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The Problem of Discrimination

The only way we can reject discrimination, as James exhorts us to, is to make ourselves servants who care about others more than ourselves.


The physician of the soul, as of the body, must be capable of doing three things. He must be able to diagnose the malady, to prescribe the remedy, and to affect a cure. As Dr. James puts the stethoscope to the heart of this first-century assembly, he discovers it is suffering from hardening of the spiritual arteries. The symptom: partial paralysis. To some, it is thought that James begins a new section in chapter two. I think not. Rather, I see it as a continuation, because there is a very close relationship between receiving the Word and respect of persons.

But what if you fail to welcome the Word? What will that produce? James says it will produce an acute case of spiritual snobbery, of partiality, of spiritual pride, of discrimination.

We've got a problem here. If I were to ask you to write on a three-by-five card right now, "What does discrimination involve?" you would probably write two or three items, none of which you are guilty of violating. But that approach totally bypasses the fact that discrimination takes a legion of forms:

• You can have economic discrimination against the rich, or the poor. We'll see an illustration of that in this first-century assembly.

• You can have academic discrimination.

• You've got sexual discrimination between male and female.

• You've got political and racial discrimination, to which we are very sensitive, and rightfully so.

• There is discrimination of age. The greatest fraud ever perpetrated on the evangelical community was the generation gap. My friend, there is no generation gap in the body of Christ.

I could go on and on, but why not let James plow your ground? Let me take just a moment to give you the overall argument. I want to give you the whole, and then we'll try to make sense out of the parts. Here are three words that you can write in the margin of your Bible that unravel the apostle's argument: command, contrast, and condemnation. The command is given in verses 1–4. The contrast is given in verses 5–7. And the condemnation is given in verses 8–13.

We are commanded not to show favoritism.

Let's look, first of all, at the command in verses 1–4. It's stated in verse 1, it's illustrated in verses 2 and 3, and it's applied in verse 4.

Mark the jarring way in which the apostle begins the section: "My brethren"—please note the basis of his teaching is the brotherhood of the brethren—"do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism." It is absolutely incongruous to your relationship to Jesus Christ. The Greek text is extremely grabbing at this point, because this can be translated, "Stop holding the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ with respect to persons."

Does it shock you that the early church was not a perfect church? Every now and then, I run into somebody who says, "Hey, Hendricks, would you recommend a church for me?" I say, "What kind of church you lookin' for?" They give me the specifications. I say: "Friend, you're looking for a perfect church. If you ever find one, don't join it; you'll ruin it."

Do you have people in your church? "Oh, yeah, we got people." Then you have problems. The early church, along with the contemporary church, was and is never a perfect church. It is a progressing church.

Look at the illustration. I take it that he is giving us a specific case study right out of first-century history. "For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring…." This is literally referring to a "many-ringed individual." They did not have banks, and the way you manifested your wealth was by the number of rings that you wore on your hand. You carried your wealth with you. So a man who had many rings on one hand and many on another was an obviously an affluent individual.

This kind of man shows up at church, dressed in fine clothes, literally expensively robed—high fashion—and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, or more accurately, ragged, humble, and unstylish. You pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes and say, "You sit over here in a good place." And you say to the poor man, "Stand over there, Mac." Or it's: "Sit here by my footstool."

Let's visit this early church, the church of the Immaculate Perception, the church that's got the truth; they're also in trouble. Their trouble is caused by the fact that they have a nearsighted usher who is suffering from a severe case of spiritual myopia. Two guys arrive at church late, but for obviously different reasons. One man arrives late because he wants to be seen by men. The other man arrives late because he doesn't want to be seen by men. He just wants to slip into the service and worship the living God.

Well, the rich man arrives first. This nearsighted usher takes a look at him, and he says: "Man, are we delighted to have you in the sanctuary! Come right down here." He takes him down. Remember, the chief seats then were up at the front on the side. "Have a choice seat," and under his breath, "We can hardly wait to pass the offering plate."

No sooner does he get to the back than the poor brother shows up. He takes one look at him and says, "Man, he's not good for a plug nickel." So he says sarcastically, "Stand over there, and if that's not convenient, sit on the floor."

For some applications, look at verse 4: "Have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil motives?" Answer to the question: Yes, you have.

And he scores them on three accounts. He says: First of all, you are making distinctions, but the distinctions are human, not divine. Furthermore, you are becoming judges, rather than allowing God to judge you. And third, you are operating with evil, rather than with biblical, motives.

They had developed a distorted perspective toward people. Is there anybody like that here today? Their evaluation was on the basis of the material rather than on the basis of the spiritual. Their evaluation was on the basis of the temporal rather than on the basis of the eternal. Their evaluation was on the basis of the external rather than the internal. And the Scripture reminds us, "Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart."

Our values are not like God's values.

I want you to note the marked contrast in verses 5–7. It's black and white. It could not be more vivid. "Listen, my beloved brethren." Now he's going to draw a contrast between God's attitude toward people and their attitude toward people. "Did not God choose the poor of this world, rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he promised to those who love him?"

Answer: Yes he did! Then if God does not discriminate against people on the basis of the external, on the basis of the material, on the basis of the temporal, why do you?

What an odious position to be in, to be found rejecting someone whom Jesus Christ has received! Make no mistake about it. James is not saying that God chooses a poor man because he's a poor man, and God rejects a rich man because he's a rich man. Your poverty or your wealth has nothing to do with God's acceptance. It's a question of the richness of your faith.

What were they doing in contrast to what God was doing? Well, verse 6 says, "But you"—it's emphatic—"have dishonored the poor man." You see the contrast? God chose him, and you've discriminated against him. Then he adds some force by means of a series of questions: "Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court?"

Answer: Yes it is.

"Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called?"

Yes, they do.

Well, how ridiculous can you get, that here you are bowing and scraping before a group of people who are hauling you into court and accusing you because of your position in Jesus Christ? Here you are giving preferential treatment to a group of people who are blaspheming the very name by which you were saved.

Favoritism defies the royal law of love.

He goes on, in verses 8–13, to give the condemnation, and it's a scorching one. It's very penetrating. My brothers and sisters in Christ, I dare you to come to grips with it. It'll revolutionize your life. "If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law…." Underline that. That's the key to the interpretation of this passage. What's the royal law? That's the law as summarized by the King himself.

You remember that occasion when a scribe came to Jesus and said, "What is the greatest commandment?" He said: "First, you are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. And, the second is like unto it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Will you note James cites only the second phase of that royal law. Why? Because he's talking to a group of people who have a vertical relationship with God, but they have a distorted horizontal relationship with other people. He says: The nature of your relationship with God determines the nature of your relationship with other people. So I'm going to give you a test. The test is: Are you in the process of loving your neighbor as yourself?

It's obvious they were not.

I think one of the keys that we miss in this statement of our Lord—by the way, you'll notice that he says, "If you are doing that, you are doing well; the Word is working in your life"—is that acceptance and nondiscrimination of others is a realization of your acceptance with God and, therefore, your acceptance of yourself. The key is found in your self-concept. My friends, if you are so hung up with yourself today, I will guarantee, you are involved in one or many forms of discrimination. It's inevitable. It is not until the Lord Jesus liberates you that you are free to flow without any partiality or personal favoritism into the life of other people.

Discrimination is overcome by servant leadership.

I'm very disturbed this morning, and I want you to know it. I am very disturbed about the evangelical community, because I find that we are deep into hero worship, and that is a form of discrimination. My dear brothers and sisters, I say it to you in love. Some of you are guilty. You are putting some of us who minister the Word publicly on too high a platform. You're cranking that baby up, and the higher it goes, the further we've got to fall when we come off. At best, we are unprofitable servants.

That was the problem with the disciples on the way to the Upper Room. They were having a fascinating discussion. Namely, who were going to be the big-time operators in the coming kingdom? One of them had his eye on the Secretary of State, and the other one had carved out the Secretary of Treasury. They all had delusions of grandeur.

That's why, when they came into the Upper Room, there wasn't one of them who was willing to stoop to the place of a common slave to wash the feet of the arriving guests. After all, if I'm Secretary of State, friend, there's somebody further down the totem pole than I am. Let him wash the feet. They all go by the door, and the King—the King!—arises and girds himself with a towel and fills the basin with some water and proceeds to wash the disciples' feet.

No wonder it blew Peter's mind. His whole circuitry came unglued, because he said, "Thou shalt never wash my feet." The Lord says: Well, Peter, if I don't wash your feet, you don't have any fellowship with me.

Peter says: Well, if that's the case, give me the complete treatment.

Jesus says: Nah, you don't need that. You just need to have your feet washed.

Did you ever ask yourself, How could the King—how could the King!—how could the King stoop to serve? If you turn back to John 13:3 for one verse of Scripture that I hope the Spirit of God will etch right on the ledger of your life, you'll never forget it. Here's the answer as to how the king could stoop to serve: "Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come forth from God and was going back to God, rises from supper, lays aside his garments, and, taking a towel, proceeds to wash their feet."

Will you mark it well, my dear friend. There is no identity crisis in the life of Jesus Christ. He knew who he was. He knew where he had come from and why he was here. And he knew where he was going. When you are that liberated, then you can serve.

I was ministering in Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. We had a Thursday morning father-son breakfast, 6:30 a.m. It was to be over by quarter of eight. There were many people from the military, quite a few people from various government offices, some craftsmen, laborers of various kinds—really quite a mix.

After I had finished speaking and the meeting was dismissed, I looked over to my right, and there was Senator Mark Hatfield stacking chairs and picking up napkins that had fallen on the floor. Ladies and gentlemen, if you are impressed that you are a United States senator, you don't stack chairs and pick up napkins. If you are impressed that you are God's gift to the body of Christ as the great preacher of this age, you don't stoop to serve. If you are impressed that, really, you are the greatest thing that ever happened to your local church, you do not serve. You live to be served.

I had an experience from which I will not soon recover. As many of you know, I am associated with the Dallas Cowboys. They graciously invited my wife and me to come to Miami for the Super Bowl. We arrived on Friday, and a guy said, "Hey, Doc. Come on out to the field with us and watch our practice." I always enjoy that, and so I went out to the field. I saw an older man on the side, and I said, "That looks like Woody Hayes." I thought, What in the world is he doing down here? I'd better watch out! I found out it was Woody Hayes.

On Sunday morning I ministered the Word of God to the men. After their chapel, they have a game meal. I usually spend that time eating with them. This time I happened to be sitting next to Coach Landry. At the next table was Woody Hayes. I said, "Coach, what's Woody doing here?" He said: "Howie, he's hurting. He needs help. I invited him to come down as my guest. Maybe the Lord will give me an opportunity to minister to him."

I went through the floor. You see, when everybody in America was on this man's case, how many individuals, including born-again believers, were reaching out? We don't reach out. We would prefer that individuals like this got their comeuppance; or, in terms of what James is talking about, discrimination.

I had a dear brother in the ministry who went down the tubes, morally—bad case. By the grace of God he was brought back into fellowship, and by God's grace restored to his ministry. One time when we were fellowshipping together, I said: "Hey, man, I want to pick your brain. I need some help. Where are we failing, in your judgment?"

He said: "Howie, when I fell into sin, it was like going down in the surf for the third time. I was looking over at the shore that was filled with believers that I knew, some of whom were crying, 'Isn't that tragic?' some of whom were cursing, saying, 'You're supposed to know the Word of God; why did you allow that to happen to you?' There were some who were wringing their hands, saying, 'What can we do?' But there was only one who risked the surf to pull me out while I was going down for the third time."

You know what we need in the body of Christ right now? A larger core of nondiscriminating people like that man, like a Tom Landry. As he said to me later, "Howie, he's in football. That's my responsibility." You probably wouldn't reach a Woody Hayes. You might not reach a lot of people in other areas. The question is, are you sensitive about the people that God brings into your sphere of influence, in which he wants the Word to go to work, to deliver you from yourself?

We had one of the Cowboys come to Christ a few years back. What a testimony! He came to me one day and said, "Howie, I'm going out to Thousand Oaks for the training camp and need an assignment."

I said, "Okay. I want you to read the Book of Ephesians."

"The what?"

"The Book of Ephesians."

"How you spell it?"

I said, "Have you found Matthew?"

"Yeah, yeah," he said, "I got it right here in the front."

I said, "Okay, find Matthew, go right, and you'll run into it."

So he gets out to Thousand Oaks, California. I found out later he read the Book of Ephesians six times, every single day. When he came back he called me up and said, "Hendricks, I've got to get together with you. You know that assignment you gave me?"

I said, "Yeah."

"Man," he said, "it blew my mind! That's a wipe out."

I said, "Okay. Come on over."

So he comes over, he opens the book—isn't it wonderful to work with people who have no idea what you know?—"Here … here it is right here! Here: 'Husbands, love your wives even as Christ also loved the church.' Whooo!" he said. "That's impossible!"

I said, "Fantastic, man! You have made the greatest discovery in your Christian life, and that is that the Christian life is not difficult; it's impossible. Let me ask you a question. What does your wife do that you appreciate?"

Typical male fashion, he says, "Oh, lots of things." "Well," I said "name one." "Well," he said, "for example, she's a good cook." I said, "Great. That's your assignment. I want you to go home and tell her how much you appreciate her cooking." "Oh, man," he said, "I—I couldn't do that. That'd take a miracle." I said, "Great. That's what God specializes in." "Well," he said, "we'd better pray about that."

We got down. I'll never forget this guy's prayer, "Oh, God, you've got a rough assignment here." Then—you know, the Lord's so beautiful—the guy gets up from his knees and goes home. His wife knocked out the best meal he'd ever seen: six courses, beautifully spread table, candlelight, the works.

I said, "How'd you enjoy the meal?"

"Aw," he said, "it was horrible."

I said, "Why? What's the matter?"

"Oh," he said, "I just sat there saying 'God, you gotta do it.'"

"Well," I said, "what happened?"

He said, "Well, finally the Lord encouraged me, and I got up and I ran around to the other side, and I grabbed her."

I said, "What happened?"

"She went as white as the table cloth," he said. "I really think she thought I was gonna clip her." And he said, "I lifted her up so that I could talk to her eyeball to eyeball, and I said, 'Woman, that was wonderful!' And I knew we were off the ground."

He gave his testimony last Friday in Dallas. It just blew the minds of the guys. He said, "Man, I want you to know that I was the most yellow man in America behind a closed door. I'll take on anybody in the NFL. It usually takes two or three in the pits. But, you put me behind a closed door, and I'm yellow." Then he said, "Jesus Christ came into my life. How do I know it's real? I'll tell you. He took a self-centered, great-big football stud like me, who had all of his life revolving around him, and he began to deliver me from myself."

Have you ever learned that? That's the antidote to discrimination in any form.

© Howard Hendricks
Preaching Today Tape #76
A resource of Christianity Today International

Dr. Howard Hendricks is chairman of the Center for Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary. He is also involved in ministry through books, publications, radio, and video.

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Sermon Outline:


I. We are commanded not to show favoritism

II. Our values are not like God's values

III. Favoritism defies the royal law of love

IV. Discrimination is overcome by servant leadership