"My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?"
I knew the passage addressed favoritism, in particular related to people in wealth or poverty, but the lessons are generally the same for favoring one group of people with a perceived positive characteristic over another with a characteristic thought to be less desirable. James goes on to indicate how this way of treating people is both wrong and actually somewhat foolish when it is unpacked. But I was struck by the power of the translation. You can't have faith in Jesus if you favor some people over others.
I am unsure of what this means for the faith of the Christian church generally because we do this all the time in reference to persons with disabilities. It goes back to a recent posting on this blog related to structural injustice. There is structural injustice and institutional favoritism of some people over others.
I received an email from a disability ministry leader whose name readers would know. She told me of how the criteria for being a deacon in a particular denomination basically would exclude people from that type of service because they couldn't meet the academic nature of the criteria. People who are excellent at service in myriad ways would be excluded from this leadership role because of structures established by the church. Now I can't say that the reason for these criteria was to exclude persons with intellectual disabilities, for example, however that is the result nonetheless. These structures actually teach exclusion, teach favoritism as the acceptable position of the church. Now I get it. I should not be your worship leader because I do not play the guitar very well. I get it. However, poor guitar playing should not keep me from being a deacon, a role that revolves around service. In the same way, theological expertise should also not keep me from being a leader in serving others.
I have told this story in this blog before, but I once attended a church where a man with intellectual disabilities had for many years been one of the people on the rotation to serve communion. When his week/month came up he joined the group who passed the juice cups and crackers to the congregation. However, when there was a change over in the elders of the church, one who was a psychologist said it was inappropriate for the man (who had been successfully serving communion without incident) to participate in this form of service because of what the psychologist described as his "mental age." As an aside, please don't talk about someone's mental age around me as I will confront you about what exactly that means. It is little more than an insult to speak of someone's mental age. So from that point forward that man was excluded from serving communion.
These are the types of things leaders teach congregations. If leaders don't understand they should not show favoritism then we need to teach them that they shouldn't show favoritism. You can cite the James 2:1 verse above. Also ask them about 1 Corinthians 12:21, The eye can never say to the hand, "I don't need you" The head can't say to the feet, "I don't need you.". You can also look at verses 22-23 of that same passage. Or even 1 John 4:20 which says, for if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?
In the notes in the NLT regarding this chapter, it says the following (p 2771).
Showing favoritism. Why is it wrong to show favoritism to the wealthy?
1. It is inconsistent with Christ's teachings.
2. It results from evil thoughts.
3. It insults people made in God's image.
4. It is a by-product of selfish motives.
5. It goes against the biblical definition of love.
6. It shows a lack of mercy to those less fortunate.
7. It is hypocritical.
8. It is sin.
So be bold in pointing out favoritism when it excludes people for irrelevant characteristics. Although it won't make you popular, you will be representing the Heart of God.