BE FREE OF PREJUDICE
James: A Faith That Works – Part 4
Mike Breaux, teaching pastor at Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, California, tells the story of being invited to preach at one of the churches in our brotherhood a couple of years ago. Mike had never been in this church in his life, nor had he visited this particular region of the country, so he was relatively unknown to most. His assigned passage of scripture for this service was the passage from James that we just read together. But before the service began Mike dressed up like a “bag lady.” He put on several layers of old sweaty clothing and an old ruffled hat, which he kept pulled down over his head. Then minutes before the service was to begin, he stumbled into the church building carrying a bag, stumbled up the aisle, and then sat down right in the middle of the sanctuary. Nobody had a clue who he was. And nobody in that large church spoke to him, let alone try to befriend him, though several did cast disgusted glances his way and a few children giggled and made fun. And when it came to the point in the service where Mike was to preach, there was an awkward silence because nobody knew where he was! But all of a sudden, the “bag lady” stood up in the middle of the sanctuary, walked forward, and began to take off his outer garments and hat. And then he said to the congregation, “Would you listen as I read from James chapter two: “Brothers and sister, don’t show favoritism…” And Mike said that the people really squirmed that day as he made the vivid point about how the church can be very prejudiced and narrow in its appeal to lost individuals.
You know, I wonder how our church would have reacted in a similar circumstance. If somebody comes into our church building who is shabbily dressed, do we snub them? Or if an interracial couple were to sit beside you in church next Sunday morning, would you look at them in disgust? Or if somebody worships by raising their hands when they sing, or if they mumble an “amen” during the message, do you try to distance yourself from them? But more importantly, how do you relate on a daily basis to people who are dissimilar from you? You see, the Bible makes it crystal clear that the church is to be the one place in the world where all class and racial barriers are to be broken down. Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (ESV). The primary distinctive of the church is not what we believe, the primary distinctive of the church is how we behave in our relationships with one another.
So let’s study these first 13 verses in James chapter 2 this morning, and let’s take an honest inventory of our own personal conduct and our own attitude. Let’s look first at the text itself and then at the application for today. And as we study, remember Jesus words, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 11:15, ESV)
I. THE INSTRUCTION.
The instruction from James is very explicit.
Beginning in verse 1, James says, “…as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism.”
Now that word favoritism comes from two Greek words which are combined to mean “receive by face.” It carries the thought of welcoming or accepting someone on “face value” alone. William Barclay defines favoritism as “to allow oneself to be unduly influenced by a person’s social standing, wealth, or worldly influence.” And he points out that a person may be a respecter of others because of “the snobbery that truckles to the rich, or he can be equally unjust because of the inverted snobbery which glorifies the poor.”
Well James gives a prime example of the kind of favoritism that was practiced in the early church. He says in verse 2, “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also come in.” Somebody has called this “the case of the nearsighted usher,” he couldn’t see beyond the physical.
Now this rich man is really decked out. Today his clothing would be obviously expensive and well-tailored. This text literally reads that the man was “gold fingered.” He would have diamond rings on many of his fingers, and a gold bracelet, and a Rolex watch—he just reeks with opulence and class!
At the same time a poor man in simple clothing comes in. Now today he’d be wearing polyester pants, a sports coat that doesn’t match, and a Timex watch. And he feels uncomfortable with a tie on in that sophisticated atmosphere.
Well these two people present the usher with a real dilemma. One is in rings, the other in rags. They both arrive at the same time, and the church service that day is packed. Matthew 26 tells us that there were “chief seats” in the synagogue and that the Pharisees loved these chief seats because they were probably right down front where they could make a grand entrance.
Now what do you suppose was probably going through the mind of the usher that day? He might have been thinking, “Boy, if I can cater to this wealthy man then maybe he’ll befriend me and invite me out on his sailboat.” Or maybe he wasn’t having selfish thoughts, but maybe he thought, “You know, this church really needs money right now. We’re going to be going through a building program soon and this guy could really help out in a big way. Now I know that we’re not supposed to show favoritism, but you’ve got to be practical. The Bible says that we’re to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves, and this man can have a lot of influence. And the poor people don’t like to be up front anyway!”
So the usher says to the rich man, “Here’s a good seat for you, sir!” But to the poor man he says, “Why don’t you stand over there,” or “Why don’t you just sit on the floor.” And can’t you just picture this usher doting all over this rich man? “Sir, I’ve got a seat for you right down front where you’ll have a perfect view. The preacher is good looking, the message will be good, and we want you right down front. And by the way, are you right-handed or left-handed, sir? Right-handed? Good! We’ll put you on the right isle so that you can get that arm moving without any barrier at all when it comes time for the offering plate to be passed, if you know what I mean!” And the usher just doted over this rich person and made an immediate judgment based on only externals.
Friends, that’s favoritism—catering to the important for what we can get in return. And James says that’s wrong!
He says in verse 4: “…have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?”
And as we read on in the next few verses, I believe we can see three reasons why that’s wrong.
First, it’s sinful because it’s inconsistent with God’s method of dealing with people.
Look at verse 5: “Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith…?”
The scripture makes it obvious that God doesn’t cater to the rich or to the poor. His concern is not with our possessions, but with our character. Proverbs 22:2 reads, “The rich and poor have this in common: The Lord made them both” (NLT). And Acts chapter 10, verse 34, tells us that God is no respecter of persons. Romans 2:11 says, “…God does not show favoritism.”
So from God’s perspective the real issue is not poverty or wealth, the real issue is the condition of the heart. And God instructs His people to be like Him.
In Leviticus chapter 19, verse 15, God instructs His people to have the same impartial spirit. That verse reads: “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.”
Now Jesus had some rich friends—Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea. But most of Jesus’ associates were very common people. The Bible says the “common people” heard Him gladly (Mark 12:37). His three most intimate friends—Peter, James, and John—were fishermen, blue collar workers. Even Jesus’ enemies had to admit: “Teacher, we know that you do not show partiality” (Matt. 22:16). So when we show favoritism we go contrary to God’s method and Jesus’ example of how we’re supposed to relate to people.
The second reason that favoritism is sinful, according to James, is that it’s an insult to the poor Christians who had been persecuted by the rich.
Look at verse 6 and 7: “But you have insulted the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are slandering the noble name of him to whom you belong?”
Now in that society there were two distinct classes of people—the rich and the poor. There weren’t very many “middle class.” And the majority of the rich people had rejected Christ because Christianity appealed for humility and generosity, and the idea of a crucifixion was offensive to their “social sensitivity.” Now certainly there were a few exceptions, but as Paul said, “not many influential, not many noble” are called (1 Cor. 1:26). So the church was made up primarily of poor people in that day, and they had been victimized by the religious aristocracy. It was the rich people who were persecuting them, throwing them into jail, and taunting them. And to show favoritism to the rich was an insult to those who had been martyred for their faith.
Many remember back during the Vietnam War when Jane Fonda went to Hanoi and visited the North Vietnamese and tried to befriend them? A lot of people resented the fact that she was befriending the people who were killing American soldiers and mistreating prisoners of war. And it’s understandable why they’d resent that. And in the first church, when Christians favored the rich, they were strangely exalting the very class that had brought so much pain and persecution into the lives of those who had been loyal to the Lord.
And then the third reason that James says it was wrong to show favoritism is that it ignored the most important command of the Scripture.
Look at verse 8: “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers” (vv. 8-9).
Now this is called “the royal law” because it was most important law. It reigned over all others. Galatians 5:14 says, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
And James is saying , “Now when you favor the rich and you snub the poor, you’re breaking the fundamental rule of the Christian, and that is sinful.” “For,” as James tells us in verse 10, “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
You know, you don’t have to break every law in the books to wind up a prisoner in a state prison, you just rob one bank and get caught. Now you can say to the judge, “Well I’ve never murdered anybody! I’ve never pushed drugs!” But you can still be thrown in jail as a lawbreaker. And the same is true in our relationship with God. You may attend church, and tithe, and read the Bible, and control your temper, and resist the temptation to overeat. But if you show favoritism, if you discriminate because of surface impressions, then you are guilty of breaking God’s law. In fact, you are breaking the most important law, which is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
And then James concludes this section with an appeal to mercy.
Verse 12: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom…”
We’re not going to be judged by the Old Testament Law that brought restriction and death. God nailed that constraining covenant to the cross. Now we’re not under that Law, but we’re under grace. We’re saved by the blood of Christ and we even have freedom to be imperfect. Therefore, since we’ve been extended so much mercy, it’s only reasonable then that we extend a similar kind of mercy to those we perceive to be inadequate.
Remember Jesus’ parable of the debtor who owed the king a million dollars? He pleaded for mercy and the king just wiped the debt off the books. But that debtor immediately went out to a man who owed him a few bucks, grabbed him by the throat, and said, “If you don’t pay up right now, I’m going to throw you in jail!” And when the king heard about that lack of mercy on the part of the man for whom he’s just forgiven a million-dollar debt he was furious, and he threw the unforgiving debtor in jail.
My friends, God has extended so much mercy to us. He’s forgiven us of our huge debt of sin. He did that when we were unattractive, sinful, and when we had absolutely nothing to offer Him. So how can we arrogantly fail to overlook the imperfections of other people?! When we have a condescending spirit toward anyone, it’s an indication that we really haven’t understood God’s grace to us.
James says in verse 13, “…judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!”
Years ago when TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart had his personal moral problems exposed and publicized, not very many people felt sorry for him. Do you know why? I think the reason for that lack of compassion was that Swaggart had been so legalistic in his condemnation of sin. Just a few months before his fall, Swaggart had been very vocal in his condemnation of Jimmy Bakker. So, when Swaggart himself fell, as a result of the same kind of sins, people didn’t show him much mercy because he himself hadn’t expressed a whole lot of mercy in his ministry.
Remember Jesus saying, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you”? (Matthew 7:1).
Well James tells us that if we want God to be merciful to us on Judgement Day, then we’d better learn to be very merciful in overlooking the faults of others ourselves.
II. THE APPLICATIONS FOR US.
Now this passage from James has all kinds of applications that I think are needed for the church today. Let’s just talk about several of them this morning.
To begin with, it certainly tells us that we are to be free of financial or social prejudice.
Did you hear about the businessman who got on a crowded bus and sat right next to a young man who asked him what time it was? And the businessman didn’t respond, so he asked him again, “Sir, can you tell me what time it is?” And again, he didn’t respond. Now exasperated, the young man said, “Sir, is it too much to ask you tell me what time it is?!”
And the businessman said, “I’m not going to tell you what time it is, because if I tell you what time it is, you’ll ask me where I live and I’ll have to talk about my neighborhood. Then you’ll ask me what my hobbies are, and I’ll talk about the ballgame. And I’ll ask you about yours and then you’ll talk about your hobbies. And you’ll ask me about my family, and I’ll show you some pictures. Then I’ll invite you home to dinner, where you’ll meet my daughter, and she’s beautiful, and pretty soon you’ll fall in love with her and you’ll want to marry her. And I don’t want my daughter marrying anybody so poor that they can’t even afford a watch!”
Now even though we might laugh at that man’s paranoia, we understand his value system. We oftentimes judge a person’s worth by their financial status. There was an article online recently criticizing the athletic program of one of our nation’s major universities because many of the students who participate in their sports programs don’t graduate from college. The coach, commenting on the situation, said, “We shouldn’t evaluate a person’s worth by whether or not they have a degree.” And he’s right. But then he went on to say, “I’ve had players who didn’t graduate who are making millions of dollars in professional athletics today.”
You see, the world just kind of automatically evaluates whether a person is worth something by how much money they’re worth, or how much money they’re earning. But the Lord stated emphatically that a man’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of the things he possesses. It’s so easy for us, even in the church, to become just enamored with worldly standards, and we can suffer from the same material myopia that the usher in our text this morning did.
Early on in my ministry I decided that I would never look at the ledger that listed financial contributions from people in the church, because I wanted to try to treat people fairly. I want that to be a matter between you and God. Jesus said the woman who gave two mites was actually a bigger hitter than the rich Pharisees who gave out of their abundance, because the widow who gave two mites gave everything she had.
But I have to confess to you that there are times when I’m tempted to treat the more affluent differently. I’m tempted because I realize if we don’t have some significant contributors really helping out, our church can begin to struggle to make ends meet. So when somebody comes in who obviously has resources, I’m really tempted to say, “Why don’t you sit down here. Can we assign you a reserved parking place? And by the way, what kind of music do you like to hear in church?”
How do you do in that area? When somebody sits beside you and they’re shabbily dressed, or grossly overweight, or not polished, do you kind of keep them at an arms distance? Or when you’re making out a list of people that you’re going to invite to a shower, or some get-together that you’re having, do you make sure the people who are coming are all on your socioeconomic level? Or when you’re invited to a wedding or an anniversary celebration, do you make decisions about whether you’re going to go or not by how much money the people have? Or what determines whose funeral you attend? One preacher friend said, “Where there’s a will there’s a relative!” Do you pay more attention to your wealthy older relatives than you do the poor needy ones? Or what if you’re on a scale in which you say, “You know, the average person in the church probably makes more money than I do,” how do you respond to that?
I’ve heard comments from church members over the years that go something like these: “You know, those people think the church is a fashion parade. I bet they don’t give much to the church!” Or, “Boy, after seeing their home I’m never going to invite them over to mine!” I actually heard a man once say, “The first time I drove into the church parking lot I almost didn’t come in because I saw so many expensive cars out there. And immediately thought, ‘Boy, this church is too highfalutin for me!’” You see, it’s possible to be guilty of an inverted prejudice, too. The church should be the one place where class distinctions are broken down, the one place where they just become insignificant to us.
William Barclay wrote: “There must have been a certain initial awkwardness in the early church when a master found himself sitting next to his slave, or when a master arrived at a service in which his slave was actually the leader and the dispenser of the Sacrament.”
But the church must be a place, if it’s a church of Jesus Christ, where financial distinctions and social differences are wiped out.
At a church in Washington D.C. recently they had three very different people respond to the invitation. A U.S. senator, a man who was a dish washer at a local restaurant, and a foreign college student came forward the same hour. And at the end of the invitation the preacher said, “I want you to notice that the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” And may the ground always be level here under the cross of Christ!
Secondly, we need to be free of racial prejudice, too.
Acts chapter 13, verse 1, is an enlightening verse. It reads: “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers…” Now those were gentiles. There was Barnabas—he was Jew. There was Simeon called Niger—he was black. Also, Lucius of Cyrene—who apparently was a traveling companion of Paul and was a slave. There was Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch)—a member of the royal family. And there was Saul—who was a converted antagonist.
Now here was incredible diversity in that Antioch church—black and white, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, slave and free, all worshipping under the same roof. You see, the kingdom of God ought to be a place where all racial barriers are broken down. Do you remember singing that song since the time we were little that goes: “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world”? Well the question is: Do we? All little children grow up, don’t they?!
When we associate with people of other races, then we become as inclusive and compassionate as the early church. We should make people of any race feel that they’re welcome to join us here. When we do that then we’re demonstrating to the community around us that, indeed, the ground is level at the foot of the cross, that Christ’s blood cleanses us all, regardless of race. And it’s not just the black person who’s the victim of prejudice sometimes. There’s an increasing prejudice, for instance, toward the Japanese in our country. People complain, “They’re buying up America!” With new companies and foreign executives moving into communities, there’s a mounting resentment of their prosperity. And with the ongoing problems in the Mideast there’s an increasing resentment of Asian Americans today.
But if the church is alert, we have an opportunity to evangelize today that is unprecedented! I have a friend (Jeff Grey) who is a missionary in Japan, and I remember him talking about how difficult a field that is, because the Japanese are steeped in materialism and Hinduism. They regard Christianity as the religion of the West, and it’s very slow going trying to evangelize those people for Christ. But what if the church would reach out and cross racial barriers with the Japanese who come here to America as executives, or with the number of sharp Asian students who come to America for their education? Then we would be sending those people back to their own country taking Jesus Christ with them, and they could have an immediate impact! But that requires the elimination of racial bias on our part.
Another preacher friend of mine tells of a well-to-do white woman who approached a very sharp black lady who was a member of his integrated church. And she asked her, “What do you people prefer that we call you? Black, or Negro, or Afro-American, or what?” And the black woman very sweetly responded, “I prefer that people simply call me Margaret.”
Isn’t that great! We don’t have to make a distinction of black and white, rich or poor, Asian or English—just people! People who have sinned and are in need of the forgiveness and strength of Jesus Christ. For, “…man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). And the closer we get to God the more we’re going to focus on the heart.
Then there’s one other area this passage touches on that I think is really important.
We need to be free of spiritual prejudices, or denominational prejudices, too.
Remember that story about the woman who called the Baptist preacher and asked if he would hold a funeral service for her beloved dog? And the preacher said, “Oh no, we don’t conduct funerals for animals!” “Well,” she said, “can you recommend somebody who would? I just loved that dog so much that I’d be willing to give $500.00 to anybody who would perform a funeral for her.” And the preacher quickly responded, “I’m sorry, but why didn’t you tell me your dog was a Baptist in the first place?! I didn’t know that!”
Over the years there have been a number of denominational barriers that have separated believers, and they need to be broken down.
In Luke chapter 9, beginning with verse 49, John said, “’Master, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us. ‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said, ‘for whoever is not against you is for you’” (vv. 49-50).
And many of us here have grown up in some kind of tradition in which we felt that we were the only ones who were going to go to heaven. We questioned the salvation of anybody who wasn’t a part of “our group.” And as a result, we alienate brothers and sisters in Christ, and we weaken the kingdom of God.
I grew up, as many of you did, in what is called the Restoration Movement, and it’s a great idea. The idea is just to go back to the simplicity of the New Testament, to restore biblical concepts, and not be bound by creed or past tradition. We ought to just speak where the Bible speaks and then be silent where the Bible is silent. But somehow many who grew up in this movement got the idea that you had to go to the Christian Church in order to go to heaven. Oh, they thought that some of you who came from the Church of Christ background had a chance to get in through the back door, but everybody else was out of here! Do you know what I mean?!
And many Christian Church ministers are so bias, especially in their first ministry, that they get real legalistic in their acceptance of those of other traditions. I know, because I was right in there at the same place during my first few years of ministry.
But there are two things that happened to me that changed me. One was exposure. I began to read, and to meet, some dedicated Christian people who were not part of “us.” And I had to admit that their knowledge of Scripture, and their dedication, were much greater than mine.
And secondly, I began to consider a slogan from our own movement that we had repeated for years but had never really put into practice. It says, “We are not the only Christians, but Christians only.”
Our spiritual forefathers never intended to start a dogmatic denomination. Their intent was to unify believers and to restore the New Testament teaching. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, “Father, sanctify my disciples into truth” (John 17:19). And, “Father, may they be united as I am one with you” (John 17:21). And I reached the conclusion that I could preach Christ without a spirit of arrogance that would alienate other believers. I discovered that there are some wonderful Christian brothers and sisters who are not a part of “our group,” and I can include them in my family circle without having to agree on every secondary doctrine. I can try and teach the way of Christ more adequately as I understand it, I can speak the truth in love, and then leave the judgement up to God.
Now it goes without saying that the essentials are non-negotiable! When it comes to the inspiration of the Bible, the atoning death of Christ, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the ultimate return of Jesus Christ to the earth, and so forth, those things are not up for grabs. But if other believers have to comply to my concepts of eternal security, and the millennium, and spiritual gifts, and a dozen other secondary doctrines, then I’m legalistic, prejudice, and divisive.
We’ve got a great slogan in our brotherhood that says: “In doctrine, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; and in all things, love.” And I believe the Christian world is hungry for a church where we speak the truth courageously, and yet we love people unconditionally. And God will honor that spirit in His church.
There are some exciting stories about the church’s role in Eastern Europe today. In fact, many Christian leaders who have visited there recently are convinced that the faithfulness of persecuted Christians has done more to transform Europe than just about any other factor.
Laszlo Tokes, for example, a minister in the Reformed Church of Romania, told a story that was reported in People magazine a while back. Tokes was under house arrest because his church was a hotbed of protest against a corrupt Ceauşescu government, a government that was later overthrown. But one day, Ceauşescu’s agents came to arrest Tokes when he was in his church. He went to the front door expecting to meet the police, but when he opened the front door, he saw a circle of Christian people arm in arm that just completely surrounded the church building—protecting him and prohibiting the agents from coming to arrest Laszlo Tokes.
Tokes said, “I thought of all my lifelong prejudices as a Reformed pastor. I looked out and I expected to see Reformed people, members of my church, but that’s not what I saw. I saw Reformed people, and Baptists, and Orthodox, and Catholics, and people of all faiths surrounding that church in a circle. And in that circle the Secret Police couldn’t penetrate it, even though they fired their bullets in and took the legs off one of the young men protecting the church. In that circle was standing the Body of Christ, standing regardless of differences of confession and denomination.”
And folks, that’s the kind of unity the world can’t prevail against. But if we denominate ourselves, then we make ourselves all the more vulnerable to the forces of atheism, and materialism, and secularism. And because of the awesome evil mounting its forces against the church today, I believe it’s imperative that we stand together with other believers. It’s time for evangelical, Bible-believing Christians to put aside those lifelong prejudices of denomination and creed and to stand together. Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand” (Matthew 12:25). But if we’ll stand for the essential truths of the Gospel and show tolerance in the areas of secondary doctrines, we can be strong against the forces of this world, and we can make an incredible impact on this community for truth and for Jesus Christ. But we must stand together and bear with one another in love.
I’m so excited about the potential impact of this church on our community! But, we’ve got to be willing to make the ground level at the foot of the cross to continue to be used of God—not just appeal to the rich or to the poor; not just appeal to the white or to the black; not just appeal to people who come from a Restoration Movement background, or to people from denominational backgrounds. But we must appeal to people who acknowledge, “We are sinful, and only in Christ can we be saved.”
First Church of Christ
July 19, 2020