Throughout the Bible, one finds condemnation of “respect of persons,” a term most often referring to partiality in judgment. Some have claimed that this means condemnation of discrimination in general. The strongest example supporting this view is perhaps James 2:1-9, which popular theologian John Piper uses to claim that racism is a sin. But such attempts to expand the meaning of “respect of persons” in this passage are unwarranted, given the term’s use in context and elsewhere in Scripture. It is far more plausible that this passage encourages equitable judgment, instead of declaring a new teaching of non-discrimination.
James 2:1-9: John Piper’s Argument For Anti-Racism
The biblical passage that, at first glance, most appears to condemn discrimination and advocate non-discrimination is James 2:1-9, particularly verses 1 and 9 (emphasis mine):
My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons. 2For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment; 3And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool: 4Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts? 5Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him? 6But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? 7Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called? 8If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well: 9But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors. (James 2:1-9 KJV)
It is a bit of a leap to go from here to a condemnation of discrimination generally, or even to a condemnation of other particular forms of discrimination. After all, the passage concerns only “respect of persons” (also translated “partiality”) on the basis of wealth, and even then within a particular context. Still, some contemporary commentators boldly claim that the sense of the term “respect of persons” (προσωποληψία, prosōpolēmpsía) here is easily extended, for example, to discrimination on the basis of race. Thus, John Piper sums up the first verse in this way (later revised for his book Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian, pp.183-4): “Don’t show partiality to people because of riches or race.” Piper justifies the addition of the word “race” because of how the word prosōpolēmpsía is used elsewhere:
I’ll give you one example, namely, Romans 2. Here Paul is dealing with an ethnic and racial (and religious) issue, namely Greeks and Jews. And he says that both are liable to judgment because of their sin. Then gives the reason in verse 11: “For God shows no partiality” — which is the same word as here in James 2:1.
Paul, however, is not “dealing with an ethnic and racial […] issue,” but a religious one. Piper obscures this point by setting parentheses around the actual distinction drawn in Romans 2, and focusing instead on a difference incidental to Paul’s point. The distinction is between not Jew and Greek in a racial sense, but Jew and Gentile — the former of which has received the law of the Old Testament, and the latter, who has not. Paul writes that both will be judged by God, the Jew according to the law, and the Gentile according to his conscience (see, in particular, verses 12 to 16). Race in itself plays no role in Paul’s analysis here.
The Internal Failure Of Piper’s Argument
But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Piper’s assumptions are correct — namely, 1) that the distinction between Jew and Gentile in Romans 2 is primarily and not just incidentally racial, and thus that the sense in which “there is no respect of persons with God” in His rendering “to every man according to his deeds” (Romans 2:5-11 KJV) is intended to be racial; 2) that this application of racial difference to the idea of “respect of persons” should be applied to James 2:1; and 3) that the condemnation of “respect of persons” in that particular situation should be extended to all other contexts, thus oddly establishing anti-racism as a Christian moral principle. But does Piper’s method yield coherent results when applied not only to Romans 2, but also to Paul’s two other uses of the word prosōpolēmpsía (“respect of persons”) in Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3? If it yields incoherent results, then it is a flawed method, and cannot properly be used to add anti-racism to James 2.
Paul writes to the Ephesians,
Servants, be obedient to […] your masters […] Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free. And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.” Ephesians 6:5-9 KJV
Here, there is no “respect of persons” with God when it comes to judging slaves and masters. Applying Piper’s method to this passage would mean that James 2:1 condemns not only discrimination on the basis of wealth, but also of one’s status as slave or master. And yet Paul in this very passage discriminates between slave and master, telling the former to obey the latter — and thus commanding them to discriminate between each other. This doesn’t make sense, unless Piper supposes that the Bible at once commands and condemns the very same action.
Paul writes to the Colossians, “He that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons.” This is immediately after he commands wives to submit to their husbands, and husbands to love their wives; children to obey their parents, and fathers not to provoke their children to anger; and servants to obey their masters (Colossians 3:18-25 KJV). If one were to apply Piper’s argument here, it would look like this:
I’ll give you one example, namely, [Colossians 3]. Here Paul is dealing with [marital and parental] issue[s], namely [husbands and wives, and fathers and children]. And he says that [all] are liable to judgment because of their sin. Then gives the reason in verse [25: “There is no respect of persons”] — which is the same word as here in James 2:1.
And the conclusion would be that James 2:1 thus condemns discrimination between husbands and wives, and fathers and children, despite the fact that Paul discriminates between them, and commands them to discriminate between each other. The absurd conclusion here with regard to non-discrimination is no more warranted than Piper’s conclusion with regard to anti-racism on the basis of Romans 2.
In short, then, Piper fails in his attempt to reinterpret James 2 as anti-racist. His method of justifying his interpretation seems to work with Romans 2, but falls apart when applied in exactly the same way to Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3. (Incidentally, the above argument against Piper’s method also raises a major difficulty for attempts to interpret the condemnation of “respect of persons” in James 2 to refer to all discrimination: Elsewhere in the New Testament, some forms of discrimination are not only permitted, but even demanded.)
The common thread through the above uses of the term “respect of persons” is that God equitably judges all classes of men — master and slave, husband and wife, parent and child. And the fact that people are commanded to behave differently based on their place in the household (for example, that wives are commanded to submit to their husbands) suggests that God’s judgment, though equitable for all, nevertheless differs from person to person, according to each person’s place in relation to others. That God is no “respecter of persons” does not flatten out human differences, but rather takes them into account.
No “Respect Of Persons”: Judicial Impartiality, Not Non-Discrimination
When one examines the context of the various biblical passages where “respect of persons” is presented negatively, it becomes much less plausible that it concerns discrimination between people in general. Concerning the term “respect of persons” in James 2:1, Peter Davids writes,
The proscribed behavior is focused in the phrase ἐν προσωπολημψίαις [“with respect of persons”]. This term is not found in either secular Greek or the LXX [Septuagint]. It is apparently a creation of the early Christian parenetic tradition to translate the common Hebrew term for favor/favoritism, nᾱśᾱʼ pᾱnîm [“lift face”] (LXX πρόσωπον λαμβάνειν [“receive face”] or θαυμάζειν πρόσωπον [“admire face”]) used in the OT [Old Testament] in both a positive (1 Sa. 25:35; Mal. 1:8) and a negative sense, particularly in judicial contexts (Dt. 1:17; Lv. 19:15; Ps. 82:2; Pr. 6:35; 18:5). God shows no partiality (Dt. 10:17), so neither should human judges. This theme is repeated in the NT [New Testament] (Gal. 2:6), and the coined expression for favoritism, προσωπολημψία [“respect of persons”], entered the NT tradition first as a characteristic of God’s judgment (Col. 3:25; Eph. 6:9; Rom. 2:11; Acts 10:34; cf. 1 Pet. 1:17) and then (as in the OT) as a mandate for human justice. This meaning naturally continues in church tradition (cf. E. Lohse, TDNT VI, 779-780; Mayor, 78-79).
As Davids points out, this Greek expression for favoritism in the New Testament (which is typically rendered as “respect of persons”) is adapted from a Hebrew expression in the Old Testament (which often literally means “lift face”), whose negative use pertains to improper judgments, often in a legal setting, and sometimes involving the taking of bribes or seeking the favor of the rich. Here are the examples that Davids cites, with emphasis and additional context where helpful:
15So I took the chief of your tribes, wise men, and known, and made them heads over you, captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, and captains over fifties, and captains over tens, and officers among your tribes. 16And I charged your judges at that time, saying, Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. 17Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God’s: and the cause that is too hard for you, bring it unto me, and I will hear it. (Deuteronomy 1:15-17 KJV)
Ye shall do no unrighteousness in judgment: thou shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor honor the person of the mighty: but in righteousness shalt thou judge thy neighbour. (Leviticus 19:15 KJV)
God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods. 2How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah. 3Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. 4Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked. (Psalm 82:1-4 KJV)
He will not regard any ransom; neither will he rest content, though thou givest many gifts. (Proverbs 6:35 KJV) [Here, the Hebrew word for “face” is excluded from all but the most literal translations, such as Young’s, which renders it as “appearance.”]
It is not good to accept the person of the wicked, to overthrow the righteous in judgment. (Proverbs 18:5 KJV)
Similar uses of the expression are found in the New Testament. Presented earlier were examples of the use of prosōpolēmpsía (“respect of persons”). The related adverb ἀπροσωπολήπτως (aprosōpolḗptōs) is used in a similar manner in Peter 1:17 (KJV), referring to “the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work.” And the related noun προσωπολήπτης (prosōpolḗptēs) is used similarly in Acts 10:34-35 (KJV): “Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.”
To be without “respect of persons” typically means to judge equitably, to render justice to both the mighty and the poor, so as not to privilege the wicked over the righteous.
James 2:1-9 Revisited: Judicial Impartiality In The Assembly
It now remains to return to James 2:1-9, and examine the concept of “respect of persons” there. After all, it may not be enough for some people to hear what the passage doesn’t say. They want to know what it does in fact say.
Interestingly enough, James 2:1-9 can plausibly be interpreted as being yet another example of encouraging equitable judgment. The assembly in verse 2 could be a gathering of the Christian community not for worship, but for a judicial proceeding (perhaps of the sort recommended by Paul in I Corinthians 6:1-11). Roy Bowen Ward argues just this in his article, “Partiality in the Assembly: James 2:2–4,” wherein he draws comparisons to rabbinic texts concerning judicial procedures, particularly passages encouraging impartiality in judgment by forbidding that one litigant stand while the other sits, or that one be dressed poorly while the other is adorned with fine clothes. This interpretation helps to make sense of why the details of posture and clothing are mentioned at all. And if it is correct, then the passage’s condemnation of having “respect of persons” is condemnation of inequitable judgment.
Peter Davids in his commentary on James agrees with Ward’s argument, referring to it as “the probable solution” to questions that arise when one supposes that the assembly is for worship. He writes,
The problems remain only so long as one looks on this as a worshiping congregation. If instead one remembers that partiality in biblical literature almost exclusively concerns judicial settings (cf. the citations for 2:1) and posits a Sitz im Leben of a church-court (1 Cor. 6:1-11) built upon and finding its legal basis in the Jewish synagogue’s beth-din [“house of judgment”], the example clarifies itself. The assembly is a judicial assembly of the church and both litigants are strangers to the process. The conventional nature of the descriptions and the exaggeration involved in the ἐν ἐσθῆτι λαμπρᾷ [“in goodly apparel”] are paralleled in Jewish descriptions of judicial partiality (differences in clothing, Dt. Rab. Shofetim 5:6 on Dt. 16:19; b. Shebu. 31a; differences in standing versus sitting, Sipra Kedoshim Perek 4:4 on Lv. 19:15; b. Shebu. 30a; t. Sanh. 6:2; Abot R. Nat. 1:10). Thus the details of the example are explained.
This sort of interpretation was put forward at least as early as the 1600s, albeit with fewer references to extrabiblical literature: Herbert Thorndike argues that the “synagogue” in James 2:2 “is to be understood of the court where they judged the causes and differences between members of the Church.” Thomas Manton concludes, “We may collect that the synagogue here spoken of is not the church assembly, but the ecclesiastical court or convention for the decision of strifes.” The Matthew Henry commentary also discusses this interpretation (bold mine, as well as the paragraph break):
Assembly here is meant of those meetings which were appointed for deciding matters of difference among the members of the church, or for determining when censures should be passed upon any, and what those censures should be; therefore the Greek word here used, συναγωγή [synagōgḗ], signifies such an assembly as that in the Jewish synagogues, when they met to do justice. Maimonides says, (as I find the passage quoted by Dr. Manton,) “That it was expressly provided by the Jews’ constitutions, that when a poor man and a rich plead together, the rich shall not be bidden to sit down and the poor stand, or sit in a worse place, but both sit, or both stand alike.” To this the phrases used by the apostle have a most plain reference, and therefore the assembly here spoken of, must be some such as the synagogue assemblies of the Jews were, when they met to hear causes, and to execute justice: to these the arbitrations and censures of their Christian assemblies are compared.
But we must be careful not to apply what is here said to the common assemblies for worship; for in these certainly there may be appointed different places of persons, according to their rank and circumstances, without sin. They do not understand the apostle, who fix his severity here upon this practice; they do not consider the word judges (used in v. 4.), nor what is said of their being convicted as transgressors of the law, if they had such a respect of persons as is here spoken of, according to v. 9. Thus, now put the case; “There comes into your assembly (when of the same nature with some of those at the synagogue) a man that is distinguished by his dress, and who makes a figure, and there comes in also a poor man in vile raiment, and you act partially, and determine wrong, merely because the one makes a better appearance, or is in better circumstances, than the other.”
Commentator John Gill writes, “Some think a civil court of judicature is intended, and to which the context seems to incline.” He likewise quotes Maimonides regarding the Jewish court practice of having both sides in court either sit or stand. He also quotes Maimonides regarding the practice of having both sides wear similar clothing: “(The judge) says to the honourable person, either clothe him as thou art, while thou contendest with him, or be clothed as he is, that ye may be alike, or on an equal foot.”
In a similar vein, the early 19th-century Haydock commentary states that, if one understands “assembly” in verse 2 to refer not to gatherings for worship but to “meetings where causes were judged betwixt the rich and others of a lower condition, (which exposition the text seems to favour)” then “the fault might be still greater, when the judges gave sentence in favour of great and rich men, biassed thereunto by the unjust regard they had for men rich and powerful.” It is then noted, “This was a transgression of the law: (Leviticus xix. 15.) Respect not the person of the poor, nor honour the countenance of the mighty. But judge thy neighbour according to justice.”
Granted, it is not necessary to interpret “assembly” as referring to a judicial proceeding. Indeed, each of the commentators mentioned above at least implicitly recognizes the plausibility of the alternative interpretation, namely that the author of James is referring to a religious gathering. But even if that is actually the meaning of “assembly” here, then the context of the passage and the use of “respect of persons” elsewhere still recommend against turning James 2:1-9 into an injunction against racism or discrimination in general.
The case against interpreting James 2:1-9 as commanding non-discrimination can be summed up with three basic points: First, since the passage itself explicitly specifies the sort of discrimination that is condemned, an argument is required to extend that condemnation to other sorts of discrimination. The argument for anti-racism in particular, put forward by John Piper, falls short by misreading Romans 2 and by making an unwarranted addition of the concept of race to James 2. Second, some forms of discrimination, such as between master and servant, are actually encouraged elsewhere in the New Testament, so their supposed condemnation in James 2 (that is, if one is arguing for general non-discrimination) would constitute a significant contradiction that demands an explanation. Third, similar uses of the term “respect of persons” concern judicial partiality, and it is quite plausible that such is the intended meaning in James 2.
Of course, there are other instances of the idea of “respect of persons” elsewhere in the Bible that are not discussed here, though the meaning is often evident from immediate context. James 2:1-9 is of particular interest because it is perhaps the most convincing example for those seeking to recast Christianity in the mold of contemporary non-discrimination rhetoric, or anti-racist rhetoric, whatever the case may be. But, as has been argued above, this passage does not readily lend itself to such erroneous interpretations.