“Show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1)
I recently witnessed an online conversation about COVID-19 vaccines, regarding a doctor who was advocating for the vaccines. One individual, who claims to be a Christian, said of the doctor, “He’s gone to the dark side.” This doctor also claims to be a Christian.
This illustrates something I find very troubling, especially in light of the opening verse: the ease with which we show partiality—or “make distinctions” as James goes onto say—among believers, as well as how much we make of these distinctions. I’m not sure what this individual meant by “the dark side,” but something along the lines of “the wrong team,” or even “the enemy” seems to be the point.
It gets down to this: what lines or distinctions are we drawing and making much of as Christians? Or to put it another way: who are we most embarrassed to associate with?
When we meet a new neighbor, are we more interested to learn if they are a Christian, or how they view masks and the vaccine? When we meet a local teacher, does the fact that they are a Christian mean more to us than whether they share our opinion on Critical Race Theory? Are there Christians we are embarrassed to associate with, because of their views on these matters, or the way they vote?
I want to point out two biblical truths that relate to this, anticipate an objection, and then suggest a two-pronged way forward.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18, Paul says: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Paul draws a line through humanity, separating humanity into two groups. And the difference between these groups is that they have radically different views of the cross, and what God was doing in that moment. One group sees it as folly: The gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for sinners, is perceived as meaningless, foolish, even offensive.
The other group sees the cross as the very power and wisdom of God. They see it as the clearest demonstration of God’s glory—of who he really is—and in response, they boast, glory and rejoice in him alone.
It should not be controversial for Christians to affirm that this distinction reigns over and overshadows all other distinctions. To be “in Christ” or “outside of Christ” matters more than anything else in this life.
Thus, when we engage with our fellow human beings, the quality that should be most pressing for us is their relationship to Christ. All other lines and distinctions pale in comparison to this.
But it seems to me that we have minimized this distinction, and allowed other lines and distinctions—perhaps those made by the media and politics, as well as our sinful hearts—to take priority.
A second biblical truth relates to this: we are told that those who are “in Christ” will live forever, with one another, in a new creation. The reality of eternity is one that we so easily neglect in our world of instant-gratification, endless activity, and immense wealth and comforts. And one of the many harmful results of this neglect is failure to embrace our true and eternal family here and now.
There is a vast group of people—from every nation, tribe, people and language—with whom we will live forever, in perfect unity, loving, worshipping and rejoicing in our great God. Should this reality not affect how we engage these people here and now?
If God will not—and is not—ashamed or embarrassed to call us his own, who are we to be ashamed and embarrassed to identify with fellow Christians, whatever political or social tribe they may seem to belong to, whatever sinful thoughts or behaviors they struggle with, or have yet to address? If they are truly a beloved, blood-bought child of God, and he receives them with joy, we ought to endeavor to do the same.
Now, this certainly brings up an objection. It will be claimed that the lines being drawn and made so much of are, in fact, matters of sin, and perhaps more than that, matters that call into question whether one is actually a Christian or not. James will go on to say that mere verbal affirmation of faith in Christ with no changed life counts for nothing, it is true.
But do we respond to such concerns in a uniquely Christian way? Are we “quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19)? Are we “eager (EAGER!!) to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3)?
Furthermore, do we actually understand their position and convictions, or do we just take the quick characterizations given by the media?
The truth is, many issues being debated so passionately today have biblical concerns on both sides. You might say something like, “This concern outweighs that concern.” Fine. But do you really have the place to say, “Everyone has to weigh concerns in the way I do, or they’re clearly not a Christ follower.” Or, “Everyone has to believe the evidence that I’ve found to outweigh all other evidence, or they’re clearly not a Christ follower.”
And if we can’t say that, then what right do we have to show partiality and separate from “them”? Or act embarrassed by them?
Let me suggest a two-pronged way forward. First, we need to fight to display the unity that is in Christ. It is fundamental to our faith that belonging to Christ by grace, through faith, changes everything. It is a new identity that overrides everything else.
But by so many of our actions and words, all across the political and ideological spectrums, we have communicated that unity in Christ means very little. We seem to be more passionate about finding unity around specific cultural or political matters, than around Christ.
Secondly, and at the same time, we must fight for—and pray for—clarity on truth, beauty and righteousness. God’s words in Isaiah 28:17 should awaken a longing in us: “And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plumb line; and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”
God knows exactly what justice and righteousness look like. He knows exactly what lies and deceptions look like.
But our perception, even as Christians, is flawed: we have planks in our eyes, we believe lies, we think more highly of ourselves than we ought.
But we can fight against this by submitting ourselves to God’s word, surrounding ourselves with others doing the same—ideally those with different perspectives and blind spots–and praying for wisdom.
And both of these paths forward require us to be in regular fellowship with others who “hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
It is very difficult to apply quick labels and characterizations to people and then dismiss them if you are actually living life with them (but incredibly easy to do when you are not!).
Partly because you are forced to realize that the outworking of God’s activity in their life may look quite different than in yours, but cannot be easily dismissed. They have passions and concerns that differ from yours, but are still biblically motivated (with other motivations surely mixed in, as do you).
If they boast in “the word of the cross” as their only hope in life and death; if they will spend eternity rejoicing in God along with you and I, then part of our responsibility is to welcome them as Christ as welcomed us (Romans 15:7). And if you consider how joyfully, how tenderly, how patiently and graciously, how humbly and servant-hearted like Christ has welcomed us, then, well…