Summary: What does God think about respect of persons.
The Dangers of Elitism
There have always been people who think they are better than everyone else. Some feel they are better than everyone else because they have a lot of money. Others because they have power. There are those who feel superior because they belong to a certain social class, religious group or racial group. Still others feel a sense of moral superiority. We think of the Pharisee who starts his prayer that he was thankful he was not like everyone else while looking down at the publican. Various forms of elitism have been a plague on society.
What does God think about people who have an air of superiority over others. The simple answer is much. We are reminded that “Pride cometh before a fall, and a haughty heart before destruction. (Proverbs 16:18). Here in this morning’s text, James reminds us that the rich oppress the poor, bring them before the judgment seat and blaspheme the name by which they are called. “Blaspheme” is a very strong word which is usually used in Scripture in relation with God. To blaspheme someone is to commit blasphemy against God as humans are created in His image. So it is abundantly clear what God thinks about elitism. But this is the way the world works. And as long as this age endures, this is the way it shall remain. This is because humankind is in absolute rebellion against God, who is revealed in Scripture. There are those who think that all we need to do to improve the world is to apply Biblical teaching on morality, especially the words of Jesus. If only we kept the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount, all would be well. Humankind has tried for thousands of years to do this. These teachings represent the highest moral authority and elevated teaching. Yet, the stench of elitism continues. The church will accomplish nothing by joining in worldly style demonstrations against racism and other “isms.” People need rather to be transformed by the preaching of the gospel and their believing this message.
Therefore, the words from James were written to the church and not to the world in general. These represent the moral code the church is to live by. As troubling as elitism is in the world, it is even more sad that we see these worldly values pop up in the church. We have “First” churches. This does not mean they were the first churches in the community. They might have been, but “first” churches are where the elite go. The churches segregate the rich from the poor. Churches are too often segregated by race and denominational pride and standards of purity. There are those who emphasize the badge of election. So elitism isn’t just about money and social status. Even relatively poor churches can in some way be elitist. Churches are made up of individuals, and elitist values tempt us as well.
James begins the chapter with a warning to the church not to show respect of persons in the Christian assembly. Social rules exist outside the Christian assembly. Masters are masters, and slaves are slaves. This does not change when the believers leave church. Paul is abundantly clear about this. But these things are absolutely not to be practiced within the church. He comes harshly against the Corinthian church because they were observing social rank at their love feasts. They were being seated according to rank, with the more affluent and higher caste members being served first. They got the best food and wine, and ate and drank to excess. Greco-Roman social rules did say that everyone assembled including slaves were to be given food and drink. But they could not eat and drink until their superiors were done. The quality and quantity of the food could be restricted. Their bringing worldly social distinctions into the church was the cause of God’s judgment upon them. Some had fallen ill and others died. This shows how seriously God takes the equality of believers at church. So it is not only James who teaches this. Peter does also. In this, they are following Jesus Himself.
James goes on to give an example. If a rich person dressed in fine clothes and other trappings of wealth came into the assembly, he was not to be given preferential treatment. And if a poor person or slave came in, he was not to be discriminated against because he or she was poor. The church was to observe the equality of all believers in the assembly. When they dismissed, the social distinctions reverted. The church did not preach the overthrow of society. That would have been suicidal to the church’s existence. The example of the slave rebellion under Spartacus is a grim reminder of how ruthlessly those who challenged the social order were treated.