What God Calls Racism: the Sin of Partiality

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Our God does not show partiality. He expresses compassion, equity, and justice not only to people with whom He has covenanted but also to the whole human race. And God commands those who are in a covenant relationship with Him to represent Him by likewise avoiding partiality—with each other and with all people.

Partiality happens when one person superficially evaluates another person’s worth and judges them before getting to know them or their story. We practice partiality when we make judgments about a person’s character based on all things external: their accent, clothing, gender, hair, height, tattoos, skin color, etc. and then treat that person as if our judgement is true.

Partiality would not be a sin if it were consistent with God’s character. But Scripture shows us clearly: Our God is not a prejudiced God.

The Sin of Partiality

On July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting and death of Trayvon Martin. For many Christians in the United States, this case surfaced concerns about racism in our society and in the church itself. People seemed to choose sides based on whether they acknowledged or denied the existence of systemic racism. The divisive question? Is racism an individual or an institutional issue?

As the argument grew, believers became more hateful in their speech toward one another, in person and online. By the time the 2016 election season kicked off, members of the American church seemed to be at war with each other, just as nonbelievers were. When Donald Trump was elected, I watched Christians become more fractured than ever before. The American church was on fire.

Amid this chaos, I began recognizing that we have been approaching the conversation regarding ethnic tensions from the wrong angle. People from both sides of the argument—those who thought individual racism was the issue and those who thought institutional racism was the issue—have used shooting statistics to bolster their position, producing a stalemate. But if we as believers wrestled with this issue in light of the sin of partiality, each of us—regardless of ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, social class, or stance on individual versus institutional racism—must examine our hearts. If we examine ourselves through God’s Word, allowing the Holy Spirit to surface and convict us of sin, we will be moved to confession and repentance. As this happens on an individual level, we’ll see institutional fruits of repentance that will allow the American church to gain social credibility and give a biblical public witness because we are stewarding the gospel in addressing one of America’s most foundational sins.

To understand the sin of partiality more thoroughly, let’s look at James 2:

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?

For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?

Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear?

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.

For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. For the same God who said, “You must not commit adultery,” also said, “You must not murder.” So if you murder someone but do not commit adultery, you have still broken the law.

So whatever you say or whatever you do, remember that you will be judged by the law that sets you free. There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you.

James 2:1-13, NLT

During the infancy of the church, many of the people of God were poor and, as William Barclay wrote, “if a rich man was converted, and did come to the Christian fellowship, there must have been a very real temptation to make a fuss of him, and to treat him as a special trophy for Christ.”[i]

James does not beat around the bush. Paying extra attention to the rich person and neglecting the poor person is the sin of partiality. James calls this behavior what it is: evil (verse 4). Partiality is not consistent with the character of God and tarnishes the reputation of the God we represent.

We can and should apply the implications of partiality to all interpersonal relationships, whether differences from us are in economics, culture, ethnicity, education, language, personality, or political affiliation. When we purposefully give extra attention to some people we prefer, we are neglecting those we do not by default. This evil can become so normal in our practice that we won’t even understand the reason when it’s called out. The flesh is tricky because we’re most comfortable around those who are like us.

James reminded his readers that the ones they were neglecting were heirs in the same Kingdom—and gave examples of how to live out Kingdom ethics on this side of eternity. In James 1:9-11, James contrasts the poor with the rich. Poor Christians are seen as socially insignificant; they are not in the center because they’re pushed to the margins. In our day, examples of the marginalized in our churches are children, adolescents, the homeless, immigrants and refugees, prison parolees, the unmarried, and women. James argues that these Christians shouldn’t be on the margins of church life but embraced in the center because they serve as role models for those whom James classifies as rich.

The rich in our day are Christians who regularly have food in their pantry, who have disposable income to go out to eat, have more than a couple of pairs of clothes, and have a place to live with luxuries like indoor plumbing and heating and cooling. Being rich has nothing to do with the Americanized understanding of being wealthy—instead, it means having enough to live comfortably and be embraced socially. Although I am a person of color who has lived in the margins of American society for most of my life, I am rich by James’ definition.

Now, being rich, according to James’ definition, is not a sin. Seeking employment, reasonable housing, and upward mobility are not sinful, as long as the Christian’s identity is not rooted in these pursuits. Neither it is a curse to be poor, according to James’ definition. In the church we have both rich and poor, and we all need each other. I, being rich, learn much from my poor brothers and sisters around the world, specifically here in Los Angeles but also in the Global South. My “first-world problems” are not their problems, and their Holy Spirit-driven lifestyle of contentment convicts me of my pursuit of temporary trinkets, which I buy with disposable income. My confession of such practices has led me to repent before my wife and kids. One fruit of repentance we’ve implemented is sharing what we have with the poor around us. As a family, we sometimes make meals, put them in bags with toiletries, and give them to the homeless around Long Beach. Then we come home and eat the same meal (normally sandwiches, chips, and water) as a reminder to be grateful for God’s provision.

I’ve found that too often in the church, we do not value people the way God values them. We live out the sin of partiality when we neglect the poor. And when we neglect them, we don’t think about them. When we don’t think about them, they remain nameless faces we speed past daily. We forget the marginalized have a name and a story, and that they are bearers of God’s image—image bearers who, in many ways, help us deconstruct our idols of comfort, greed, and privilege.

James follows his rebuke of partiality with a pathway to repentance (James 2:8-9: “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors”).

Calling out the sin of partiality is a daunting task. And as we do this, we must be very aware that the evil one will attempt to cause division among God’s people to discredit our public witness, distract us from our mission, and tarnish Christ’s reputation. Pain and tension will surface when we call out the sin of partiality—a necessary part of healing an infected wound.

Our risen Lord bears scars from the cross. And His incarnational body, the church, needs scars—not infected wounds—to show visible evidence that healing is possible. In America, our wounds are infected, and we’ve tried to hide the infection from Jesus, our Great Physician, long enough. He wants to heal us, but to start this process, we must risk confession. We must address partiality in our lives and in our communities, as well as among our leaders. And guess what? Jesus is calling us to do today what He called the fathers and mothers of our faith to do well over three millennia ago.

Addressing Partiality among God’s People

In Acts 6:1, we read, “In these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.” In this passage, Luke unveils the existence of cultural and ethnic tensions—and the brokenness such tensions create—present in the early church.

Remember, in Deuteronomy 10:17-18, we read of God’s lack of bias and how He calls His people to reflect His character by executing justice for the fatherless, the widow, and the sojourner. God says that He is the one who provides food and clothing to each of these identified vulnerable groups. God uses His people to meet the needs of the needy.

During the time when Acts 6 was written, there was established system of support for widows who adhered to Judaism.[ii] When a widow embraced Jesus as her Savior, she was no longer permitted to receive the support she once enjoyed because she had abandoned Judaism to follow Jesus. In Acts 2:42-47, we see the church forming a system to care for needs within the body of Christ. But in Acts 6:1, the Hellenists charge the Hebrews with purposefully neglecting their widows in the daily distribution. This is not a superficial airing of suspicions; rather, it is calling out sinful actions seen in real time.

In Acts 6:2-4, the twelve apostles called a meeting, inviting believers to discuss this situation. Out of this meeting, the apostles appointed men in the congregation—seven who had good reputations and were full of the Spirit and wisdom—to lead the just distribution of support for all widows, regardless of their culture or language.

In Acts 6:5-6, we learn which men were selected. What’s amazing is that each of them had a Greek name—they were Hellenists themselves. The oppressed widows who were not receiving support would now have adequate representation in leadership; these men would be fair not only to the Hellenist widows but also to the Hebrew widows.

The result of this move was that God made His church flourish. Acts 6:7 says, “The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” When the church removed partiality, it reflected God’s love, compassion, and concern for the needy. The church lived in obedience to God’s commands.

We can learn several crucial elements of addressing partiality among God’s people from this Scripture. First, we must be able to prove that our brothers and sisters are acting in partiality. Second, we must have hard conversations that expose the sin of partiality and entreat the erring Christian to repent. And third, we must provide a pathway for repentance and restoration alongside that denouncement of sin.

Addressing Partiality among Leadership

It’s one thing to correct partiality in church members’ lives. It is even more notable and difficult when leaders step up to confront and correct other leaders who have committed the sin of partiality. Perhaps one of the most recognized instances of this in Scripture is when the apostle Paul rebuked the apostle Peter to his face (Galatians 2:11-14). Former pastor and seminary professor Thomas Constable says Paul’s rebuke of Peter came publicly because Peter’s behavior was casting doubt that God accepted Jews and Gentiles equally.[iii]

On first arriving in Antioch, Peter had no problem fellowshipping and sharing meals with Christians who were Gentiles. But when Jews came to Antioch from Jerusalem, he fell back from interacting openly with the Gentiles and then began segregating himself from them altogether. Since Peter was an apostle, he was a leader; the members of the church not only watched his actions but also his example.

Peter’s actions contradicted those of Jesus, who publicly engaged in  meaningful dialogue with an outcast woman (John 4:1-30) and chose to eat with sinners (Luke 15:2). Peter’s actions were also out of step with the very gospel that he preached and proclaimed. So Paul personally confronted Peter and called his actions what they were: sin (Galatians 2:11-14).

When Paul describes Peter’s actions as out of step with the gospel, he uses wording that indicates something needing to be set straight. The prefix to the Greek word in Galatians 2 is where we get the English word orthodontist. An orthodontist assists people with crooked teeth, placing braces on the teeth to align them and make them straight. When our oldest daughter, Bella, turned twelve years old, we consulted an orthodontist regarding Bella getting braces. After looking at the X-rays, we all agreed that braces were the best option. The orthodontist instructed Bella how to deal with the pain the braces would cause as they began straightening her teeth into alignment.

The orthodontist also provided literature on how Bella’s teeth could still be taken care of to prevent decay, disease, and even the discomforts of this correction process. Countless times during this alignment process, Elicia and I comforted Bella in her pain and corrected her when she ate foods that were counterproductive to the correction the braces were providing.

This is what happens in the life of a Christian leader who has been guilty of the sin of partiality. The gospel brings comfort that the sin is forgiven, but the process of aligning their behavior with God’s character can be painful. The embarrassment of publicly confessing sin and walking in repentance is necessary pain, though. When a leader has led others astray in the sin of partiality, the leader must also model repentance and restoration.

No More Partiality

Whenever our behavior contradicts the truth of the gospel, we need to confess our sin and seek to align our life with God’s heart. And no one is exempt from the sin of partiality. Each of us must confess our sin and walk in the fruits of repentance. Local church leaders should also proactively seek to restore Christians who practice the sin of partiality, particularly when they’re segregating themselves from other Christians because of their ethnicity. In churches where the sin of partiality has deep roots, we must deal with it in accordance to God’s Word, calling it out, offering opportunity for people to repent, and corporately working to see leadership of the oppressed ethnicity represented in the congregation.

When Christian leaders exhibit the sin of partiality in their lives, leading others to walk out of step with the gospel, other Christian leaders should call them out. Scripture shows that when leaders confess and repent of sins, people regain a healthy fear of God. The gospel’s power is put on display, and the church can gain a strong public witness for God’s glory.

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul said, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). God does not show ethnic, socioeconomic, or gender bias when saving sinners. The church must reflect God’s heart, refraining from prejudice while sharing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) with sinners from every imaginable walk of life and laboring to meet the needs of the oppressed and afflicted (James 1:27). This is what a hope-filled people can look like as we repent and remove partiality from our churches.

You’ve been reading with D.A. Horton from his new book- Intensional: Kingdom Ethnicity in a Divided World. Get the book or keep reading with a free excerpt here. D. A. is a Mexican-Choctaw-American church planter and speaker who engages with the tensions between our racial realities and the truth of the gospel. He currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Intercultural Studies at California Baptist University and pastor of Reach Fellowship in Long Beach, CA.

[i] William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, Daily Study Bible Series, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew, 1964), 76.

[ii] John B. Polhill, The New American Commentary, vol. 26, Acts (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 179.

[iii] Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Galatians: 2019 Edition,” accessed March 26, 2019, https://planobiblechapel.org/tcon/notes/pdf/galatians.pdf, 39.


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