Partiality

Reflections on James 2:1-13 —

James’ letter to the church shows us how God refines and matures faith in His followers by using trials of various kinds (see the related article entitled Trials). Often, these trials involve people we come in contact with every day.  God creates opportunities for us to interact with all kinds of different people to refine us, testing our willingness to love others out of deference to Him.  These trials are vitally important.  They have a way of exposing our inner thoughts and beliefs, bringing them out in the open for all to see. We are secretive people, always putting our best foot forward while covering up some real ugly problems on the inside.  Without trials, we could continue living this contradictory lifestyle undetected, and never really grow up into the sincere and mature people we were called to be.

In James 2:1-13, James introduces us to one of the most pervasive and deadliest of those problems–the sin of partiality. We live in a culture that adores attractiveness and success, an obsession that affects the way we value and treat people.  When we disregard those who are less attractive and not as successful, we are showing partiality.  Christians would like to believe they are immune from it, but the stark reality is that we are all susceptible, and if we look closely and are honest with ourselves, we’ll realize that we routinely practice it.

God never looks at appearance when He assesses us. He quite clearly tells us that He looks at the heart, not external appearance[1].  And when it comes to a person’s value, He cares little about accomplishments.  He created us, and that alone inherently gives us value.  We should never intermingle appearance or performance with value.  They are very distinct things.  The one who treats people differently depending on the former instead of the latter is guilty of partiality.

I invite you to take a deeper look at what James says about partiality, and to do so with an open mind.  Be prepared for a shock, for the sin of partiality is a silent killer–almost undetectable, yet pervasive and deadly.  Left unchecked, partiality can distort your view of a person’s worth and corrupt the way you treat them.

Partiality Is Not Well Understood

We first need to understand what partiality really is so we can recognize it in ourselves and understand its power. James begins by calling partiality an attitude, an issue of the heart where so many other sins have their origin (James 2:1). To describe partiality, James uses an example of guests arriving at a church gathering–he says that when we give favorable treatment to a well-dressed guest while disregarding another who is shabbily-dressed, we sin by making distinctions within the assembly, and become judges with evil motives.  At its core, partiality is thus a relational sin with two parts:  it mercilessly assesses a person for what can be gained from the interaction, and then uses that assessment to determine how that person is treated.  The soul of a man caught up in partiality looks at every individual he meets and says “what can this person do for me?”, and treats that individual accordingly.

Selfishness is bad. Judging people based on external appearance is also bad. Partiality is worse than both because it combines judgment and selfishness in a single act.  God wants our relationships to be defined by love and mercy.  When we are partial, we reject love because we seek our own gain, and we reject mercy because we treat people based on appearance and performance, not on their inherent value as created beings.  No wonder God detests partiality in the hearts of His people!

We need to be better at recognizing the sin of partiality. When asked to define it, we recite James’ example and stop there.  But partiality is more pervasive and subtle than we realize.  It masks our ability to detect it.  It can creep into our minds, causing us to overlook it in ourselves and forming habitual patterns, making us show partiality in our daily interactions in the kitchen, in the hallway, by the water fountain, in the parking lot, in the grocery store, etc. Here are some examples of partiality that are less obvious than the one James describes:

  • We show partiality at work when we hang around with coworkers who are productive, on their way up, who help us accomplish our own work, but avoid the newbees, foreigners, and “lower performers” who can’t help  us climb the ladder
  • We show partiality at home when we treat our compliant children with grace and kindness because they are easy to love and are thankful, while we ignore and disregard our more difficult, rebellious children
  • We show partiality at church when we exclusively hang out with people who we feel comfortable with while ignoring those who make us feel awkward
  • We show partiality when we are pleasant to visitors for the purpose of appearing  welcoming and hospitable in front of peers, but are silent and dreary to our own family members
  • Guys, we show partiality when we smile and act courteously to the cute waitress and don’t give the homely busboy a second thought (by the way–it should not be a surprise that flattery, the crafty use of words to get a desired response, is a sin that commonly accompanies partiality, as Job admits in Job 32:21)
  • We unconsciously show partiality when our lives are exclusively lived in the company of well-to-do people, with no time or attention given to those in need

We take James’ example of partiality as the only form of this sin, but it should be clear by now that we can fall victim to partiality in many different ways, in many different relationships, on any given day of the week.

Partiality is a Common Problem

Partiality is more common than we realize, which is why there are so many warnings against it in the Bible. Besides James, we also have several warnings from Paul about the dangers of partial thinking, like in his letter to the church at Ephesus[2] and in his warning to Timothy[3].

Peter’s behavior in the Galatian church is perhaps the most notable example of a believer who got caught up in partiality[4].  In Paul’s account, Peter socialized freely with Gentiles until his Jewish peers came to town.  Then, he succumbed to fear.  He didn’t want his Jewish peers to think poorly of him because of his association with Gentiles.  He had a reputation to uphold, so he separated himself from the table.  Paul openly rebuked him for making this distinction and for seeking approval of his peers more than the well-being of his new Gentile friends.

We can be living in the sin of partiality day after day and not even recognize it.  It is a silent killer, subtle and hard to detect.  It clouds our judgment, making us forget the inherent value of people and convincing us that external appearance is a better measure of a person’s worth.  I have a nice job that pays well, and I live in a nice neighborhood.  I fellowship in church with similar people who work nice jobs and live in nice neighborhoods.  If I’m not careful, I can blindly fall into a lifestyle that reeks with partiality.  Every day I don’t inconvenience myself for someone in need is a day that I’m choosing partiality.  And if James is right, my sin of partiality is very serious in God’s eyes.  I’ll elaborate on this thought next.

Partiality Is As Bad As Murder

In James 2:10-11, James demonstrates how committing one sin is all it takes to be labeled a sinner, even if we perfectly keep the law in all other areas.  One little slip-up stains an otherwise perfect record.

Notice then how he intentionally uses partiality as the example of that slip-up (James 2:9).  In this way, James shows that partiality–as innocent as it may seem when compared with murder or adultery–is just as much a crime in God’s eyes as any of those other sins.

In fact, partiality invokes merciless judgment from God for it itself is merciless (James 2:12).  This verse is particularly convicting for me.  I am a critic by nature.  As hard as I try to reform, I feel like I am always criticizing other people. The only bright side is that the thought of facing “merciless judgment” for my own partiality motivates me to humble myself before God, and to seek His Spirit to put to death my critical heart and fill my heart with mercy.

We Are Created To Love and Be Merciful

God created us to be like Him, and He makes it quite clear that He is impartial.  He says this multiple times in scripture (II Chronicles 19:7, Job 34:19, Matthew 22:16, Romans 2:11, Galatians 2:6, Ephesians 6:9).  God does not fear man, nor man’s opinion.  He doesn’t alter His behavior based on whether He’s dealing with a rich and powerful ruler or a poor beggar.  He treats people equally, without any expectation for getting anything in return.  He rewards people equally, regardless if they hold authority over people or are common workers.  He loves people, even when it’s not deserved, even when it does not give Him an advantage.  God demonstrates His impartiality by reaching across cultural lines and demonstrating mercy on Gentiles, a beautiful gesture that the Apostle Peter recognized and praised[5].

We are also called to follow the “royal law” (James 2:8) and the “law of liberty” (James 2:12).  These are helpful terms James created to remind us of two important things.  First, we serve Jesus, the King above all Kings, and His greatest commands are to love God and love people.  Second, we are doubly free–free from the bondage of trying to live by a set of rules, and free to live by the Spirit of Jesus living in our hearts. That Spirit helps us be loving and merciful to the people we encounter–not for what they look like, what they’ve accomplished, nor what they can do for us, but strictly by their inherent value as a creation of God.

In a July 12 memorial service for five policemen gunned down in an act of racial violence in Dallas, Texas, George W. Bush said, “At our best, we honor the image of God we see in one another…sharing the same brief moment on Earth and owing each other the loyalty of our shared humanity.” We have inherent value from our Creator, and we should treat people we love and mercy regardless of color or any other physical distinction during our brief moment here.  As you encounter people today, see past the external appearance and performance, casting aside any hidden agenda to “get ahead”, and show love and mercy to the person in front of you.  Let the way you relate to people be characterized by love and mercy.  Love, because a simple act of love fulfills any law[6]. Mercy, because a simple act of mercy trumps the judgment we deserve (James 2:13).

 

Notes:

  1. I Samuel 16:7
  2. Ephesians 6:9
  3. I Timothy 5:21
  4. Galatians 2:11-14
  5. Acts 10:34
  6. Romans 13:8

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