God wants his church to be the anti-cafeteria.
If you’re reading this, you probably had a high school or junior high experience that testifies to the social alienation, relational pain, and partiality of the cafeteria room. In the cafeteria, everybody was divided up and segregated to a corresponding table: the jocks, the nerds, the popular, the rich, the poor, the whatever else. This experience isn’t universal, but it’s almost universal. All I had to do to prove this to myself was google “eating lunch alone at school.”
The personal articles, Reddit threads, and forums following this search will shock you with a sea of testimonies like the thought of everyone looking at me eating alone terrifies me and Everyone has already picked their ‘designated’ tables to eat at, so I have no idea where to sit and I’ve tried eating in the bathroom and that sucked. So, for the past two years, I’ve just skipped lunch and gone to the school library.
Nobody eats alone in Jesus’ cafeteria.
Nobody worships alone in Jesus’ church.
There is no cool kids’ table in the church.
There is no partiality, favoritism, segregation, distinction in worth in the church.
This is the burden of James 2:1-8: “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into 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 says, “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 and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?”
The heart of the text is captured in the first five words of this text: “My brothers, show no partiality.” So before moving deeper into the text, let’s carefully define “partiality” according to this text: Partiality is the sin of people of God (the church) when they divide the images of God (other people, visitors, and guests) according to the idolatries of man (you have money & we need money, you have the cool factor & we need the cool factor, you have a good reputation & we need a good reputation) rather than the grace of God.
It shames me deeply, but do you want to know my honest response when I first read this text and began studying to preach it to my church? This doesn’t happen anymore.
Have you ever thought like that? Immediately after that initial thought, the Spirit poked me. I thought about the 1800’s in the United Kingdom when it was common for churches to auction off pews on an annual basis, giving the rich the best seats and the poor the worst seats. My next thought was:
Okay, it was a 1800’s problem in the United Kingdom.
But then the Spirit poked me, and I thought of Martin Luther King Jr’s quote from 1960: “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” My next thought:
Okay, it was a 1960’s problem for the U.S.
The Spirit poked me again, and I thought of last year when I was preparing to plant a church in Des Moines, Iowa. When my wife and I first moved to Des Moines and began to share the vision for our church plant, the resounding question that continued to return to me from many well-meaning people was: “what makes your church plant different?” The real question that was usually being asked was: “Who does your church plant favor– hipsters? Millennials? The stylish? The elderly?” which are all ways of asking: “Who will your church show partiality towards?”
God help us. Here are three ways partiality still happen in our churches:
Partiality happens when we have a low view of Jesus’ lordship: Twice Jesus is described as Lord in this text: at the top of the paragraph, James describes Christians as people who “hold faith in the Lord (this is the first instance) Jesus Christ, the Lord (this is the second instance) of glory.” We need, like the early churches to whom James is writing, to be reminded that Jesus is the head of every body part.
Biology can provide us with a deeper understanding of this phenomena if you’ll pause and think deeply with me. Whenever your body is physically injured, the pain signal travels from the nervous system to the spinal cord, and in the spinal cord is this bundle of nerve fibers that communicate the pain like a message to the brain. In other words, all pain is ultimately interpreted not by the location of the pain, but by the brain. So if your pinky is cut, where is the pain first sensed? In the brain. And if your ankle is broken? The brain senses it first.
You get the analogy? No matter what part of the body of Christ you dishonor, rich, poor, white, brown, black, the pain of dishonor is first and most sensed in the head: Jesus Christ. Partiality has very little to do with viewing people too lowly, and everything to do with viewing Jesus Christ’s lordship too lowly.
Partiality happens when we have a low view of Jesus’ judgeship: What exactly makes partiality evil? Is it the sound the lips make when somebody says: “you sit here and you sit there?” Is it the direction the finger points when the person says, “you sit here and you sit there?” Is it the comfortability of the object the people are forced to sit on: is partiality evil because the floor is uncomfortable? Is it the bias of the eye’s attention that makes the mind want to focus on physical beauty?
None of these things are the root of what makes partiality evil.
What makes partiality evil is the heart and the mind that want to displace the Lord’s gavel and authority. James says, “have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Look at verse 5 now, “Has not God chosen those who poor to be rich in faith?” Jesus chooses who to save, who to draw, who to rescue: Jesus is the judge! When we exercise partiality, the ultimate evil is that we mock God by taking the gavel of election out of his hand and kick the judge’s throne from beneath him and sit in it ourselves. If God has removed somebody from the “guilty” chair and sovereignly placed them in the “innocent” chair, then we don’t get to tell people where to sit in church.
Partiality happens when we have a low view of the gospel: Step back. For one moment, step back far, far away from the poor man and the rich man and take a panoramic view at what’s truly happening when a person goes to church. What’s truly happening when somebody goes to church, not what appears to happen when somebody goes to church.
When you go to church, it only appears that you are waking up to your alarm, buttoning up your collared-shirt, rounding up your children, struggling to find a parking spot, and finally walking through the church’s front doors. That’s the shadow of what’s happening, not the reality of what’s happening. What’s really happening is God is accomplishing his mission to gather people together from every tongue, tribe, and nation to worship Christ crucified. This is one of the central accomplishments of the cross: God uses the cross of Jesus Christ as magnet to forcefully draw people who have been separated by sin together into one people.
So when we say, leaders you sit here, lay people you sit here, poor people you sit here, rich people you sit here, talented people you sit here, untalented people you sit here, we are accomplishing the opposite of the gospel. Partiality is profoundly anti-gospel.
Take heart: there will be a day when we can honestly say, this doesn’t happen anymore. There won’t always be favoritism, there’s won’t always be partiality, there won’t always be racism. There will come the day that John describes: “I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Take heart, on that day, Jesus Christ will not look down from his throne and say, you sit here and you sit there, you sit at the front and you sit at the back. On that day, Jesus Christ will not say to you, rich people up front, poor people in the back, athletes sit at the jocks’ table, band people at the nerds’ table.
Before the throne, there is no seating chart.
Watch the sermon here: