Presbyterian Partiality?

I’m hoping to preach on the sin of partiality tomorrow evening from James 2.1-7.

In preparing, yesterday morning, I was really surprised to discover that one of the chief reasons or motivations for the prohibition of prejudice is the doctrine of election!

“Listen my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith & heirs of the Kingdom, which God has promised to those who love him?”

It actually makes me wonder why we, in particular, as died-in-the-wool Calvinists, fall into the trap of ‘Presbyterian Partiality’ (apologies in advance to other readers)? There are strong reasons why ‘The Reformed’ (for want of a better term), of all people, should be less vulnerable or prone to this sin.

We ought to have a strong doctrine of scripture. Yet exegesis of the text forbids partiality in church, James 2.1, which in comparison to Saviour is an inglorious sin:

“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory.”

The definition of Thayer helps us get a better handle on the problem of partiality which is:

“…the fault of one who when called on to requite or to give judgment has respect to the outward circumstances of men & not to their intrinsic merits, and so prefers, as the more worthy, one who is rich, high-born, or powerful, to another who is destitute of such gifts.”

Such partiality is not like God at all whom we profess to serve. It is precisely because God has chosen or elected those who are impoverished, in the estimation of the world, that we should neither look down our noses at the poor nor try to ‘cosy-up’ to and make favourites of the rich. God, in other words, is no respecter of persons. He looks upon the heart & is not swayed by outward impressions. How people look, their fashion sense, the colour of their skin, the language that they speak, their status or profession, their ugliness or beauty, whether educated or uneducated – and of course whether or not they are rich or poor – do not influence him one iota in his electing choice.

With respect to every factor extrinsic or intrinsic to a person, our glorious Lord, in truth, is ‘anti-meritocratic’. He does not choose based on rank or status or any credit in us. His eternal choice to save is not based in any impressive factor or goodness in the soul of the sinner: instead he chooses those whom He saves, sovereignly and freely, for his own wise reasons, to humble the proud, magnify his glory, and maximise his reputation for the goodness of his grace.

Is it not rather shocking this blemish on our witness crops up with all to monotonous regularity in the assembly of God’s people? James 2.2-4 provides a very in-your-face, obvious example, of the kind of attitudes that lurk within our hearts and surface in our flesh more often that we would like:

“For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes in to 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 & become judges with evil thoughts?”

Let’s call it for what it is! It must not be swept under the carpet or diluted or reduced to an acceptable fault – unmask the brute, this sin is evil and judgmental! The setting is the synagogue which aggravates the crime – for James is thinking of the Church, and this sort of thing goes on more often than we care to admit.

I don’t mean that we’re often so crass as to visibly fall foul of this particular obsequious practice – although such thoughts may never be too far away. It’s just that the sin of prejudice can express itself in a plethora of run-of-the-mill prejudicial acts, thoughts & expressions: ageism, sexism, racism, class-wars; shunning or shaming others because they are too young or old, a nobody or somebody, weak or powerful, scorned or famed, educated or uneducated, cool or square, trendy or unfashionable, popular or unpopular, home-schooled or state-schooled, the in-crowd or the out-crowd, and of course, your dress, status or bank-balance! Have churches not been tyrannised by nepotistic favours done for friends & family? If this is just the tip of the iceberg we need to snorkel beneath the water!

If this searching out of sin has come too close to home then we must continue to probe & gently ask ourselves honestly why, are Presbyterians who believe & teach election, still so appearance influenced & driven? Can you tick the check box of one of the following 4 reasons?

First is our doctrine of election defective or deviant? Answer Y/N.

Second is our doctrine of election only intellectual & impractical, and has it failed to get beneath the skin, penetrate deeper than thoughts & touch the heart & affect the way we live out our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? Answer Y/N.

Third do we excuse & defend what is indefensible or inexcusable or culturally acceptable – we all do it, or as Jerry Bridges might have said, it is ‘a respectable sin?’ Answer Y/N.

Fourth are we sinning against light & is it not strange that some of those who are far less influenced by appearances than we are have a far weaker grasp on the ‘doctrines of grace?’Answer Y/N.

As Rowland Ward says “The man in shabby clothing can be a kind of sacramental sign of God’s election”. Lets stop being impressed by status, rank & wealth. Let us refuse to permit outward appearances or circumstances to influence choices in churches. Pray for a heart that sees beneath the skin to the needy soul, recreated in God’s Image. If such shabby partial thoughts keep arising in our hearts, let us remember God’s choice, for we were clothed in rags & remember that in the Gospel we are heirs of grace & glory.

8 Comments

  1. Brent January 14, 2017 at 9:53 pm #

    Andrew,

    Good comments and observations from James. This sin of partiality is far more pervasive than we think. I especially appreciate the way you return to the simple truth of scripture to deal with it, the doctrine of unconditional election. This is truly a beautiful doctrine that so elevates Christ and humbles man that much of our theology ought to be rooted here.

    There is a word of caution that I think should be included, a caveat of sorts. Just as we can show partiality to the rich, we can also show partiality to the poor. In fact, the first place in Scripture that deals with justice (BTW – I think the term “social justice” is is a terrible term, especially since it has its roots in liberalism/socialism) is Exodus 23. Exo 23:2-3 “You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, 3 nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.”

    Money or the lack of it is not the issue. As the doctrine of election humbles us, so also it gives us the confidence that our evangelistic efforts will be successful, regardless of social class.

  2. Andrew Kerr January 15, 2017 at 3:35 am #

    Thanks Brent

    I agree wholeheartedly – actually in my own experience I come across many ‘Robin Hood Christians’ who have an inverted snobbery & delight to pull others down – they think humiliating the rich & educated is their special task. Strange that they tend to be rich & educated themselves. All this was in mind & implicit in the piece & the contrasts I set up!

  3. Jonathan January 15, 2017 at 8:05 pm #

    A good post. I was convicted thinking that while many of us may not pay special deference to the rich, we often avoid certain people at church because they are difficult to talk to, or dominate the conversation, or are not as interesting to us. This is usually another form of partiality and selfishness.

    Another place partiality is a particular danger is at Presbytery itself. Too often, it seems, Elders won’t confront issues because they don’t want to offend their friends at Presbytery. It’s easier just to all “agree” and sweep the issue under the rug. It is far too easy to turn Presbyterian government into a club where decisions are made based on who you know.

    • Andrew Kerr January 16, 2017 at 3:53 am #

      Thanks Jonathan

      Without wanting to see ‘reds under the bed’, I do think that this sin is a far greater temptation than we dare to admit. If we cited all the examples it might be a very long list indeed. All kinds of factors can sway us that are besides the point of a case. We need much grace & light to search our hearts & root out this weed!

  4. James January 18, 2017 at 10:54 pm #

    This post generated a lot of comments. That is encouraging. Matthew 7:13 reminds us many more will not enter the narrow gate than do. Thankfully, the Lord does reserve a place in heaven for both those that were poor and wealthy in this world by grace through faith. The bible does mention plenty of examples of both poor and wealthy believers. Each worship the same Lord for all eternity.

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