Bible Note #50: James 2:1 and “Us vs. Them” Thinking

There is no question that our Christian faith can become corrupted.  And, of course, one of the ways that our faith can become corrupted is when we adopt bad or wrong doctrines.  That’s why it’s important for us to learn our theology carefully and well.

The base of an abandoned steel-making blast furnace; photo by GAC

Theology isn’t just for professionals like pastors and seminary professors.  If you think about God, you are a theologian.  Theology is simply the work of thinking about God.  You can study and think carefully and seriously about what you believe.  Or just believe any idea about God that just pops into your head.  The first way generally leads to good theology.  The second way almost always leads to bad theology.  Do good theology.

But let’s remember that the Christian faith is not just a set of ideas and doctrines.  The Christian faith is a way of life, and that way of life is based on a personal relationship with the living God.  Of course, you can’t be in a real relationship with another person without knowing true information about that person, and that’s why doing good theology is so important.  But a personal relationship goes far deeper just knowing information about that person.

That’s especially true when it comes to a relationship with the living God.  That kind of relationship changes us.  It changes what we love, what we value, what we want.  A healthy Christian faith means that we begin to love what God loves and value what God values and want what God wants.  Living out God-shaped loves and values and desires is what the Christian way of life and the Christian faith are all about.

But that’s also the place where our Christian faith can become corrupted.  It’s not just bad theology that corrupts our Christian faith.  Our Christian faith also becomes corrupted when we let the world tell us what to love and value and want.  And in fact, I’d say that letting the world tell us what to love, value, and want is the most common way Christians mess up their faith.

Among all the New Testament writers, James is most especially interested in helping us understand that fact about our faith.  He wants us to realize that we can really mess up our faith by allowing wrong attitudes and values from the world around us to creep into our way of life.

Crown of thorns in blossom; photo by GAC

Okay, in our study of James, we’ve come to chapter 2, verse 1.  This is what he says: “My brothers and sisters, you must hold the faith of our glorious Lord Jesus Christ without favoritism.” [my translation]

What does James mean by “favoritism”?  The word that he uses here means to favor some people over others, to show a preference for some types of people over other types of people, to place a higher value on some people than on others.  Human beings love to make distinctions among themselves.  We do it to divide ourselves into tribes.  There is “us” and “them.”  There are “our kind of people” and “not our kind of people.”

When we do that sort of thing, it always turns dark and ugly.  Our tribe is always good; their tribe is always bad.  This is the soil out of which grows racial bigotry, nationalism, and all sorts of wicked arrogance and pride.  Dividing into “us” and “them” is always a way of grasping after power for me and my tribe over them and their tribe.  A little later in his letter, James is going to tell us that this power-grabbing is the root of all manner of evil and wickedness.

“But wait,” you may be thinking.  “Doesn’t the Bible itself make a distinction between the righteous and the unrighteous, between saints and sinners?”  Well, you have to be very careful about that.  The Bible does judge actions as righteous and unrighteous.  But it doesn’t judge people that way.  When the Bible judges people, it grabs every single one of us by the scruff of the neck and tosses us in the bin labeled “sinners.”  If you look in the bin marked “righteous,” you’ll find that there’s no one in it.  It’s empty.  Every human being who ever has or ever will live—except Jesus—is in the bin labeled, “sinner.”

photo by GAC

The Bible makes no such distinction among human beings.  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Period.  End of story.  None of us is better than someone else in God’s eyes.  When God sees our sin, he doesn’t see good sin and bad sin.  He just sees sin.  That’s why James forbids us to treat some people better than others.  We are to welcome everyone into the community of the church as one sinner welcoming another into the place of grace.

There’s another reason why James finds this distinguishing between people to be unacceptable.  It’s because he understands that, in the eyes of God, there really is only one category of human being—those who bear his image.  Every human being, regardless of the color of their skin or where they were born or what they believe or regardless even how they behave—every human being bears the image of God and must always be treated with respect and dignity.

And to make this point even clearer, let me adjust the way I’m saying it.  Traditionally, we say that human beings “bear” the image of God.  But I think, strictly speaking, that isn’t exactly right.  When we say that we “bear” the image of God, we can get the idea that the image of God is something that we have or that we possess.  But to speak more accurately, human beings do not “bear” the image of God or “have” the image of God.  Human beings are the image of God.  To be human is to be the image of God.

So, the next time you look at another human being—any and every other human being—I want you to remind yourself that you are looking at the image of God.  And then treat that person accordingly.

© 2022 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved; use with attribution.

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