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Breaking Free from Favoritism

Understanding James 2 through its cultural context

James 2:1–13:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong? 

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. 

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. 

Often when I've heard James 2 addressed in a sermon or in a Bible study, the message was a simple admonishment to “not show favoritism” or perhaps “don't discriminate based on how well someone is dressed.” These lessons have their place in our image-conscious and outwardly-focused society.

However, I believe there is a message within this passage that is more complex and more fundamental than the typical surface treatment we often hear. Far beyond the simple command to “not show favoritism,” James instructs believers on how they ought to live as a community that truly loves God and each other. Learning more about the cultural context and the people to whom the letter was addressed is critical to understanding James’ message.

As I studied the first century setting, I learned that there were distinct social classes of haves and have-nots, and that society was structured by a rigid patron-client system of reciprocity. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh give a good description of this in Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels:

Patron-client systems are socially fixed relations of generalized reciprocity between social unequals in which a lower-status person in need (called a client) has his/her needs met by having recourse for favors to a higher-status, well-situated person (called a patron)....By entering a patron-client arrangement, the client relates to the patron as a superior and more powerful kinsman, while the patron sees to his clients as to his dependents (p. 388).

The patrons and clients would formally align themselves with each other in order to better their own personal situations. Patrons depended on their clients to increase their societal power and honor. For example, the more dependent clients a patron had, the more votes that patron owned at election time.

Clients depended on the favors their patrons could provide (whether financially or socially), though they were always expected to repay in whatever way their patron deemed necessary, and whenever the patron determined. If the patron wasn't satisfied with what the client paid in return, the patron would squeeze everything they could from their dependent through exploitation and dragging them into court, as referenced in James 2:6.

When I first learned about the patron-client system, I was struck by its similarity to another societal dynamic from my Filipino culture. Utang na loob is a Philippine cultural value of reciprocity within community. This value recognizes the importance of honoring another person’s contribution and their impact in one’s life. However, when corrupted by colonialism, utang na loob often became a principle that led to perpetual bondage because it was no longer done in the context of mutuality and equality. Many Philippine politicians have employed this principle to win elections. By granting favors to Filipinos who are economically disadvantaged, some politicians have been very successful in maintaining loyal voters and retaining their power, despite widespread human rights abuses. Worldwide, the poor and marginalized often show favoritism and great deference for the wealthy and powerful.

The preeminent Filipino-American author Carlos Bulosan illustrated this dynamic in a story he tells of his mother, who was a poor bean trader in a rural market in the Philippines. While selling beans in the market one day, Carlos’ mother was enraptured with the sight of an elegant and obviously wealthy young woman. When she approached his mother, the young woman scoffed at the admiration she received.  “What are you looking at, poor woman?” she asked, before callously striking his mother’s basket of beans and dashing off. Carlos’ mother was left, on her knees, gathering her beans from the ground, saying repeatedly “It is all right, it is all right.”

The patron-client system in the first century context, like utang na loob to Filipinos, was such an integral part of society that someone wouldn’t simply wake up one day and decide she/he didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. People like Carlos’ mother who had been clients in their contexts viewed dependence on and acts of honoring a patron as the only way to live and meet even the most basic of needs. They likely thought there was no other option for them to survive.

With this context in mind, consider James’ message. James gives a radical perspective to the people within this first century society—one that turned their world upside down! Clients, who were the poor and marginalized in society, were actually the ones chosen by God to occupy the high position (James 2:5). And the rich patrons are told to take pride in their humiliation since their wealth and power will “pass away like a wild flower” (James 1:10). This message clearly was inconsistent with how society had been structured in that day.

James 2:8–10 illustrates that the poor had actually been breaking the scriptural commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself. The poor were mistreating their fellow sisters and brothers by honoring patrons and not treating each other with the same honor. They were breaking the scriptural commandment of loving your neighbor as yourself in how they viewed themselves and by how they chose to relate to others. Instead of aligning themselves with God and recognizing the high position and inheritance God had already given them as people who were poor in the eyes of the world but who loved God, they chose to align themselves with their patrons, who in many cases were not aligned with God.

While I quickly recognized the parallel between the patron/client dynamic as it played out within the first century context and the similar dynamic in my homeland of the Philippines, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began to recognize the patron/client patterns in my life here in an American Christian context.

For those of us who have been marginalized in some way—whether it is due to our gender, race, or ethnic background—there is often societal pressure to treat various groups of people differently because we perceive it necessary for self-preservation. We may find that we are accepted more by those with greater power and privilege if we become partial to their way of doing things or constantly defer to others to the point that we believe we ourselves do not matter.

When I was newly-married, one of the women at my church gifted me with what she believed was valuable “marriage wisdom.” She told me that when her husband had some plan for them as a couple which she considered wrong, it was her duty as a good wife to go along with what her husband thought they should do. She believed it was our role as wives to always defer to our husbands, thereby ensuring a happy marriage. Our husbands would be our patrons, making decisions on our behalf.

A similar but more subtle message is one that we often see in the American church. In previous churches I attended, the emphasis on men’s spiritual growth and leadership was always prominent. One particular church offered numerous men’s Bible study courses and spiritual formation classes. But classes for women were a bit different. There were fewer Bible classes available to women and hardly any opportunities for women that focused on spiritual formation. Instead, there were classes on being a good wife or mother. As women in this community, we were implicitly taught that our spiritual formation was not nearly as important as men’s spiritual formation.

I’ve had experiences within Christian communities where the cultural and ethnic identities of my friends and family were devalued. There were numerous instances where their dignity was recognized only when they adopted someone else’s cultural practices and abandoned their own. Their imago Dei or image-bearer status was viewed as conditional upon their assimilation into the dominant culture.

So after years of socialization that our development, our perspectives, and our voices are not important, we may start believing that we inherently do not have high worth or position in God's eyes like some others do. We may start believing that we derive our worth or standing from those who are rich or powerful in the eyes of the world. I, myself, through a myriad of experiences related to my culture, ethnic background, and gender, had begun to internalize a lower sense of value and worth. I saw myself in a way that was probably similar to those of the “clients” or the poor recipients of James’ letter. Instead of recognizing and really believing in my “high position” and the high position of others who were marginalized, I often showed partiality to those who were in some way a patron for me. If I just received the approval of these people with power, then maybe, I thought, I would be able to survive without being trampled on too badly.

To some, my willingness to constantly seek others’ approval and value others’ perspectives over my own seemed admirable. They thought I was “valuing others above myself” (Phil. 2:3-4). But not recognizing the image of God in myself is not humility. We are each to recognize the position and value God has given us, relating with others from that position and not from a position of inferiority to others.

So how can we work to mend broken relationships and address this dynamic within our communities? We need to recognize that how we live the good news in community is part of the good news itself. How we relate to each other and view ourselves is an illustration of our witness and the values we hold.

The first step of addressing this is for us to recognize where we may have become part of a broken, patron/client-like community. James highlights some specific examples he saw happening in the community.  One example is the preferential seating for the rich and unfavorable seating for the poor. In our churches and communities, to whom do we show honor? 

To whom do we show disregard? Are we affirming the high position and dignity of all? Or are we marginalizing some?

Once we recognize the problem, we need to actively seek mutuality and healthy interdependence in community. Showing partiality goes against Jesus’ commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.  

For those of us who have been marginalized and found ourselves in “client”-like roles in our communities:

  • Claim the ascribed honor and high position that we receive directly from God; recognize that we are each made in God’s image.
  • Break free from viewing ourselves as subject to and inferior to those who hold the power (our “patrons”). They should not take God’s position in our minds or hearts. Recognize the personal agency with which God has empowered us. There is so much that God has given us the power to do! God created us to have an influential impact and voice on our community!

For those of us who wield power and privilege in communities (“patrons”):

  • Claim the ascribed honor that we receive directly from God and not from our position in the community, our power or success, or from others’ recognition of our good work helping people.
  • Break free from viewing ourselves as the protectors and sole leaders in our communities. We must recognize that we are missing out on experiencing the wisdom and talent that others were created to share with us.

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