For the last several Lord’s Days I have been meditating on James 2:14 (and the surrounding context). I have been thinking about what James said to the largely Jewish congregation in Jerusalem. I think of James as a New Testament counterpart to the minor prophets of the Old Testament. For much of the epistle he was preaching the law to the congregation. He sought to convict them of their sins and to provoke them to repentance and faith and I think it has a direct analogy to how to think about race/ethnicity in the church. James 2:14 is at the heart of his message to the congregation but it comes in a larger context.
The noun that he uses in v. 14 (προσωπολημψία) may be translated as favoritism or partiality. It will help us to understand what James was saying to the Jerusalem congregation and what the Holy Spirit is saying to us now if we consider this word in its broader New Testament context. Paul uses it in Romans 2:11, “there is no partiality with God” as he explains the covenant of works and the judgment that falls upon all those who are not perfectly righteous before God. In short, God will judge both Jews and Gentiles. In Ephesians 6, as Paul explains the consequent obligations of the Christian life, the implications of the moral law for those who have been saved by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), he speaks to the social relations that existed in the Ancient Greco-Roman world in which the Christians then lived. Slaves had to obey their masters (6:5) sincerely, not merely outwardly, as if to God. Christian masters were obliged to treat their servants graciously, knowing that there is no partiality with God (6:9). As Paul explained what he meant in Colossians 3:11, when he said that ethnic and national distinctions no longer determine the identity of the Christian, in 3:25 he made the same argument as in Ephesians 6:9.
As we have seen, Paul grounded his denunciation of partiality in his doctrine of God. Christians may not show partiality, i.e., they may not show more favor or kindness to one ethnic group over another, in his doctrine of God. God has redeemed both Jew and Gentile, and among the Gentiles, from a variety of different groups, sola gratia, sola fide. There is no Scythian or Barbarian. Christ’s free favor toward sinners does not distinguish between social and economic classes. He shows grace to wealthy sinners and to the poorest of sinners. He shows undeserved favor to those who are servants and to those who have servants. In Christ, the distinction between the sexes, as important as that was in the Greco-Roman world, is transcended by grace. In Christ, men and women receive the same favor. Anyone, male or female, Jew or Gentile, who is in Christ, sola gratia, sola fide is Abraham’s seed (Gal 3:28). We all receive the same baptismal water signifying what is true of believers and the inclusion of the baptized into the visible covenant community. In Christ there is one justification and one salvation. We are being sanctified by the same Holy Spirit. We, who are in Christ, will in the same new heavens and earth. God also condemns, without partiality, all those who are outside of Christ. It is not as if a Jew may say to God, “but I am biologically related to Abraham.” Jews and Gentiles who are outside of Christ will be in the same hell.
The context for James 2 begins in James 1:22: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (ESV). The one who merely hears but does not do the Word has not actually been changed by the Word. It has had no effect. It is the one who does what the law requires who actually believes what he has heard, i.e., the law and the gospel—more on this below. The one who acts (v. 25) is blessed in the doing. “Pure religion” (θρησκεία καθαρὰ—please stop juxtaposing religion with true faith) entails two things: 1) caring for orphans and widows; 2) keeping “oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).
True faith also forbids showing favoritism or partiality (προσωπολημψία). Just as we hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, we refuse to show partiality. What does that mean? James explains in vv.2–3: if an obviously rich man enters the assembly and we treat him well and then treat an obviously poor man ill, that is partiality. In doing so, we have made the same distinction that pagans make. We are not pagans. We do not relate to other Christians, in the church (assembly) on the basis of appearance or works. Why would a Christ-professor treat a rich man well but a poor man ill? Because he thinks he has something to gain from the rich man but he has nothing to gain from the poor man. He is not looking at both men as humans made in God’s image, as those for whom Christ died, but as objects. This is what people mean by a “transactional” relationship. In such a relationship we ask, “what can I get from this relationship?” or “What is in it for me?” Now that we are in Christ, however, “we regard no one according to the flesh…” (2 Cor 5:16a). In Christ we now recognize that the poor man and the rich man are both made in God’s image, that both who profess Christ are to be regarded as those for whom Christ died (1 Cor 8:11). When we disregard the poor man, in favor of the rich, that is favoritism. We have reduced a brother in Christ to an object from whom we hope to gain something material (or social etc.) or not. It is demeaning to both the rich and the poor. The image of someone saying to an obvious poor person, in the congregation, “You stand over there” or “sit at my feet” is almost beyond belief except that it happened and it continues to happen.
James does not relent. In v.4 he prosecutes the congregation, “have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” He is speaking to motive or intent. The “evil thoughts” are evil intentions. In this case one has said to another human and a brother in the Lord, “you are a lesser person.” He has reduced the humanity of the poor person. Yet James is incredulous because partiality does not even account for the way things really are. God has graciously chosen those who are materially poor, not because the are poor—election is unconditional for the poor and the rich—to become “rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom…”(v. 5). It is believers who are truly rich, not as the world judges riches but as God counts them. We who believe are heirs of kingdom of God. Dives, the rich man (Luke 16:19ff.) had everything this world offers but what did he have in death? The poor who believe in Jesus have everything even though, in this life, they have little. The rich, James reminds the congregation, and they who “oppress you and drag you into court…” (v.6). They blaspheme the name of Jesus. Why are you so solicitous of them, then, when they deign to enter the assembly? Our priorities become confused, do they not?
The “royal law,” in the second table of the Ten Commandments, requires us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8; Matt 22:39). When we do that, we do well. When we show favoritism, we are “committing sin” (v.9) and the law rightly convicts us as a transgressor. The implication is that the Jerusalem congregation was guilty of this very thing. It is near impossible to think that James did not see someone say to a rich man, “sit here” and to a poor one, “You sit over there.” He was furious with righteous anger. The Jerusalem congregation thought of itself as righteous but James takes them to court, as it were, to remind them that when the commit the sin of partiality, which might not have seemed like a great thing, they have become liable to all the law (vv. 10–11). The same God who said “do not commit adultery” etc. also forbids partiality, which is a denial of the 2nd table of the law specifically and all of the law generally (v. 10). We are to regard one another and act as those who are “to be judged under the law of liberty.” Wilhelmus a Brakel (1635–1711) argued that that Adam, in the covenant of works, was under the law as a “perfect law of liberty.”1 Now, he says, that we are in Christ, the law becomes again a “perfect law of liberty” contra the antinomians who set the Holy Spirit against the moral law:
Objection #8: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). We are thus under no obligation to the law whatsoever, for if one were still under obligation to the law, he would still be subject to the yoke of bondage. Then his activity would still be of a forced and compulsory nature. One is now free, however, and everything is performed out of love.
Answer: (1) The Spirit was also present in the Old Testament, and thus there was also liberty at that time. Liberty is therefore not a privilege of the New Testament.
(2) Freedom is not Belial, that is, to be without a yoke, for then you would be free from the law of Christ; then freedom would mean to live according to your own wishes and to be left to fend for yourself. Instead, freedom here means to be free from the covenant of works, the curse, the condemning power of the law, and a state of slavery. In such a condition they once were, and all still are, who are without the Spirit. To have liberty is to be free from the ceremonial law. To do something out of love and at the same time according to the law is not contradictory. The yoke of Christ is light and His burden is delightful, because the believer greatly desires it. They love the law which demands love, and it is therefore their meditation all the day. The law is a law of liberty; it is freedom to live according to that law. Even a pagan says: “Only that is true freedom when one is obedient to the authorities and the law.” Freedom is thus to live according to the law out of love and to be delivered from the dominion of sin.2
We who are in Christ are no longer under condemnation. The moral law (the Ten Commandments), is the standard of our conduct. We who have been redeemed desire to love God and our neighbor because God first loved us. If we want to act as those who are under the law for our standing with God, then the law is “pitiless” or “merciless” but “mercy trumps judgment” (v. 13).
After all, “what profit is it, my brothers” (remember, he is speaking to Christ-confessors in the Jerusalem congregation) “if one says he has faith but has no works? Is it possible for such a faith to save him?” (v. 14). These are rhetorical questions. James is not teaching that works save nor is he teaching that a faith made real (formed) by love or works saves. Christ saves through faith alone. By metonymy, a rhetorical device whereby one thing is said to be another, he imputes salvation to faith. A workless faith, if you will, does not save because it is no faith at all. It is not that works make faith or “form it” (as the medievals and the Romanists say) but that a true faith, a living faith, will necessarily produce the fruit of good works. The sort of “faith” that says it believes but shows no evidence is profitless because it is not true faith.
True faith sees a brother or a sister, a fellow Christ-confessor, who is in want (James says, “naked and lacking in daily food;” v. 15) and seeks to clothe and feed them. The Christian response to the poor in the congregation is not to shove them to one side in favor of the rich but to include them in the richest possible way. Just as Christ loved us poor sinners and made us rich by grace alone, through faith alone, so too ought we to share what we have with our poor brothers and sister so that they are no longer naked and hungry. Remember, he is speaking to the congregation about the congregation. These are fellow Christ-confessors who are wanting. If the congregation should send a needy brother or sister away saying, “Go in peace. Be warmed and filled” without having given them what they need for the body, what sort of faith is that? (v. 16). This, of course, is a rhetorical question expecting a negative answer: this is no faith at all or this reveals the absence of true faith. This just what James concludes in v. 17. A faith that does not produce good works is dead. It is no faith at all.
One of great difficulties for everyone confronting the problem of racism is the shifting definition. There are two widely-used, competing definitions of racism current and my experience is that which one is used depends largely on age. People of my generation (and before) were taught one set of definitions, which, until last very recently were widely accepted. Christine Hauser of the New York Times explains:
Merriam-Webster is revising its entry on racism after intense lobbying by a recent college graduate in Missouri inspired by the protests and debates about what it means to be racist.
Currently, the dictionary’s entry contains three sections. The first defines racism as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
The second calls it a “doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles” and “a political or social system founded on racism.” The third section refers to “racial prejudice or discrimination.”
As a working definition, most of us have thought and spoken of racism in the first or third sense (which seem substantively identical) though, as the editor of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary notes, there has always been a systemic aspect to the definition. In response to a correspondent (which is how entries sometimes change, see the fascinating history of Oxford English Dictionary), they are revising the entry to clarify and expand the second definition.
“We will make the idea of systemic or institutional racism even more explicit in the wording of the definition,” he said. One way to do that, he said, would be to use more examples, such as describing the system of apartheid in South Africa.
To those two or three aspects of the definition, there is a widely used, working definition which uses the word to mean something like “a system that oppresses any group, even if unintentional.”
On interesting feature of this definition is that does not even refer to race. It refers to “power structures,” “victims,” and “oppressors.” In this view of things there is a system composed of oppressors and victims. The victims might be ethnic minorities or sexual minorities, including heretofore unknown sexes, e.g., transgendered persons. This revision obviously revolutionizes the the definition of racism.
There are Millennials (born in 1981 and after) and Zoomers (born in 1996 and after) have apparently learned only this last definition. I have had repeated conversations with young people of the Millennial generation who know only this definition and seem entirely unaware of the older definitions.
By this definition, anyone who supports the current system, which, in the third (not yet formalized) definition, is a “racist.” What is meant is “oppressor.” What those who learned the older set of definitions hear is, “you hate racial minorities.” This helps understand why they toss around the political, cultural, social, and verbal hand grenade “racism” and “racist” as if it were self-evident. To them it is. They have been taught to see the world as composed of good people who are opposed to oppression and bad people who support and/or facilitate it.
The question of definition is further complicated by the argument that the very category of race as it has come to be used in the modern period, is itself an arbitrary construct. Of course there is a human race. On that we all seem to be agreed. Is there an African race or an African-American or black race? That is a reasonable question. As Angela Onwuachi-Willig, says, “There is no gene or cluster of genes common to all blacks or all whites. Were race “real” in the genetic sense, racial classifications for individuals would remain constant across boundaries.” There certainly are, however, different nations, different cultures, and different ethnicities. Sociologists and ethnologists distinguish between Caucasians, Asians, etc. If race does not really exist, then “racism,” is a highly problematic charge. In the absence of race as a category, being charged with racism is like being charged with hating Mickey Mouse. Both are fictions.
So, setting aside the category of race, we should agree there can be a systemic aspect to ethnic discrimination and prejudice. Slavery was a system. Jim Crow was a system. Apartheid was a system. They were instituted by laws. They were upheld by government policy and enforcement. What do people mean by “systemic racism” (i.e., systemic ethnic discrimination) in post-Jim-Crow America? It seems to me that, in this context, systemic means widespread. It also seems to refer to, unconscious assumptions and biases. When a prosperous, middle-class black man, with no criminal history, with no penchant for shoplifting, is followed by loss prevention staff (or cameras) in a store solely because he is black? What do we call it when a police officer stops a driver merely for being black? We used to call that prejudice.
The great problem, however, with the re-definition (as given above) of racism, solely in terms of power structures and oppression, is that it indicts all white people as guilty because they are white and it bizarrely indicts all black people as “racist” who do not affirm the politically correct pieties. Any such definition is a political game and prejudiced by definition. Further, the indictment of the USA, as proposed by the 1619 Project, which seems likely to become a standard part of your local public school curriculum, is quite unwarranted by actual history and by facts (see the resources below). This country has work to do but it is also just as certainly true that it is not 1963. If you think it is, you need to do some reading. The Topeka YMCA is integrated now (thanks to my Dad). Brown v. Board (1954) is law.
Nature And Grace
One of the axioms or bromides that emerged from the American civil rights movement, was “I do not see color.” That was well-intended. It was part of the quest for a “color-blind” society as we sought to begin to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence. It was meant to signal equality before the law. On an individual level, it was meant to say, “I agree with Dr. King. People should be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.” The problem, of course, is that, as a statement, it is not entirely true. We do see color. Each ethnic group has its own characteristics, its own history, its own culture. Those characteristics are real. It is not bigoted to recognize them. Being opposed to prejudice does mean that we must ignore these differences utterly. As a boy I went to NCAA-sponsored basketball camp in which I was the only white kid in the midst of hundreds of black kids. The black kids noticed the difference. So did I. When I played in a predominantly black basketball league, the other teams (and the fans) noticed the difference.
The urge among some Christians to obliterate real, cultural, ethnic, and historic differences is also due, in part, to the loss of the distinction between nature and grace. A good part of the answer to partiality is recovering the distinction and relating these two categories properly again. Paul did this very thing in Colossians 3:11: “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (ESV). Greeks and Jews were different. “Greek” here is a synecdoche, which stands for Gentiles and not only Hellenists. Jews were related to Abraham in a way that the Gentiles were not. The Scythians were a nomadic people from southern Russia, identified with Ashkenaz (1 Chron 1:6). By the inter-testamental period they were “regarded as a proverbially backward and barbarian people” (2 Macc 4:47).3 Just as he knew that all Cretans were not literally “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12; ESV), that it was an accepted proverb, which everyone knew to be deliberate hyperbole, so he knew the reputation of the Scythians as a raiders and a threat to the Old Testament people of God. He invoked the reality of the actual differences between peoples in order to deny that, in Christ, they define us.
Pagans, who only know nature, make natural categories absolute. In Christ, however, in a state of grace, nature does not reign supreme. Grace does. By grace alone, Christ is calling all sorts of people, different ethnicities, from different nations, different cultures and language groups to new life and true faith. God called this pagan Nebraska football fan to new life and true faith. Pace, the Anabaptist and holiness traditions, grace does not require me to stop being a steak-eating, football-loving Nebraskan, but it does mean that, in Christ, I am united to Michigan, Ohio State, and even Oklahoma football fans who also love Jesus. Nature is real but it is not final. Grace is definitive. By grace alone (sola gratia) we sinners are not only saved through faith alone (sola fide), but by grace alone we are being sanctified and empowered to put to death partiality and prejudice. Let us rejoice in our natural, cultural, and linguistic differences but let us rejoice even more in the grace of God, in Christ, that unites us and transcends our differences. We can embrace our differences by being more inclusive in the selection of tunes for the Psalms,4 in (unofficial) dress codes etc.
Sin And Salvation
All the various ethnicities that Christ has called to the foot of the cross now, because of the cross, seek to crucify ethnic bigotry and prejudice. It is bigoted to regard, treat, or disadvantage someone or a class of people because of their ethnic heritage. Pagans might do this but Christians may not. God’s Word plainly forbids it. As we saw above, James forbids it. Favoritism is sin (Jude 1:16). Ethnic discrimination is sin. The pagans Greeks regarded everyone who was not Greek as lesser. That sort of thinking still exists and, tragically, it exists in the visible church. Paul addressed it among the Galatian Christians, who were being afflicted by Judaizers, who not only sought to corrupt the gospel of free salvation, by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) but also sought to re-institute the view held by many Jews that Gentiles were not only ritually (religiously) unclean but lesser people. Paul wrote:
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:27–29; ESV).
Of course this sin prevails among pagans but it should be so among Christians but it does exist in our midst. Thoughtlessness, ignorance of the heritage and history of other ethnic groups is part of the heritage of conservative Presbyterian and Reformed Churches in North America. As I have mentioned before in this space, I have heard the comments and jokes and not thirty years ago. Too many people, of various ethnicities, have reported to me slights and insults made in church. Perhaps worst among them is failing, first of all, to see people of other ethnic groups as being fellow image bearers who have been redeemed Christ. Those in the majority, in the congregation, owe it to their brothers and sisters to listen to those who are different and to learn about their experience, culture, and history. Those things are real and valuable and should be valued. Wherever prejudice and bigotry, of whatever sort, exists in the church it must be rooted out like all other sins. We should repent of it and seek to mortify it as we seek to mortify lust and covetousness.
We Christians ought to be setting the example of graciousness, love, forgiveness, acceptance, and mutual understanding. Do ethnic minorities feel at home your congregation? Have you ever considered what it might be like to be an ethnic minority in your congregation? Do you hope and pray that your congregation would be welcoming to all ethnicities? Clearly we all and especially Christians need to continue to search our hearts and grow. Do predominantly white congregations ever consider black or Hispanic leadership? Would a predominantly white congregation call a black or Hispanic pastor? The honest answer to these questions tells us that we have a ways to go. This should not surprise Reformed folk, who confess that all our faculties are corrupted by sin and who confess that all sinners are justified once for all but only gradually and graciously sanctified in this life.
The bad news a purely systemic definition is that it is hopeless. It will lead to revolution and counter-revolution. There is no grace and no forgiveness. The good news about a moral definition of prejudice is it is something that can be addressed identified, convicted, and changed. Grace changes the hearts and minds of forgiven sinners. Where grace is banished, cynicism and bitterness reign.
Christianity has a moral law: love God with all your faculties and your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37–40). It teaches us the greatness of our sin and misery. The second table (love of neighbor) is to be sought in civil life and in the church. Christianity, however, also has a grace, gospel of the unconditional forgiveness of sins, sola gratia, sola fide in Christ alone. The gospel is the only way forward. The gospel is only salve for the bitterness that divides ethnic groups. This is why Paul could say that, in Christ, “there is no…” because, as valuable as our ethnic history is, it does not define us. In the new heavens and the new earth, people from every tongue, tribe, and nation will be gathered before the throne glorifying God, through the mediation of God the Son incarnate.
In Christ, the “new song” is our song and it belongs to every ethnicity, tribe, nation, and language:
And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth” (Rev 5:8–10; ESV).
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- Resources on Social Justice and Racism
- Resources On The Social Gospel And Social Justice
- In Defense Of Religion
- Princeton Historian Rebukes 1619 Project: The Facts Still Matter
- Oxford Historian Carwardine: 1619 Project “Preposterous” And “Tendentious”
- Guelzo: “The 1619 Project Is Not History; It Is Ignorance“
- Derryck Green: The New Antiracism Is A New Religion
- More Reasons To Leave The Public School (Or Antiracism Does Not Mean What You Might Think)
1. Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Bartel Elshout, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 358–59.
2. Ibid. 3.67–68.
3. Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 918.
4. The Psalms are a transcultural song book.