James 2:1–13 Favouritism Is Forbidden

David Eastwood has served for thirty-one years in Taiwan with OMF International. During that time, his ministry has included Bible teaching, preaching, and church planting, and, for the last eight years, he has served as the Field Director. David initially trained at All Nations Christian College in the UK but has since completed further studies with Singapore Bible College and Spurgeon’s College in the UK. He is studying for a Doctorate in Practical Theology with the Cambridge Theological Federation, investigating the experiences of the Taiwanese working class as they become part of a local church.


Mission Round Table Vol. 18:1 (Jan-Jun 2023):  4-7
To download a PDF of this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 18:1.

1 My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

5 Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? 7 Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?

8 If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. 9 But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. 11 For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (NIV)

In an online conference that I listened to recently, Lusa Nsenga-Ngoy, currently the Bishop of Willesden, was speaking about how mission needs to confront the symbols of imperialism and colonialism in Western countries.[1] He said some words that resonated very much with my own research interests. He described how that at the heart of the colonial mentality was the ascribing of worth to individuals based on categories to which they belong. These categories affect how one relates to self, the other, and the world. “De-colonisation is the undoing of an approach that ascribes intrinsic value to self and not the other. It is a desecration of the image of God in humanity. This is both a theological and missiological task of the church.” This caught my attention because my own research focus is on social class in Taiwan and how hierarchies of value leading to social inequalities of power are maintained even within churches. I had found myself using the very same language about social class as people use in the discussion of racism. I also find I am dealing with a similar problem, because a lot of the values and ways of looking at people are so tied up with culture and identity and so unacknowledged as personal choices, that many are unaware of their bias or prejudice. If they are Christians, they may even fervently deny its existence and maintain that they love dearly the people that they are, in fact, marginalising.

This passage of Scripture in James is powerful in that it challenges us both at the level of action and deeper levels of our values and even our source of self-identity. This is the first of the so-called Catholic or General Epistles, a letter not written to a named church. The context of this passage, Chapter 1, has been James’ definition of “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless” (1:27). In Chapter 1, he has stated clearly that this religion is not merely an intellectual acceptance of Christian teaching, but one that leads to self-examination (1:23–25), self-control (1:26), and practical demonstrations of love to those with obvious needs, such as widows and orphans. James is concerned that his readers should not be merely those who listen to the word, but who do what it says (1:22). He is not proposing a salvation by works—in fact, he is going much deeper than surface behaviour. Just as the evil desires of our sinful nature give birth to sin which leads to death (1:14–15), so, in contrast, it is the word of God through which God gives us birth to a new life in Christ. As we accept God’s word, he plants it within us, and this brings about our salvation. For James, this living faith, which brings about both self-understanding of the sinful nature and freedom from bondage, is demonstrated by self-control of the tongue (1:26), the exercising of compassion towards society’s marginalised, and keeping oneself from being polluted by the world (1:27).

The next section (2:1–13), by including as an example of how the church can so easily adopt the standards of the world in the context of social inequality, shows that James is continuing his definition of how he expects to see the church demonstrating that the law—the word of God—has been planted inside. He wants their “religion” to reflect a true relationship with God in Christ and not merely reflect religious cultural practice, superstition, or membership of a self-serving community created for the benefit of its participants.

There are lots of debates about both the authorship of James and if the recipients are Jewish background believers (as suggested by the opening address) or just Christians in general,[2] but James addresses his audience as “Brothers” (1:3, 19 and 2:1). In doing so, he is not speaking of some common humanity—the brotherhood of mankind based on God’s creation. As true as that is, it is also true that such equality is damaged and threatened by the sin that has tainted both individuals and also human cultures and social structures. James is speaking of an even more important truth: that it is the brotherhood and sisterhood which all people experience when they, through faith in Christ, become children of God. This family relationship makes meaningless the negative dividing values that sinful humans attach to class, culture, and race.

The language of this first verse in Chapter 2 is a bit complex. In it, James is urging his readers not to show favouritism—prejudice. And he reminds them of their faith in “our Lord Jesus Christ—the Glorious.” Translators are not too sure what the word “glory” applies to here.[3] Is it the Lordship of Christ or the person of Christ? It certainly makes us ponder that when God the Son chose to leave the glory of heaven and make his dwelling among fallen humanity, he chose a very inglorious incarnation by the world’s standards. A glory clothed in a humble appearance.

James has chosen a very interesting case study to move his readers to examine themselves to see just how much they have allowed the word of God to transform them inwardly—because he is challenging them about their attitudes towards others. Literally the “other”, the person different to themselves. And this is something to which the Scriptures speak directly. The very word used—prejudice, favouritism, partiality, respect of persons[4]—is one Paul uses a few times (cf. Rom 2:11; Eph 6:9; Col 3:25) to assert that God does not show favouritism when it comes to racial or social divisions. The equivalent word is frequently used in the Old Testament as a term linked to legal cases—so much so that some scholars have proposed the assembly James is talking of here is some kind of church court rather than just a worship meeting.[5]

“They shall show you the sentence of judgment.” Deuteronomy 17:9, David Paul Frederick Hardy (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s look at two verses from the Old Testament.

In Deuteronomy 1:17, Moses charges the Judges he appointed to share the burden of leadership.

Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of anyone, for judgment belongs to God.

“Both small and great” here is speaking of social power and is a warning against being intimidated when it comes to the exercising of justice because the basis and authority for judgement is not derived from the human realm: “judgment belongs to God.” Another really interesting verse is Leviticus 19:15, where the Lord’s words to Moses were:

Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favouritism to the great but judge your neighbour fairly.

Not only does God warn Moses against favouritism towards those in power, he also warns him against a reverse favouritism. This is something to take note of in our current age. The way to reverse prejudice and injustice is not a reverse form of prejudice or injustice against those who have benefited from it in the past. As tempting as it may be to want to reverse the results of injustice that way, the old adage is true that two wrongs do not make a right! And that is especially true if those wrongs are at the surface level and there is no change in people’s hearts.

James wants to expose our worldly value systems that we may either be unconscious of or in denial of, and the illustration that he gives is a timeless one because we can imagine this scenario working out in any age and in our churches today. The well-dressed businessman pulls up to the church in his BMW wearing his smart suit, handmade shoes, and Rolex watch. The unkempt, poor man with cheap, soiled clothes, and greasy hair walks into the church. We know the relevance of this challenge to each of us. And if we are honest with ourselves, it is a valid challenge.

We are so conscious of the need to not be prejudiced with regard to ethnicity that it is easy to convince ourselves that we are not prejudiced against others. Last year, when I was visiting a church in London, I noticed a black couple who were visiting. Though it was a large London church, the congregation was still mostly white. I wouldn’t have known the couple were visitors except a steward came up and handed them a visitor’s card as they sat down. So, when it came to the end of the service, I found myself thinking, “I hope someone goes and speaks to them. I wouldn’t want them to think they were not welcome in the church.” And after the service, I noticed that no one was speaking to them and so I made a point of doing so. Afterwards, I found myself considering why had I particularly thought about their colour, and whether I would have done the same if they had been white? And was my concern more with welcoming them or more embarrassment at the lack of welcome from the other church members? These were good questions to ponder, but either way I was sure that I genuinely wanted them in church and wanted them to be welcomed. But what if the visitor had been a smelly, unkempt, homeless guy? Would I have been as concerned and as welcoming?

The church in London was mainly upper middle-class professionals. You have to be well off to live in London. But the church in James’ day was mainly made up of people from poorer backgrounds and even included slaves. If a rich and affluent person walked into the church, their reaction would not only reflect how they valued that person but also perhaps reflect how they valued themselves within society.

James, in asserting that it is wrong for “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” to show favouritism, is asserting that Christians must hold to a different scale of values than those of the world. If we do not, James asks in verse 4, “have you not discriminated among yourselves?” The word translated “discriminated” or “divided”—diakrinethai—is not active but passive, so a better translation might be: “are you not discriminated (divided) among yourselves.”[6] This seems to suggest the church is divided among themselves as regards the treatment of rich and poor. This also suggests that James is not entirely speaking about a hypothetical situation but possibly what he has seen happening in the church. We should not be surprised at this, as Paul also criticises the church in Corinth over how similar divisions had ruined their love feasts (1 Cor 11:21–22). The sin here is judgement—judgement of the worth and value of others—and James says it comes from “evil thoughts.” This is the same word used in 1:6 to describe doubting in contrast to believing. There, it refers to an inner conflict—someone who is in conflict between their loyalties to God and the world. Here, in 2:4, it is again used to reflect a wavering between the values and priorities of God and those of the world. James warns his readers in 1:8 and 4:8 of the dangers of being “double minded”, failing to serve and obey God wholeheartedly because we are wavering between adopting the values of the world and the priorities of God. The “double-minded” Christian (1:7) is one who “fails to love and obey Christ wholeheartedly” and “such a mind is evidenced by the different treatment given to visitors along the lines of social class.”[7]

Ancient Corinth – George E. Koronaios, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The illustration would be equally true if the root of the discrimination had been nationality or race. Except James goes on in verse 5 to point out that, in fact, the church is made up of the very people that they are looking down upon. It is mainly from the poor in the world’s eyes that God has chosen those who will inherit the kingdom (2:5). By insulting this person who they perceived as poorer than themselves, they are reflecting the values of the very people who oppress and take advantage of them. In unduly honouring the rich man, they are doing so to someone who comes from the class that is exploiting them. Some scholars feel these may be Jewish money lenders who, on becoming Christians, felt released from laws preventing them from extorting interest from fellow Jews or taking them to court.[8]

The details are not so important as the root of the problem—that the church is reflecting the world’s hierarchy based on power. Fawning over the rich, adopting or living as if you have adopted the values of the world, either to gain favour with the powerful or to avoid being associated with the marginalised, is a cowardly compromise of the gospel, a failure to trust in God. It is not so much a change of belief, but rather a failure to let that belief work out in your life so that you end up damaging the way the gospel is presented to the world. How often has the church been guilty of demonstrating prejudice by practice or failure to act while publicly claiming that the gospel values all people and that Christ shows no prejudice based on race, gender, or social status?

In my studies of the latest thinking about social class, I found that it is hard to define the term “working class” in the modern academic environment. The classical Marxist definition of the working class being the producers in contrast to the owners of capital has largely disappeared with the arrival of post-Industrial societies. Despite the existence of a group of scholars who want to announce the death of class in postmodern society, class identity can still be seen, though there is little sense of class consciousness.[9]

A newer generation of class theorists have changed the scope and analytical framework of class analysis, including social and cultural factors other than just economics.[10] They focus instead on individualised hierarchical differentiation, suggesting that individuals define their identity based on relational comparisons with people around them. People subconsciously construct unconscious hierarchies that can create feelings of shame or superiority, which can oppress others or hand power over to them.

Hierarchy is decisive in shaping our opportunities and our sense of ourselves and others, but there is not always a reflective awareness of it. It is something we just accept as normal. It reflects the thinking that being a doctor is better than being a plumber, that owning a new car is better than owning an old one, that a certain accent, way of dressing, even choice of diet or supermarket makes a person seem “better”. People’s lack of awareness of hierarchy is because the activities that produce the hierarchy are “so ubiquitous and mundane that they are often not intended or experienced as [class] conflict or struggle.”[11] Instead, we just experience them as “the way things are.” The results of our ordinary everyday activities are the continuations of inequality, but because these ordinary activities generate this inequality, it is hard to eradicate. Hierarchy is produced simply by the values and behaviours that are a part of our daily lives and social inequality is reproduced without any conscious attempt to do so.

If that is true, and I think to some extent it is, then it describes the way in which the world, made up of sinful people living in sin-soaked environments, infuses our minds with ways of thinking about both ourselves and others that are not from God and don’t reflect God’s values. That is why it is so hard to eradicate not just class prejudice but any prejudice. Even when we try our best to do so, even if we genuinely try in our minds to love our neighbour as ourselves (Jas 2:8), and we understand that “neighbour” crosses social and cultural barriers, we can still fail, because we unconsciously listen to the world. We are double minded with double standards, and when we stumble at even one point, we have failed to keep God’s law.

So where does that leave us? In verse 12, James tells us it leaves us as convicted sinners before the mercy seat of God—knowing we are deserving of the full wrath of God and yet knowing also that mercy will triumph over judgement. James will go on to argue that it should leave us with a determination to show the love that our minds tell us we should have for our neighbour in practical demonstrations of care (chapter 2) and careful control of our tongues (chapter 3). He will warn us to shun friendship with the world and submit ourselves to God.

How often do we engage in self-reflection about our values and our ways of looking at others to see if they are a product of our environment or interaction with others? How often, instead of affirming to ourselves that we are not prejudiced against others, do we actually take practical steps to show to ourselves and others that this is actually the case? When we change our interactions with people, we actually genuinely challenge the hierarchical views that we may subconsciously be repressing in our hearts and minds.

When I was a new Christian, I would have affirmed that God loves all people regardless of race or class. But living with people of other races—spending time listening to and showing care for working class people in Taiwan—is what genuinely challenged my inner prejudices.

Paul gives us a good guide for challenging the unconscious values that James says make us double minded, discriminated, or divided not only among ourselves but within ourselves. Paul says in Romans 12:1–2:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Allowing God to slowly purge us of the prejudices and favouritism—the heretical view of others that the world has infused into our subconscious—that is an act of worship!


[1] The British and Irish Association for Practical Theology (Mission Studies Special Interest Group), “Mission, Race and Colonialism,” 26 May 2021.

[2] Ralph P. Martin, James, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 5–11, J. A. Motyer, The Message of James, Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: IVP, 1985), 17–24.

[3] Martin, James, 60.

[4]  Prosōpolēmpsíais, προσωπολημψίαις.

[5] Motyer, The Message of James, 82; Martin, James, 59.

[6] Martin, James, 63.

[7] Martin, James, 63.

[8] Martin, James, 66.

[9] Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters, The Death of Class (London: SAGE, 1996).

[10] See, for example, Wendy Bottero “Class Identities and the Identity of Class,” Sociology 38, no. 5 (December 2004): 985–1003.

[11] Bottero, “Class Identities and the Identity of Class,” 994–5.

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