The Expository Files

The Sin of Favoritism

James 2:1-13

There are certain things about people that can be regarded as "character-neutral" attributes. I am referring to things about individuals which do not relate to the character or value of the person. For example, if I behave rudely; if I manifest a hateful attitude, I insult people, take advantage of people and lie to people - this relates to character. I've made some wrong choices, and those choices reflect my basic selfish character.

But I'm talking now about "character-neutral" attributes. The color of a man's skin, genealogy or ethnic background, geographic location, level of education and income, health, age, sex, popularity, etc. These are character-neutral attributes. That means, we have no right to reject, admonish or shun people because of things like this.

James teaches us about such matters in James 2:1-13.

1 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 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, 3 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," 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? 8 If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well; 9 but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

In the first part of this passage James describes a circumstance or event. He paints a picture, and then he tells us what's wrong with this picture. In doing this, James exposes the sin of partiality or favoritism (criticism or rejection of someone based on any character-neutral trait).

James tells us NOT TO DO THIS ("…do not…"). We are forbidden to hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ … with partiality. These things do not go together (claiming faith in Christ and partiality).

Partiality is "respect of persons," (KJV). We may use the word "favoritism" or "prejudice." When we discriminate against people merely on the basis of some no-character trait, we are doing something (thinking or acting) that isn't compatible with faith in Christ.

James paints this picture. Brethren have an assembly, and a man comes in with "gold rings, in fine apparel." This is a man who appears to be wealthy. The other man who comes in is "a poor man in filthy clothes." In this picture, we are told nothing about the character of these men, nothing about their spiritual status or behavior. Are they Christians? We are not told. There is simply the presence of these two men who come in - one appears to be rich, the other appears to be poor.

The rich man is giving gracious hospitality, a warm welcome, a good place to sit. The poor man is told, "sit over here, out of the way!"

James' commentary on this picture is: "Have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" (Jas. 2:4, NIV). After this indictment, James lists six things wrong with favoritism:

  1. It is inconsistent with faith in Christ (v.1). When you consider what Jesus did, what Jesus taught and how Jesus behaved - there is no justification for favoritism. It is not compatible with faith in Christ.

  2. It makes us "judges with evil thoughts," (v.4). The kind of favoritism James describes doesn't come from good thoughts, but evil. The treatment we give to people depends upon our thoughts about them. This kind of insulting, dishonoring treatment stems from wrong or evil thoughts.

  3. It is wrong because God makes no such distinctions (v.5). God is not a respecter of persons (see Acts 10:34; Eph. 5:1; 1 Pet. 1:17). When we engage in the kind of behavior James describes, we are not acting as God's children.

  4. It dishonors the poor man (v.6). Why should we dishonor someone, simply or merely because of their income, their financial status. The answer is, we shouldn't. 1 Peter 2:17 says we are to honor all men.

  5. It makes no sense when you consider, as a class, the rich were those who oppressed Christians (vss. 6b,7). What a strange spectacle. Some of those who were rich and powerful oppressed Christians (see Jas. 5:1-6). Now someone of that class appears, he is honored and the common man is shunned!

  6. It violates the law of love (vss. 8-13). The royal law of love for God and neighbor is ignored when this kind of prejudice is practiced. "…if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors."

Anytime we focus on some non-character trait, and base our attitude and treatment of someone of that neutral thing - we are guilty of the kind of discrimination James says is not compatible with faith in Christ.

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 7.7; July 2000