There is a sin that is often overlooked, ignored, or unseen. It can take many forms, affect many different sorts of people, and be called by many names. In James 2, it is called the sin of partiality.
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? … If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (Jm. 2:1-4, 8-10)
The kind of partiality referred to here isn’t the kind that just prefers steak over chicken. Partiality is a result of judging others and doing so unfairly. Like two sides of a coin, this partiality involves both loving and hating. James is specifically speaking about how people are treated when they enter into the presence of God with other believers. The assembly he writes to was showing favoritism to the rich while treating the poor with disdain as if they were inferior. They were making a distinction among themselves: a distinction that was evil and sinful. They were holding the faith in partiality, showing favoritism, and thus judging in a manner inconsistent with the faith they held.
Holding the Faith Impartially
This is sinful in God’s eyes because showing partiality is hating your neighbor, one of the two fundamental laws of God. More than that, however, it goes against the very gospel faith the assembly claims to hold to. The whole point of Christ’s kingdom ministry and work on the cross was to widen the doors of the assembly, to break down the barriers that once surrounded Israel, and to welcome any who believe, whether rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, male or female (Gal. 3:28). Before Christ, God’s covenant was ethnically specific. But now, because of Christ, all who believe in him “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). Furthermore, when Christ sent his apostles out into the world, he sent them to every nation (Matt. 28: 16-20).
This gospel does not make distinctions. It does not judge some to be superior and others to be inferior. God’s grace is not selective based on race or gender or any other criteria (Rom. 2:11; 3:22). If you are a sinner (as all are), then you are not only able to enter the house of God, but you need to enter the house of God. All are in need of the justifying work of Jesus Christ that saves.
The assembly of believers—the church today—is called to be the visible expression of that grace, love, and salvation made possible by the death and resurrection of Christ. When it fails, the church has stopped reflecting the impartial gospel of Jesus Christ, making Jesus look bad to the world. If God shows no partiality in whom he saves, then his people, called to image his grace and mercy to the world, are called to be impartial, too.
How Is Partiality Shown Today?
Haven’t we all done this to one another at some point in our lives, judging others not according to gospel grace but according to our own selfish ideals? Partiality, unfortunately, can sneak into our words and actions in both bold and subtle ways. It often forms the choices we make, particularly who we talk to and prefer to hang out with or, more obviously, in demanding people that who are different from you conform to your ethnic customs, traditions, and other non-biblical aspects of Christian life. It can manifest more overtly in pursuing with the gospel people of a certain race while excluding other races from evangelistic efforts. Recent events in America have cast a light on the racism of many people who claim to hold to the Christian faith. This is the sin of partiality at work. Even among mono-ethnic churches, racism, cliques, and bias based on a number of factors can go unchecked, influencing the life of the assembly.
Whatever it is, we Christians need to help one another stay away from the sin of partiality. The particularity of this sin is that it is very easy for whole groups to fall into a partiality mindset. Like the cliques in schools or racism of nations, the sin of partiality is often shared and shown by groups of people rather than individuals, and when a group is characterized by partiality it is all too easy for members of that group to turn a blind eye to their individual exclusion to stay in favor with the group.
Hope for Tomorrow
There is no doubt that this is a difficult sin to confront and fight, but this fight is not hopeless. We fight it not in our own strength but in the strength of the Holy Spirit who is given to help us (Heb. 4:16, 13:6). If we find ourselves guilty of this sin, rest assured that forgiveness and reconciliation—with God and others—are ours in Christ Jesus. If we come before him in repentance, he is always faithful to forgives us, to receive us, and to grant us the grace to continue growing in imaging him (1 Jn. 1:9; Rom. 8:29).
Christians, of all people, have no fear of condemnation or judgment when we repent. In fact, we have the liberty to repent daily because God’s forgiveness in Christ is lavishly abundant, extravagantly overflowing. Jesus is the way for us to escape the darkness and hopelessness of evil and to be joined to his body that forms the beloved community. Here we have the freedom to repent as many times as we sin and to be conduits of grace to one another, reminding each other of the beautiful gospel God gives us impartially.