Recognizing and Overcoming Prejudice, Part 1

By Phillip G. Kayser · James 2:1-13 · 12/7/2003

What Is Prejudice?

The Terms Used

Verses 1,9 - prosopolempteo = "to receive the face" or "to respect the person (i.e. the external condition of a man)"

Today's topic is recognizing and overcoming prejudice. It's a tough subject to get a handle on because we are aware of other people's prejudices, but it is hard to see our own. We maybe look at this chapter and think, "Man, that's terrible to be prejudiced against poor people," and that's as far as we go. We walk away from the passage without applying his point to our own lives. But James comes down on all sorts of prejudice in verse 9, even though he is only using one illustration. Verse 9 says, but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. The word "partiality" and another form of the word in verse 1 means literally to receive the face. Now that doesn't mean a lot in our culture, but the word was originally used to instruct judges to be blind to the faces of people and just seek to judge the case on its merits. That's why the paintings of lady justice always have her blindfolded while holding the balances. But James is using the same concept in a non-legal way. I tried to think of illustrations that could convey the meaning of the term in a non-judicial setting and show the hurts that people feel when we receive the face rather than the person; when their externals are more important than who they are.

How many of you have heard Dave Reever's testimony? Do you remember the part when he was lying in the hospital waiting for his wife? His face was a mess and all kinds of thoughts were going through his mind of what his wife would think him. In the bed next to him was another soldier whose face had been badly mangled. I forget now if it was a girl friend or a wife who came in, but when the girl walked in and saw how terrible he looked, she was obviously repulsed, took off her ring, gave it back to him and said that she could never live with him. The poor man was devastated. And Dave overheard all of that and was wondering what his wife's reaction would be. He was very apprehensive. Well, she walked in, came over to the bed, gave him a kiss and told him that she loved him. He said something to the effect, "Oh, honey! I didn't know if you could love me with how ugly I look." She laughed and said, "Oh, Dave. You were never good looking anyway."

The one wife received only her husband's face. Dave's wife received him as a person, even though outward circumstances had changed. And Dave Reever said the difference was that his relationship with his wife was formed in the front seat of a church, not in the back seat of a Chevy. They had a relationship that went beyond the externals. And James says, so should we. In our relationships with one another we get so caught up in externals - class distinctions, looks, culture, intelligence and clothing. I even discovered that what kind of glasses you wear can make the difference on whether you are part of the in crowd or whether you are looked down on. And James wants us to have relationships that our founded on more enduring principles. Our faith should affect our relationships. Let me repeat that. Our faith should affect our relationships. That's why verse 1 says, My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. And we will be seeing later that there is a mockery of our faith if we are prejudiced. It's a denial of how bad we were when we were received by the Lord. So the first word means to receive the face, and you can think of Dave Reever's testimony and the blessing he experienced when his wife looked not at the externals - not at his face, but at him as a person. Did that mean she was blind to the differences? No. But it meant that she did not change her behavior because of the externals.

Verse 4 - diekrithete = "to distinguish, discriminate" "to make distinctions" or "to make a difference" between yourselves

But James uses a second word to describe prejudice in verse 4. He says, have you not shown partiality among yourselves. The Greek word for "partiality" is a different word than the one we already looked at. My margin has "have you not differentiated among yourselves." Here are three other renderings: "do you not make distinctions among yourselves" (ASV), "are you not discriminating among your own?" (Berkley), "Are you not drawing distinctions in your minds?" (Moffat). James says that they have basically lumped people into categories; they have labelled people.

Let me illustrate what it means to be labeled. A number of years ago, a pastor friend of mine went to Mayor Morgan's pastoral council meeting and was part of an exercise. They worked through their normal problems and brainstorming session, but this time they were instructed to treat each other consistent with the label that was worn on their forehead. Nobody knew what was on their own forehead, but they could see the others. One person had the label "leader." Another had the label, "follower." One had no label and was treated as he regularly was. But some wore negative labels like "incompetent" and "invisible." They were still responsible for coming up with the work assigned, but the invisible guy was for the most part ignored when he came up with ideas. He would start to speak and would be cut off by someone else's ideas. And you can guess how the incompetent was handled. Even though this was just an exercise, a couple of the people got kind of bent out of shape. None of us like to be labeled. It kind of depersonalizes us. And yet many times we unconsciously label others. Some of you may immediately conjure up an image in your minds of what a person from North Omaha is like. He doesn't take good care of his property, his screen door is hanging off it's hinges, he's not thrifty, he's Democrat and other descriptors. And someone who doesn't fit that description and who lives in North Omaha is misunderstood. We sometimes use the labels "Blue Collar" and "White collar," and they can be a helpful generalization. But when we overgeneralize, we ignore the individual differences and begin to stereotype the person, and put the person into a box that he really doesn't belong in. And by the way, poor people can stereotype against rich people in a way that is unfair too. And James' point is that in the church we are believers and members of the same family - the royal family of God. And though labels are sometimes helpful, it is important that we do not lose sight of the person in the label.

So those are two ways of describing prejudice in this chapter - receiving the face and labeling. Let's just quickly look at some of the kinds of prejudice that James brings up.

The Concepts Illustrated

Class Distinctions (vv. 2-7)

In verses 2-7 James obviously deals with class distinctions. James is not saying that is wrong to realize that there are rich people and there are poor people. That's not the problem. He's not saying that you can't use the labels "white collar" or "blue collar." He's labeling people here himself. It's what you do with those labels that counts. Verse 3 says the problem comes when you give preferential treatment to one while you ignore the other; you like to hang around the one and you won't hang around the other; you talk to the one but you won't talk to the other. Verse 3 says, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes [so there's the first difference. You pay attention to certain groups - the kind of attention that results of favoritism] and say to him, "You sit here in a good place," and say to the poor man, "You stand there," or, "Sit here at my footstool." The rich is here and the poor is there. And there is a big difference between here and there. You want to be close to the one. You want to be in the good graces of the one, but the other you don't care about. Or if you see the poor person as being a ministry opportunity, you let the poor person sit near you, but you do it in such a way that the poor person still feels inferior. "Here, sit on my footstool." I have literally seen this happen in America where a Christian was trying to minister to a street person who was smelly, and it was ever so obvious that he didn't want to shake hands and didn't want to get defiled by this person. He shook hands, but couldn't wait till he could go to the bathroom to wash hands. He looked ever so uncomfortable. When the guy went to sit down on a couch, the man said, "Oh, don't sit over there! and made the man sit in a non-cushioned chair. Now I can understand why he didn't want to get his sofa dirty, but you can imagine how the person felt? The furniture was more valuable than he was, and I imagine the gospel message he heard was not nearly so loud as the message that he was an unpleasant thing to have in the living room. That's what James is talking about when verse 2 talks about a poor man in filthy clothes. That's exactly what James is talking about. Where would you have him sit? The Greek dictionary says, "the emphasis of rJuparo/ß is not upon clothes being ragged as one might expect in the case of a poor man, but upon the clothes being filthy and thus the basis for greater offense and avoidance." This guy's been homeless. He hasn't had a bath in a while. "And James is expecting us to invite him to sit with our family?!! You've got to be kidding?! I'll have to dry clean my suit?!" And James' point is that a dry cleaning bill is worth the transformation that your love and ministry could bring to such a person. Now that's bringing the message of prejudice down where it is uncomfortable. I remember as a teenager finding lice in the furniture after my parents would have Ethiopians over for coffee and fellowship. Fleas I could handle, but I hated lice. But that was part of the cost of true ministry. And you would go through a delousing search after the company was gone. But you acted as if you didn't care about lice while they were there.

But I do remember seeing missionaries that even as a child, I thought they were prejudiced. And they probably had no inkling that they were prejudiced. But as a kid I noticed the subtle differences. When the missionaries entertained whites, they put on the nice plates, when they entertained the Ethiopians, they put on the crummy plates. Or more commonly they would refuse to have Ethiopians at their table. They would eat with them in the Ethiopian homes, but they wouldn't invite the Ethiopian to eat with them. And in many subtle ways there was a patronizing attitude to those they ministered to.

And there are other kinds of class distinctions that you could probably think of. There are poor people who are prejudiced against the rich. But let's move on to another area of prejudice.

Stigmatizing Some Sins and Not Others (v. 11)

Verses 10-11 show how Christians can stigmatize some sins and let other sins go completely unnoticed. We'll come back to some of the intervening verses in a bit, but notice the odd illustration that James gives in verses 10-11. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law.

Here's the strange part: Why does James have to convince them that murder is just as much a violation of the law as adultery? This may seem like strange logic here because we see murder as being very serious. Today we would turn the statement around and say, just because you haven't murdered, don't think you are off the hook. God considers adultery sin too. But you need to realize that certain forms of murder were actually seen as honorable in that day, or at least socially acceptable sins. Let me illustrate from recent history. One of Iowa's referendum questions back in 1992 related to whether they should eliminate the law that kept duelers from serving in office. To even have that as a referendum, there must have been somebody alive who had engaged in duels. You know what a duel is, don't you? 200 years ago, if someone offended you, it was your duty to defend your pride and challenge the person to a duel. You would walk so many paces turn around and shoot a gun at each other. Real smart! But it was thought that the guilty party would die. Trial by conflict. If you didn't fight you admitted that you were wrong and bore the shame of cowardice. Eventually most states made the practice illegal. Iowa and other states didn't ban dueling. Dueling was very common in America as in Europe. One of our founding fathers died in a duel. But they tried to discourage it with this law. That is one example where murder was actually seen as a virtue. You killed a person in a duel. You were the hero.

And that was the situation here. These people were apparently coming down hard on adulterers, but failed to come down hard on the kind of murder that was socially acceptable. Isn't that shocking? That murder has at least in some periods been a socially acceptable sin? But what we ought to realize is that there are sins that we find socially acceptable today, that God still finds offensive, and that other ages found offensive. And James wants sin treated as sin, and in verse 13 he wants mercy to triumph over all sins. Look at verses 12-13: So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Do we treat certain sinners in a different category than the rest of us sinners? Are we prejudiced in this area? Well, let's see.

When homosexuals are converted and become members of churches, many times the people shun the person. They feel very uncomfortable around the person. They are acting as if the sin of homosexuality is the unforgivable sin. You might not think that applies to you, but it may in the future because I witness to homosexuals. If a person like that were to walk into this church as an unsaved man, what will your reaction be? If he converts and vows to fight against his sin, what will your reaction be when he makes his membership vows with you and when you are asked if you will support him in the Lord? This is not an abstract question. In 1 Corinthians Paul mentions that there were several former homosexuals who had rejected the old lifestyle and were now members of the church. And there are many applications that could be given.

I've been in churches where divorce is treated as the unforgivable sin. The divorcee becomes the black sheep of the congregation even though the divorce may not have been his fault, or even though he has repented of his divorce and sought to get it reconciled. How many of you have read Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter? Remember the lady who was branded on her forehead? I think Hawthorn misrepresented the Puritans. But when any person is excommunicated for sin, later repents, and comes back into the congregation, it is easy for that person to feel (whether rightly or wrongly), that they have a scarlet letter on their forehead. Supposedly the discipline has been removed and they have been restored, but they feel so uncomfortable around the others that they eventually leave. We ought to treat them like the prodigal son was treated. When there is repentance, we ought to put on a feast of rejoicing. Let them know that we know, and that it is forgiven, and we rejoice in their restoration. You see, we are all sinners who have been saved by grace. We are all people who have been rescued from hell. But the way some Christians act you would think they were hot stuff in God's eyes and not a brand pulled out of the fire. That's a form of ungodly prejudice.

Now this is not to say that God does not draw distinctions, or that we should be naïve, or that we ought not to take precautions with someone who has a besetting sin. Nor does it mean that those with serious infectious diseases should not be quarantined. Not at all. We can be prejudiced where Scripture is prejudiced. Scripture lays down rules for who can be an elder, and it bars those who have more than one wife from office. Isn't that being prejudiced? Yes. But God is the one who defines it, so it is not ungodly prejudice. If I committed adultery, I could not just repent of it and come back into office. God would not accept me back as an elder, but He would restore me as a member in good standing with this church. But the point is, that God lays down the distinction, not us. And we need to be ever so careful that we do not make people in the church feel like second class citizens because they have had a child out of wedlock, or have been forgiven of socially unacceptable sins. If God forgives the repentant, who are we to make them feel miserable? And I'm very thankful that this church works hard at that.

Find Examples Of Prejudice In Your Life

In your outline I have asked you to find examples of prejudice in your own life. Write them down as the Spirit convicts you. Don't just focus on other people's prejudices, but ask God to show you your own. Let me give a couple definitions of prejudice that show various facets. Prejudice has been defined as "being down on something you're not up on." Do you do that? Do you get down on people before you discover what they are really like? Have you ever categorized a whole football team as being cheats or arrogant because one or two on the team have been that way? Have you ever treated all Jews or all Catholics according to a stereo type? If we are down on things and people that we are not up on (in other words, we don't know much about them) then we need to repent of prejudice.

Another definition of prejudice is "The dislike of the unlike." Have you ever called people weird because they eat different or dress differently than you do? Do you allow those externals to affect your relationship with them? Then you are prejudiced. Racial prejudice stems from the dislike of the unlike. Cliques that form in a church stem from the dislike of the unlike.

Would you be willing to work with the people at the Open Door Mission or does their personal hygiene pose a barrier that you can't cross over? Or perhaps you grow cold to a person because of their friends or their political views. It's easy to write off all Democrats, or all Republicans or all Independents. But such stereotyping forgets that they are people who may have disagreements with their party too. I actually knew a Democratic Congressman in Georgia who was more conservative than most republicans. He's the only Democrat I voted for, but we need to realize that people can't always be pigeon holed.

What about prejudice against people who are senile in nursing homes? Or people who are just a little less smart then you? What about your views of children? Christ reproved the disciples in Matthew 18 for being prejudiced in their views of children. Whatever your particular prejudice, I want you to hold it firmly in mind because God wants you to deal with it. Don't let this be an academic exercise or you will find yourself hardening to the Spirit's convictions. When God convicts, you need to be quick to respond.

The Seriousness Of Prejudice

Your Prejudice Is Inconsistent With Faith (v. 1)

We won't be able to get to Roman numeral III today – the practical steps for overcoming prejudice. But let's backtrack a bit as we get into Roman numeral II. James treats prejudice as being serious in two ways. First of all it is serious because it is inconsistent with faith. Verse 1 says, My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. Don't be holding faith and prejudice in the same hand; it does a dishonor to the Lord of glory that you have faith in. Think about it. If you think that loving Dave Reever was difficult, Christ, who was the Lord of glory had to come down from glory to love people far more ugly than Dave Reever. He came down to love sinners; rebels; enemies that he describes variously in Scripture with revolting figures - figures like leprosy, putrefying sores, dung, menstrual cloth. He pictures us as being very unlovable. And when you think of what faith in Jesus Christ means, you will realize why prejudices are inconsistent with faith; are a slap in the face of the Lord of glory. But we not only hurt the Lord of glory, but we hurt each other. We are like that woman who threw her ring on the bed and said, "I can't live my life with you." Have you said by your actions, "I can't spend time with you." "I could never invite you over for dinner." James gives a very good example of why such prejudice is totally inconsistent with faith. And we will pick that up more next week when we deal with the solution.

Example (vv. 2-7)

Your Prejudice Is Inconsistent With Love (vv. 8-9)

Example (vv. 10-13)

But I want to end by saying that prejudice is also inconsistent with love. Verses 8-9 say, If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. Agape love is other centered, not self-centered. And so James is saying, "If (when you give the rich person a favored seat) you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall you're your neighbor as yourself,' you do well." We will pick up on that next week. That is a key passage which uncovers the reverse discrimination that is experienced in America against the rich and against other groups. But for today, I want to just point out that partiality of any sort that is not allowed by God in Scripture is inconsistent with love. Prejudice is the very opposite of love. It measures the world by ourselves. If people don't talk like us, we snicker or ignore them. Prejudice is the dislike of the unlike. And love then is a major part of James solution to prejudice. And we need to pray that the Lord would give us a loving, servant's heart.

Next week I want to deal with how minorities use this prejudice issue as a club to intimidate and manipulate majorities. Some of the most racist people I have seen have been minorities. And detailed scholars have shown how James is evenhanded in his treatment of partiality on all sides. But most of next week's sermon will probably be looking at several practical steps to overcoming prejudice. But for today let's commit to imitate the Lord of glory whom we trust and love by loving the unlovable and received the rejected.