We've recently started a new series in the letter of James. James is writing to "the Dispersion" (1v1) - a group of believers who had been scattered from their homes because of persecution. They had left everything, and now were poor and vulnerable to exploitation.
In chapter one, James writes about wisdom and having a faith that is visible. James now begins chapter 2 by stating that there should be no favouritism within a church community.
What situation is James dealing with? The wealthy were being given preferential treatment regarding seating (2v1-3). The message being given was: "If you look pretty neat, you get a good seat. If you look pretty poor, you sit on the floor!"
James initially deals with this favouritism by giving the church a God's eye view of things. He has already done this in chapter 1 verses 9-10. Now he reminds the church that God has chosen the poor to be heirs of the kingdom (2v5). By discriminating against these poor Christians, they were making judgments contrary to God's judgments - hence James describes them as "judges with evil thoughts". Their thoughts were evil because they were contrary to God's thoughts.
Within a church community, Christians are to treat each other as members of a spiritual family. It isn't appropriate to give some a warm welcome, and others a cold shoulder. In the church James is writing to, favouritism was related to social status, but there can be many other causes.
Sometimes we overlook people because they're needy, just like the disciples who wanted to send away the hungry crowds (Matthew 14v15). Sometimes we tut at those who are noisy, just like the disciples who wanted to stop mothers bringing their little children to Jesus (Mark 10v13).
Sometimes we treat believers differently based on their theological slants. Perhaps they like songs we don't like, or they wear something on Sunday we don't like, or they raise their hands during corporate worship, or they never raise their hands during corporate worship. For whatever reason, we think that we have an appropriate excuse to stop treating them as a brother or sister in Christ.
Sometimes we give some believers preferential treatment over others because they've been in the church for longer, or because they belong to a certain family. I remember hearing a minister, in a public meeting, referring to "the core membership" of the church. There was the membership, and then within that was a "core membership": what some might call the "inner circle".
There are many reasons why we might start to think it is acceptable to show favouritism. But James says it is never appropriate within a church family.
Of course, not showing favouritism does not mean treating everyone in the same way all the time. First, we are to show discernment in regard to people's gifts. The church is a body made of different parts - there are Holy Spirit-intended ways we are meant to be different. The apostle Paul writes that if we say that all Christians are basically the same, there is a sense in which the church ceases to exist! (1 Cor.12v17)
James himself writes that "not many of you should be teachers" (3v1). In other words, only a few are meant to have that level of spiritual responsibility within the church. It is appropriate for us to discern where people's gifts do or do not lie.
Secondly, it is appropriate to discern different needs in the church, and treat people differently in that respect. For example, James tells us that true religion is not to visit everyone, but to visit "widows and orphans in their distress" (1v27). In Acts 4v34-35, those who are wealthy give more than others, and what they give is not distributed evenly among the church, but to those who had greatest need.
So, we are not to show favouritism, but we are to be discerning in the area of gifts and needs. In the church that James is writing to, it is clear that everyone equally needed a seat, and should therefore have been treated equally.
But why does favouritism matter so much? Aren't there more important issues to worry about than seating?
James doesn't think so. He writes that it breaks a law that is as important as royalty - "love your neighbour as yourself" (2v8-10). Jesus clearly teaches that we are to treat all people as our neighbours, both the people we live next to and the people we would never live next to! Favouritism breaks this law, and that is significant. Sin has a rippling effect, and breaking one law is like breaking them all (2v10).
The big problem with favouritism is that it undermines the gospel message. It implies that salvation isn't for all kinds of people. The gospel teaches us that we must come to God as we are. Favouritism teaches that we have to reach a certain standard before we can enter the inner circle or join the "core membership".
The challenge for the church is clear. It's true that the church is a community where people make friends. However, more importantly that that, the church is a community where God grows a family.
We have to lay aside our personal preferences. You are not to love and serve your brother or sister because they are from the right background or because they have the same theological leanings or because your personality clicks with their's. You are to love and serve them because Christ first loved and served them by giving his life for them. He did that "while we were still sinners" (Rom.5v8) - we did not win his approval. Instead, we were won by his grace.
Jesus gives the same welcome to all who trust in him - none are ever turned away (John 6v37). How can we judge differently to our Lord?