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Artificial Distinctions

In his letter to Jewish Christians who had been scattered from the church at Jerusalem likely because of persecution, James warns against succumbing to the sin of partiality in their assemblies (James 2:1-7). He constructs a hypothetical scenario in which a church honors a wealthy man dressed in fine clothes by giving him a special seating status in their weekly gathering. At the same time, this hypothetical church seats a poor man wearing shabby clothes in a less desirable location. He argues that this sin creates artificial distinctions between brothers and sisters, and turns them into partisan judges with “evil thoughts.”

Whatever James means by “evil thoughts,” it can be assumed that at least one of those evil thoughts is the entertainment of a personal and social hierarchy based on worldly elements of status such as wealth, power, influence, beauty, or general popularity. When this kind of perilous thinking matures to its full level of evil, a person begins to think of himself more highly than he should (Galatians 6:3, Romans 12:3). Sadly, fools have more hope than those who have fallen prey to that kind of false distinction (Proverbs 26:12). In one sense, James is also warning them not to become the kinds of critics and faultfinders who haven’t removed an immoral board from their own eyes, while judging the speck of dust in their brother’s eye. In essence, he is protecting them from the multifaceted dangers and pitfalls of pride.

But James likely has an even weightier reason for encouraging them to avoid such distinctions. He commands them to hold no partiality as they “hold the faith" (verse 1). The dominant idea in the word faith is the idea of trust. Since the essence of faith is trust, those distinctions prompt the thinking person to ask, “do our contrived worldly social structures reflect a trust in God, or do we trust something else instead?” When we set up artificial distinctions in our church assemblies based on wealth, popularity, beauty or any other worldly element, we run the risk of fostering a trust in the power of those elements at the expense of a holy and authentic trust in God and his perfect power and purposes. This, of course, creates a great deal of difficulty for the person who wants to follow Christ. When this artificial distinction is allowed to reign in one’s thinking, then one becomes double-minded, thinking that worldly allegiances deliver Godly rewards (James 1:8).

James wants those to whom he is writing to know that double-mindedness promotes instability in one’s attempts to execute God’s will and to maintain real faith and trust. This double-mindedness is the kind of thing that makes it difficult for rich people (and the people who revere them) to do what needs to be done in their lives (Matthew 16:19-24). It also makes it hard for a congregation to trust God in difficult times when they have come to rely on earthly wealth, and the people who hold it.

In what ways have you made artificial distinctions?

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