Seminary Viewpoints

Faith vs. Favoritism: How the Sin of Partiality Distorts the Gospel

Sam Horn | April 28, 2022
Theology Thursday

As discussed by Sam Horn on The Steve Noble Show on April 28.

In a previous Viewpoint blog post, we learned about the revealing test of faith laid out by James (pastor, epistle-writer and brother of Jesus): our response to our own wealth or poverty.

But that response goes beyond our personal state of material well-being. Even more important is whether the way we treat others is affected by their status.

Specifically, James confronted his congregants with a serious disconnect that — by contradicting their claim to be servants — discredited their faith and damaged the Gospel they were called to announce as “ambassadors for Christ.”

That disconnect: the sin of partiality.

Getting It Precisely Backward

James’ word for “partiality” (James 2:1) reflects judging or showing favoritism based on external appearance, motivated by hope of personal gain.

For context, James 2:2-4 describes two men entering a church worship service. One man wore spotless, shining white garments — probably linen and undoubtedly from a large wardrobe only the wealthy could afford. He also wore gold rings on his fingers. Those items together imply that he was a powerful and influential Jewish religious leader in their city.

The other wore clothing that was tattered and dirty. The Greek word denotes “vile filth,” which a desperately poor person wore all the time because it was the only garment he could afford.

The believers were quick to speak to and serve each man — but with different words and a very different level of service. They immediately realized the possible advantages of the wealthy man’s visit and ushered him to a choice seat of honor. But the poor man, while not ignored or cast out, was quietly dispatched to a place where he would not interfere with their objectives.

James proceeds to reveal two horrifying aspects of the believers’ favoritism (James 2:4-7):

  • They were driven by “evil” motives incompatible with the nature, character and will of their Lord Jesus Christ. Specifically, they immediately directed their energy and attention to a religious leader whose influence and power could advance their standing. As for the poor man, they neglected him as a hindrance or inconvenience.
  • They created ungodly division in Christ’s unified body. Worldly wealth and status have no influence in the kingdom of Christ. When believers introduce such distinction in His body, they radically distort His design and supremely displease Him.

In response, this pastor tells the believers to listen closely: favoritism is precisely backward. By basing their responses in the guise of Christian service on appearances and potential gain, they honor the one who dishonors God — an oppressor and blasphemer — and dishonor a friend of God whom He chose “to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom.”

Calling Out the Sin of Partiality and Its Seriousness

James doesn’t hesitate to call this conduct by its real name: sin (James 2:8-9). When we believers decide who is and isn’t acceptable to God based on our values, not His, we are loving ourselves and not our neighbor, and thereby violating the royal Law of Christ’s kingdom!

The Pharisees compartmentalized the Law into 635 parts. They even assigned different levels of severity to each one. But because the Law is actually the unified, undivided moral will of a unified, undivided Lawgiver, the sin of partiality violates the entire Law.

Compounding the seriousness of this sin’s true extent is the gravity of its effect: to distort and discredit the glorious message of the Gospel, which declares that God does not show partiality (Rom. 2:11). Therefore:

  • Rich and poor all face the same judgment for sin.
  • More important, there is forgiveness and eternal life for all who humble themselves and repent of their sins.

That gravity is all the more pronounced in today’s broken culture characterized not by mere division but by “hyperpolarization,” as BJU Executive Vice President Alan Benson has described it. This concept is based on not only social status but also race and, in particular, viewpoint. Our reflexive rushing to respective corners and harsh, open judgments of others outside our “tribes” obstruct the proclamation of God’s Word and advancement of the Gospel.

Experiencing Mercy Over Judgment

Christ served in a very different way — with a basin and towel. In an extraordinary act of true servant-level selflessness, He demonstrated the truth of James’ statement, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

And He points the way to overcoming the sin of partiality: to let His mercy wash over our souls and service by:

  • Receiving the grace resulting from God’s sending His Servant to do what we could never do — fulfill the demands of the Law perfectly, take our place and suffer for our sins.
  • Acknowledging the selfish pride that looks to others to get what only God can give.
  • With His help, dealing with the unmerciful heart, unsubmissive spirit, controlling attitude and critical tongue that is more concerned about our own advantage, place in our “tribe,” or right to our opinion than the needs of others — especially their need to hear the Gospel of mercy and grace.