In preaching through the second chapter of the book of James, we usually focus on faith and works in the second half of the chapter. However, the respect of persons which James deals with in the first nine verses is just as needful, and perhaps much more, in our own day. Faith and works is important, in fact it has been the water shed of differences between denominations and cults. But James’ pointed words regarding our own reaction to people who come into our church, or you might say, when the world comes to us, is crucial as well.
It is important to define what “respect of persons” means. We are generally right when we understand that it means we should have no partiality toward people, especially due to their outward appearance. Even more specifically in this passage, we should not prefer one person as a prospective member of the church over another because of what appears to be a better social or financial status. James presents the familiar picture of a rich man and a poor man coming into the church service (“Your assembly”) and the rich man receiving better treatment by the saints of God.
“Respect of persons” comes from a combination of the word for “face” and the word “to receive.” To respect one person over another is to receive his face above another, or, as A.T. Robertson put it, “to lift up the face on a person.”1 Douglas Moo says that “this word was invented by New Testament writers”2 because it is a rare word.
The word is used only four other places in the New Testament (Acts 10:34; Rom. 2:11; Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25) and in each place it refers to God as being without respect of persons either in salvation or in judgment. James is the only one to apply it to believers, obviously teaching that we are to be like our heavenly Father in this regard.
Douglas Moo also noted,
“But the Greek word here is plural—’acts of favoritism’ (NRSV)—and this makes clear that the prohibition has wide-ranging application. The OT repeatedly stresses that God himself is impartial, looking at the heart rather than at the outside of a person, and God’s people are to imitate him in this respect.”3
Therefore we always translate “respects (plural) of persons” which indeed does widen the meaning of the idea. There are many ways in which we show favoritism. We pass by a person without speaking; we look at a person with a suspicious look; we speak but quickly move away to other people. But we also laud over an obviously well-to-do person; we follow up more quickly on a large family; we might even change what we do in church to keep someone from not liking us.
Hypocrisy is a kind of respect of persons because in being hypocritical we are changing our own face in sight of someone else for our own gain. Pragmatism is a kind of respect of persons because we favor some people who can help us accomplish something, the end justifying the means thereby. So being a respecter of persons is a kind of hypocrisy wedded to pragmatism. We act in a way we shouldn’t in front of someone, with the purpose of using them for our own ends. No doubt James saw something like this going on in his own congregation of believers.
Our own history
As fundamental Baptists, we have often had our faults in this matter. Many of us remember the 60s and 70s when we boasted of the ten largest Sunday Schools in America, or when our churches were among the fastest growing churches in America. In fact, there was an ongoing contest among the churches to see who would be listed in such reports. Now, I certainly am not criticizing bigness as such. There is nothing inherently wrong in a big church or in a little church, just as there is nothing inherently wrong in being rich or poor. Either could be used for God’s glory and either can be used for selfishness. But I am remembering, as one who was trained in ministry at that time, that what we really wanted was to grow and we needed people as well as people’s money to do it. Even worse, we may have pushed for altar results simply for the record of it rather than for the rejoicing of sinners being saved.
I remember being a Bible College student (’68-’72) and fearing that if I left school to start or pastor a church, I might not grow fast enough and would be perceived as a failure by my peers or instructors. Those were the days of church growth seminars where one could learn the latest method of increasing the attendance and altar result cards. We all copied Jerry Falwell and Jack Hyles.
Those days are probably still with us to some degree, but I think we have learned that growth for growth’s sake isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There is a real hollowness in ministry when things are done by hypocrisy wedded to pragmatism. People just become numbers or offering envelopes. And I think our people felt it too. I believe it is good for us to have dropped off the cutting edge of church growth dynamics. We may not be in the news as much, but we are shepherding more than herding and I think pleasing God more.
The contemporary church
As fundamental churches decreased in numbers, evangelical churches took over. The 80s and the 90s were given to a seeker sensitive style of ministry where polls were used to find out what would make the world like us. The churches quickly became what was necessary to draw people. If they didn’t like church buildings, the look of the building was changed. If they didn’t like dressing up for church, everyone immediately became casual. Not just “poor” like the man in James chapter two, but perfectly casual. Casual with the most expensive casualness. Ironically, a coat and tie became as nadir as the hobo of the 50s. If you went like that, you were the one to whom no one spoke.
The worst show of the respect of persons was the target audience. Somehow a church determined who should be there and who shouldn’t, or at least whom they really wanted and whom they didn’t. James would call this a violation of the “royal law” (2:9). To not “love your neighbor as yourself” is to not love whoever is there, whoever comes in the door. The word is “kingly.” A king is supposed to love all of his subjects, and a church is supposed to love whoever comes in.
I might add to this that there was a certain part of this movement that encouraged churches to push aside (or out) the older people because they would not give a proper impression to the younger generation that the church was trying to attract. With their removal there was also the removal of their baggage: hymnals, choirs, coats and ties, etc. (and sadly their maturity).
Was not all of this (like the church-growth movement of the 60s and 70s) truly a way of being a respecter of persons? I think it was. Ministry was plastic, a façade, something performed for a certain effect. And that effect was success. It’s not that 100% of churches then or now were driven by these motives, but too many of them were.
Even newer churches
Somehow I can’t believe that the emergent churches and other new brands of believers are any better in their motives. Respecting persons is too much a part of human nature. For the postmodern church to simply criticize the older churches as being “modern” (i.e. molded by the modern, industrial, cookie-cutter age) and then to drop into the abyss of relativism, having no structure or stable values, is certainly no better. In fact, it is worse. The world will never adopt Christian principles on its own and to acquiesce to it in form and structure (or the lack thereof) is to respect the persons (the face) of the world in the worst way. To say that the postmodern age is better than the modern or pre-modern ages is to become what the world wants you to become for your own gain. It is to “lift up the face” to them in order to win them over.
If we simply witness the popular writers of this movement (McLaren, Bell) and what doctrines and interpretations they have adopted in order to draw the postmodern generation, we need look no further. The Bible is a human story, not an inspired record? Hell is within each lost person, not a real place to which they go when they die? To teach these things because the current generation will receive none other is to respect their faces too much.
I agree with those who say that culture is not morally neutral, and in fact is the incarnation of a person’s (society’s) religion. A thief steals because he believes it is right for him to do so. Even if those reasons are nefarious, he was forced into it by circumstances beyond his control. A liar tells a lie because for the moment it is necessary for him/her to do so. These things are moral convictions that come from a person’s world view. This is true for all of us. If we have a Biblical world view we will talk, think, and do those things that we really believe from the Bible. If those things are not Biblical, then we are hypocritical to say that we have a Christian world view. Our culture is the way it is because it is the outgrowth of what society really believes. Culture then is the incarnation of society’s belief system, good or bad.
It is human nature to respect persons. A lost person may be made in God’s image, but he/she is fallen, a sinner who does not seek after God by nature. Therefore, hypocrisy may become necessary for such a person to get ahead in this life. Pragmatism is a way of life that makes even good things to be mere means to an end. To respect persons in this manner is a way of life for the sinner, his culture, his real religion.
The respect of persons is seen in political campaigns in an unashamed fashion. Even as we now try to evaluate why the president won and the challenger lost, the answers from the pundits is that we didn’t “appeal” to certain social groups in the country. I don’t think there is any doubt that the president’s campaign was based on promising (once again) to give certain people whatever they want if they would vote for him. Sadly, moral issues and personal failures (especially as the Commander in Chief) don’t seem to matter to people if they get the things they want from the government. In other words, people are very willing to be the victims of this political respect of persons if it is an advantage to them. For political parties and candidates to pander to people this way, to study the details of what will persuade them, and then to form a campaign and administration based on that is respect of persons at its worst.
The most prominent New Testament command from our Lord is to love one another. But this is like the commands to think right, it is plain but it is easier said than done. We almost instinctively play favorites with people we know. We must pray that the Lord will give us a genuine love of the brethren and a genuine interest (if not love) for the lost world around us. Let us practice the royal law of loving whoever comes in the door. After all, we spend millions going to all parts of the world, so we ought to be good ambassadors when the world comes to us.
Let’s let the Lord build the church. I think I say that with the understanding of our great responsibility in the gospel outreach. I don’t mean that in a cold, uncaring way. I mean, let’s love all the brethren and let’s love them because they are brethren and not because they are some advantage to us. Likewise, with those we meet who need Christ.
At the same time, we must not let the world dictate to us the terms of the gospel. That would be to respect their person more than to respect God’s own Word. If that costs us converts, so be it, it didn’t really cost anything because those would have been our own converts, not the Holy Spirit’s. We must give the gospel to everyone but we will not win every one. That is Biblical too.
Let’s not trick people into coming to church. Let the cults tell people one thing and then reveal the reality to them later. Paul told Philemon that the communication of his faith would become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing that was in him in Christ Jesus (Phile. 6). Let’s be real. Say everything we are, do what believers do in church, put our name on the door, and don’t be ashamed or let our faces change because someone who doesn’t have the Spirit may not understand. Rather, let us begin to show them what the real love of God is.
And so . . . .
Perhaps we could say with Isaac Watts of old in Psalm 48,
Far as thy name is known,
The world declares thy praise;
Thy saints, O Lord, before thy throne,
Their songs of honour raise.
With joy let Judah stand
On Sion’s chosen hill,
Proclaim the wonders of thy hand,
And counsels of thy will.
Let strangers walk around
The city where we dwell,
Compass and view thine holy ground,
And mark the buildings well;
The orders of thy house,
The worship of thy court,
The cheerful songs, the solemn vows,
And make a fair report.
How decent and how wise!
How glorious to behold!
Beyond the pomp that charms the eyes,
And rites adorn’d with gold.
The God we worship now
Will guide us till we die,
Will be our God while here below,
And ours above the sky.4
Notes: 1. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. vi (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1933) 29. 2. Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 102. 3. Moo, 102. 4. The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997) 85.