James 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Favoritism Contradicts Faith
As James states the basic instruction of this paragraph in 2:1, the imperative is, literally, "Do not have [or hold] the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ." The idea of favoritism comes in a prepositional phrase preceding and qualifying the imperative verb: "in [or with] favoritism." The structure implies a contradiction between faith and favoritism: "Do not hold faith in Christ with partiality toward persons." It is a common problem for us, a prevalent form of "being polluted by the world." To help us with this, James mentions in 2:1 three factors that call us away from favoritism and into a life of faith. He will elaborate on the implications in the subsequent verses.
James begins with his previously used term of address, my brothers. The earnestness of the whole letter should lead us to expect that this address is more than an unintentional habit. The "high position" that his readers hold specifically as "brothers" is already on James's mind in 1:9-11; it is a high position even if they are in humble circumstances. So they do well to persevere even under the trial of poverty, because when they have "stood the test" they will receive "the crown of life" (1:12). What is being tested? Their faith, according to 1:3. Their sense of identity, then, should be in their position as people of faith rather than in their status as people of wealth or poverty.
In 1:9-11 James has thus applied faith to self-image. Now he applies faith to Christians' treatment of others. The term brothers is a reminder of the high position they already have on the basis of faith. If they were to show partiality toward certain people because they are rich, these Christians would be acting as if high position came by wealth instead of faith. In that sense, favoritism is a clear contradiction of faith.
James elaborates on this fact of our faith-brotherhood with an illustration of favoritism in 2:2-4. His term for favoritism is plural in 2:1, implying "acts of partiality" to include the variety of ways in which favoritism could be shown (Hiebert 1979:147). The specific example now cited does not appear to be written in the manner of Paul's instructions in 1 Corinthians, addressing actual events in the church. Judging from James's conditional phrasing ("for if") and from the drawing of exact contrasts in the style of the narrative, he is presenting a theoretical occurrence.
However, even in choosing a hypothetical situation, James does reveal facts of the early Christians' cultural setting. We have found it to be the frequent lot of James's readers to be in economic hardship, even poverty, because of persecution. (See commentary on 1:9 and the appendix on the identity of the rich in James.) Now we find, though, that it was not out of the question for rich people to be found in the gatherings of Christians. The possibility of preferential treatment toward the rich was a realistic issue for James to address.
Two questions have intrigued students of this passage. What is the hypothetical meeting in view, and what is the reason for the rich and poor persons' presence? The traditional understanding has been that the meeting is a gathering for worship. Since the rich and poor individuals seem to be unfamiliar with procedures, they would be visitors who are either interested non-Christian observers or new converts to be instructed in the Christian faith. A second and more recently advocated possibility is that the meeting is a judicial assembly of the church, and that the rich and poor individuals are both members of the believing community who are involved in a dispute to be adjudicated.
The attractiveness of the first alternative is that it seems a natural understanding of the scene and of the term James uses for "meeting"--synagoge. The term synagogue would be a recognizable term for a place of worship, and even later Christian writers in the first and second centuries used the term to refer to Christian gatherings. Far more common in the New Testament, though, is the term ekklesia, which James himself uses in 5:14. In fact, 2:2 is the only New Testament use of the term synagogue for a Christian assembly, which has led some to question why James would have used the term here. Perhaps he had in mind a Jewish synagogue with Jews and Jewish Christians still worshiping together as in the early chapters of Acts, but James's description indicates a Christian ownership of and authority over this assembly.
In 1969, R. B. Ward argued that James is describing a judicial assembly rather than a worship service. This is certainly a possible use of synagogue. There are two major arguments in favor of this alternative. First, it makes the subsequent references to judges and courts (2:4; 2:6) more consistent with the context. Second, it rather neatly resolves the questions some have had about this illustration in a worship setting. Why would Christians coming to worship need to be told where to stand or sit? Or if they are non-Christians, why would James cite the unlikely event of a wealthy non-Christian visiting a church? Why would some stand and others be seated? In Ward's judicial setting, procedures of standing or sitting might well be unfamiliar to the participants, and clothing might be a factor that would unfairly impress the judges.
The case for the judicial setting of James's illustration is intriguing but not conclusive. Why wouldn't a worship setting be a proper context for concern over seating and posture? In Jesus' parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who were praying in the temple (Lk 18:9-14), where and how one stood were choices made with strong moral implications. Especially if the rich and poor persons were new converts, they could have experienced uncertainty about the matters raised in James's illustration. In addition, making the reference to judges in 2:4 consistent with the context is attractive, but it is not necessary to the logical flow of thought. James could simply be using the term for "judge" (krites) as a figure, drawing upon the primary message in the verb discriminated (diekrithete), which is directed more broadly to the community of Christians: you have discriminated among yourselves.
An additional source of insight into James's thinking may be found in comparison with the Lord's Sermon on the Mount. Because of James's emphasis on judging, the obvious place to begin looking is Matthew 7:1, where followers of Christ are commanded not to judge (krino). Except for James's omission of Jesus' emphasis on asking and believing (which James included in 1:5-8 and which does not really fit his primary purpose in this section), the parallels between the two passages are extensive.
|Matthew 7||James 2|
|1-2||Prohibition against judging||1||Prohibition against judgmental favoritism|
|3-5||Illustration of removing one's own faults so that one can help remove others' faults||2-4||Illustration of removing one's own partiality so that one can judge or instruct others|
|6||Warning not to despise what is sacred in favor of dogs or pigs that will harm you||5-7||Warning not to despise brothers who are rich in faith in favor of others who harm you|
|7-11||Encouragement to ask and to believe|
|12||Summary of the law as doing to others what you would want for yourself||8-11||Summary of the law as loving others as yourself|
|13-14||Summary admonition to follow the narrow way that leads to life||12-13||Summary admonition to follow the law that gives freedom|
|15-23||Warning against false prophets, with the true test presented: deeds||14-19||Warning against dead faith, with the true test presented: deeds|
|24-27||Parable to illustrate putting Christ's words into practice||20-26||Examples to illustrate putting faith into practice|
Christ's teaching recorded in Luke 6:37-49 follows a similar order,with some sections omitted but with one notable addition in verses39-40. The emphasis there is on getting rid of one's own blindness inorder to be able to teach others. It fits into the same place asMatthew 7:3-5 and James 2:2-4 in the scheme outlined above, and it isimmediately followed by Luke's parallel to Matthew 7:3-5. If Christ'steaching recorded in Matthew 7 and Luke 6 is the background for James2, it is a clue that in the illustration of 2:2-4 James is thinking ofthe rich and poor individuals as ones who come needing to be instructedin some way. James's illustration fits the pattern in Matthew 7 andLuke 6 if the favoritism is seen as disqualifying the Christiancommunity from being able to instruct the ones who come into theassembly.
Overall, these considerations seem to indicate more strongly the setting of a Christian assembly for worship and instruction, with the rich and poor persons coming as recent converts needing to be taught. It would then provide a picture of the early church as a consciously teaching community. However, the judicial setting, in which the rich and poor men would be coming with complaints to be settled, is not impossible. The passage would then be an early portrait of church discipline, with its proper focus on instructing rather than punishing. What should be foremost for us, however, is that in either case what James has in mind is much weightier than merely how our modern church ushers escort visitors to their seats. The passage calls us to consistent love, not just polite ushering. People of low income are to be fully welcomed into the life of the church. The passage calls us to be blind to economic differences in how we offer our ministries. The poor person is as worthy of our discipling and pastoral care and love as the person who has the means to rescue our church from its budget crisis.
Either understanding of the setting for 2:2-4 provides some cultural information about the dispersed church. Persecution and scattering did not cause the Christians to meet hesitantly and fearfully. They were holding organized assemblies with deliberate instruction or discipline. Although Christians were commonly persecuted by the rich, evidently the gospel was spreading among rich as well as poor people, or else it would be unrealistic for James to suppose a rich person would be present at either the worship or the judicial assembly. Christians were encountering the moral issue of discrimination, and they were struggling with the relationship between rich and poor.
It is on this point that James draws his conclusion in 2:4 to show that favoritism contradicts faith. The verb translated "discriminated" has already been used in 1:6, there translated "doubt" but also used in contrast to faith. Note the parallel between the two passages:
1:6Ask for wisdom in faith, not doubting.tx2:1, 4Hold faith in Christ, not discriminating.tx
The common idea between the two instances of the verb is that of division, which is the essence of judgment. Doubters asking for wisdom are divided internally, because they hold doubts at odds with faith. Christians who practice favoritism are divided relationally, because they hold materialistic values at odds with faith. Doubters are discriminating, or making a judgment, whether God will or will not give what is needed; Christians who practice favoritism are discriminating, or making a judgment, between the value of the rich person and the value of the poor person. The corrective for both is to be single-minded, not divided, in faith.
For the second element in 2:1, James reminds them of the one in whom their faith resides: our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. The phrase has been a point of controversy in the study of this epistle; some have argued that it is a later addition to the original text. Expunging such references to Christ from the text is part of some scholars' portrayal of the remainder of the letter as a Jewish work written in pre-Christian time and later adapted for the Christian community. The theory is advanced on the basis of the unusual structure of the phrase our glorious Lord Jesus Christ as a genitive phrase modifying faith. However, the awkwardness of the structure can be used just as well as an argument against a deliberate interpolation, and the extremely speculative nature of the theory must be faced. In the absence of any textual evidence, there is no real reason to reject this affirmation of Christ as Lord. Coming from Jesus' own brother James, this is a strong confession of faith. It reflects a high Christology, even if James's concern here is only to declare the doctrine, not to develop it in detail.
There remains an interpretive question regarding the term glory in the genitive case coming at the very end of James's sentence in 2:1. Does it modify faith (as "the glorious faith" or "faith in the glory of")? Does it modify Lord (as "the Lord of glory") as chosen in the KJV, LB and RSV? Does it stand in apposition to Jesus Christ (as "our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory" or "the Lord Jesus Christ our Glory")? Or does it describe our Lord Jesus Christ (in the sense of "our glorious Lord Jesus Christ")? This last option seems the most natural and least forced of the readings, and it is the one chosen in the NIV and NASB.
In any of these options, the contradiction between faith and favoritism is strong. Even if glory modifies faith, the faith is made glorious because of the object of faith--our Lord Jesus Christ. James sees clearly how a partiality toward people because of their wealth treats their wealth as more valuable than Christ. It is unthinkable that this should be tolerated in the lives of people who are believers (ones who "have faith") in the glory of Christ.
The third element in 2:1 is "faith," unfortunately obscured in the NIV as believers. Again, the heart of James's plea in this passage is the complete contradiction between faith and favoritism. When he elaborates in 2:5-7, his argument is the utter disparity of value between faith and wealth. That is why he is moved to adopt the phrase rich in faith--meaning that faith is the wealth of true value. It becomes unthinkable then that believers, of all people, should insult the poor and favor the rich. If they do, they are acting as if they do not know the value of faith.
The details in 2:5-7 explain his argument. First, James writes with a sharp contrast between the rich (plousioi) and the poor (ptochoi). James would surely remember Jesus' warning of how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom; it astonished the disciples when he said it (Mt 19:23-25). Why would wealth have this effect? The implication in James 1:10-11 is that wealth leads one to become poor in faith because it gives one a false sense of security. James's assertion in 2:5 makes sense in this context, with no need to read it as a theological statement that God eternally elects all poor people because they are poor. Rather, James is observing that God does choose many poor people to be rich in faith and so to inherit the kingdom. He probably has in mind the teaching of Jesus (as in Lk 6:20), the Old Testament tradition of God's care for the poor (as in Deut 10:18) and the prevalent economic situation of his readers. The fact that James could speak so broadly of God's choosing of the poor of the world to be rich in faith is evidence that poverty was the common economic status of believers. Probably many Christians had lost wealth because of the persecution, and probably the gospel was spreading especially among the poor.
Second, the value of faith is placed in uncompromised opposition to the value of riches by the transferring of the very term plousioi to the believing poor. They are the ones who are truly rich, by being rich in faith. This phrase refers not to an abundant quantity of faith (as if that were their wealth instead of the kingdom) but to the value of faith, as confirmed by the parallel in 1 Peter 1:7. With faith set grammatically in contrast to the world, this is a denial that the world's material wealth constitutes true riches at all. There is even a disclosure of what constitutes the enormous wealth and investments of the poor: they inherit the kingdom!
Third, James provides some detail of how rich unbelievers are treating Christians. He reminds his readers of three common offenses against them, and each one has particular significance for people of faith.
1. The rich are exploiting (oppressing or dominating) them. This verb katadynasteuo occurs only one other time in the New Testament, in Peter's message to Cornelius's household recorded in Acts 10. That message begins with Peter's affirmation that God does not show "favoritism" (Acts 10:34), for Christ came to deliver all who were oppressed or dominated by the devil. God's impartiality is binding on Peter, who therefore realizes that he must accept Gentile believers as brothers. Here James is showing the complementary side of the same principle. To show favoritism toward the rich is to join sides with those who perpetuate oppression. Davids puts it this strongly: "They have, in effect, sided with the devil against God" (1982:112).
2. The rich are dragging them into court. The exploitation of the poor is being carried out even through formal legal action against them. The verb here is properly translated "dragging" to convey the forcible tone. It is not a polite settling of disputes that is occurring, but a harsh treatment. In response, James does not urge revenge by the Christians when a rich person appears in their assembly. But he does expose the senselessness of favoring the rich, as if their wealth made them more valuable in the kingdom. It should be obvious from their treatment of Christians that it is not so.
3. The rich are blaspheming the name of Christ. Their treatment of Christians is religious persecution; that is, harsh treatment is directed at the Christians explicitly because they bear the name of Christ. This is implied in the concluding words of 2:7, where the rich are said to be blaspheming the name that, literally translated, "has been called upon you." The modifier for name is stronger than agathos "good"; it is kalos "noble, beautiful, excellent." Bearing this name implied a relationship; hence the NIV's rendering of him to whom you belong. Therefore "abuse of Christians is abuse also of the name they bear" (Laws 1980:106). The rich are treating that noble name of Christ as worthy of contempt upon those who bear it. If Christians now practice favoritism, they are agreeing!
James has written about the integrity of faith; there are things Christians must do because of what they believe. This was capsulized in 1:22, "Do what [the word] says." Now, by applying that principle specifically to economic impartiality, James calls the church to a lifestyle and a mission that confront economic prejudice. Martin calls this passage James's announcement of his commitment to a "theology of justice" (1988:73).
For the church today confronted with this message, the role of material wealth becomes a major spiritual issue. It demands address within the church (with pointed sermons and thorough courses of instruction) as well as action by the church (in a lifestyle and outreach that abhor economic favoritism). The need for confrontation is urgent; "you cannot serve both God and Money" (Mt 6:24). James makes clear that integrity of faith places Christians in opposition to the roles that money, across the centuries, has played in human society. An application of James 2:17 in the church's preaching and practice will confront these roles of money.
1. James confronts the role of money as status. He employs the phrase our glorious Lord Jesus Christ deliberately at the beginning of this passage. It places before our eyes the standard that should control our response to people. We are not to respond to the glory of people's wealth or dress, for this relative glory is exposed as insignificant compared to Christ's glory. Churches and parachurch organizations that are informed by the message of James will preach the glory of Christ, will be enamored of the glory of Christ and will therefore not be impressed by wealth. We will not pander to those with money. In selecting people for positions of leadership, we will look for godliness and spiritual gifts instead of bank accounts.
2. James confronts the role of money as value. He exposes the destructiveness of wealth. According to his description, money has the power to make us exploitative, abusive and blasphemous. We must accept this as a warning that the more wealth we accumulate, the more likely we are to fall into these sins. Far from being valuable, material wealth is actually dangerous! No wonder that it is so hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.
Christians taking heed to James's warning will be all the more watchful for signs of these dangers in themselves. We will be watchful to repent of exploitative actions, abusive thoughts and attitudes toward people poorer than we, and blasphemous religious talk and jokes.
In this there are also important implications for the church's mission. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom? We have already assessed this statement in 2:5 to be an observation of common fact, based on Scripture and actual circumstances, rather than a theology of preferential eternal election. It would be a distortion of the text to conclude that God loves the rich less than he loves the poor, or that the poor are less in need of Christ's atoning work than the rich. The very foundation of the passage is that God does not show partiality. However, as a matter of mission strategy, if wealth does hinder people's receptivity to the gospel, and if God does commonly choose poor people to inherit the kingdom, then the church should invest heavily in evangelism toward the poorer levels of society.
Donald A. McGavran's thesis pushes today's church on this matter. "Missions from the wealthy West usually overlook the Bible at this point. Missionaries customarily place a high value on the educated, the wealthy, the cultured--in a word, the middle and upper classes" (1980:281). Instead, if we truly want to save as many lives as possible, McGavran urges a focus on the masses by the strategy of "winning the winnable" (1980:291).
3. James confronts the role of money as power. It is not that he denies the power of wealth. On the contrary, he sees quite clearly that it powerfully endangers people's spiritual end (1:10-11) and that it empowers people to abuse others and to blaspheme the Lord (2:6-7). The church must not take lightly the power of wealth. Jacques Ellul warns that money in the biblical view is not a neutral object but rather a power "that acts by itself, is capable of moving other things, is autonomous (or claims to be), is a law unto itself, and presents itself as an active agent. . . . It is oriented; it also orients people" (1984:75-76). So he concludes, "We absolutely must not minimize the parallel Jesus draws between God and Mammon" (1984:76). The church, then, must confront and oppose this dangerous power of wealth explicitly and urgently.
James has fixed a spotlight on the dangerous role of wealth. Christians who seriously desire to be doers of this word will be all the more earnest in practicing the law that is higher than the law of economic power. The law of economic power enables people to practice exploitation and abuse and blasphemy. We who are people of faith will adhere passionately to another law: the royal law, which commands impartial, unconditional love.