of God’s image and their relationship with Christ.
  • Pray for believers to love and honor those who are different than us in various ways—including their appearance, abilities, culture, views, and socio-economic status.
  • Pray for unity in the church and the world even though we are different from one another.

Copyright © 2021 Gregory Brown

Unless otherwise noted, the primary Scriptures used are taken from the NET Bible ® copyright © 1996-2016 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Holy Bible, New International Version ®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NLT) are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Copyright © 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NASB) are taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, and 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Scripture quotations marked (KJV) are from the King James Version of the Bible.

All emphases in Scripture quotations have been added.

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1 Accessed 12/1/2019 from https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-8-why-partiality-wrong-part-1-james-21-7

2 Utley, R. J. D. (2000). Jesus’ Half-Brothers Speak: James and Jude (Vol. Volume 11, p. 30). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.

3 Hughes, R. K. (1991). James: faith that works (p. 90). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

4 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (p. 98). Chicago: Moody Press.

5 Utley, R. J. D. (2000). Jesus’ Half-Brothers Speak: James and Jude (Vol. Volume 11, p. 32). Marshall, TX: Bible Lessons International.

6 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1998). James (p. 110). Chicago: Moody Press.

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