The Wisdom of Impartiality

Imagine I stopped you on a sidewalk one day like a street reporter, with a microphone in hand and camera trained on you. I explained that I was interviewing people to see what they thought wisdom was. Then I asked you to give me a list of seven or eight qualities of wisdom. I wonder what you would say? Do you think you would have included “impartial” on your list? I’m not sure I would have on my own. But it is on James’ list.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere (James 3:18).

Why does he include impartiality as a quality of wisdom?

I believe one answer to that question is that all of these qualities get to the heart of what wisdom is, Biblically speaking. Often when we think of someone who is wise or possesses wisdom, we think philosophically about it. We think of someone who has a great deal of knowledge about life or a subject. A picture of a famous scientist or even an old guru sitting on a mountaintop may come to mind. But we must remember what Biblical wisdom is.

Previous to the verse quoted above, James had said about the wise person, “By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13). James' word here reminds us that in the Bible wisdom is the practice of godliness. Wisdom affects and is demonstrated by your conduct. It defines your character and behavior toward people. That is why the book of wisdom, the Proverbs, is popping with examples of people’s behavior showing whether they are acting either wisely or foolishly.

With that in mind, we can look more closely at the particular word James uses (adiakritos/ἀδιάκριτος), which is a negation of the root word. Most of the popular versions translate this word “impartial” (ESV, NIV) or “without partiality" (NKJV, KJV). However, interestingly the New American Standard translates this Greek word as “unwavering.” Why the dissonance?

If we look at the use of the word in James, we find an explanation. For this word is used three other times in its non-negated form. Two of those are in James 1:6, which says “he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” This verse depicts the man without the faith to ask for wisdom from God as one doubting or wavering, like a piece of driftwood tossed about in the sea. To describe an inward, doubting faith, wavering is a good choice.

However, in its third usage in James, this word gets more to the point of behavior. James 2:2-4 says,

If a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, 'You sit here in a good place,' and you say to the poor man, 'You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,' have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?

Favoring someone because he is rich by behaving differently, wanting to be identified with one class of people against another, is showing partiality. That is why the translation “impartial” is the best choice in James' list. Partiality is not love, for love “does not seek its own" (1 Cor. 13:5).

And James is greatly concerned about how we love one another in the church. James 2:8-9 reads, “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." James uses another word for partiality here (prosopolemptew/προσωπολημπτέω), which literally means "to regard the face" of another.

Have you ever seen a statue or picture of Lady Justice like the one accompanying this article? Often found on the top or in front of a courthouse is a statue of this robed woman representing justice. She has a balance in her left hand, to show that justice weighs cases to see what is right. In her right hand is a sword to show that justice has the authority of government on her side. But she also has a blindfold across here eyes, to show that justice should be objective, without "regarding the face" of people. Cases of justice should be decided regardless of the identity, money, power, or position of a person. This is what it means to be impartial.

Ultimately, impartiality is a feature of heavenly wisdom because this is an attribute of God. For the Bible makes clear that God is impartial. Romans 2:11 says, “For there is no partiality with God.” Indeed, he is the “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17). As God's exact representation, Christ did not show partiality. Avoiding tax-collectors and prostitutes would have given him respect; instead, he ate and drank with them so much he was called “a friend of sinners.” Charming the Pharisees could have exalted him in Israel; instead, he pronounced woes on them for their partiality. Indeed, the Pharisees themselves admitted that Jesus was impartial when they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone's opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God” (Mark 12:14).

With these things in mind, we could then define the wisdom of impartiality as "the practice of receiving in love a believer as my brother or sister in Christ regardless of inherent qualities such as race, social status or even spiritual maturity, and making any distinctions in my treatment of people based on the moral code of Scripture." As such, you can then demonstrate and live out impartiality in the five following ways.

  1. Take the gospel to all, and receive all those who respond. When Peter brought the gospel to Cornelius the Gentile, he said, "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).
  2. When the rich or poor enter your worship assembly, greet and befriend both. We are told in Scripture that the righteous man “shows no partiality to princes nor regards the rich above the poor, for they all are the work of his hands” (Job 34:19).
  3. However, understand that practicing impartiality does not restrict you from being merciful. Showing extra regard for the poor, the fatherless or the widow, i.e. to give what is lacking to those suffering, is not showing partiality. Rather, this is true religion and true wisdom (James 1:27).
  4. When there is conflict in the church, listen carefully to both sides. When we hear of a disagreement between brothers, because of relationships we have with a particular party it is easy to go in immediately biased as to who is in the right. However, we should give a fair hearing to both sides. As Proverbs 18:17 instructs, “The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.”
  5. You must warn people of sin and its consequences, regardless of who they are. God's justice is no respecter of persons, and neither should we be when speaking to people about sin and its consequences. “For he who does wrong will receive the consequences of the wrong which he has done, and that without partiality” (Col 3:25).
Barry York

Barry York

Sinner by Nature - Saved by Grace. Husband of Miriam - Grateful for Privilege. Father of Six - Blessed by God. Professor at RPTS - Serve with Thankfulness.

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