Fashion and seating order hardly seem like the most pressing social issues, whether in modern America or in first-century Jerusalem. It’s odd, then, to read which topics James, the brother of the Lord, chose to tackle in his letter to the churches, taking up valuable space in the canonical scriptures to do so. He wrote: “For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (Jas. 2:2–4).
Let me tell you honestly: I think what the churches were doing here, which James was confronting, makes perfect sense. And, I’ll wager, so do you.
Imagine, for a moment, a struggling church plant in one of the least religious parts of the country – say, the Pacific Northwest. Every week, the little congregation sets up their folding chairs in a rented school auditorium, setting up the makeshift audio amplification system, the lectern, the drum set. And every week, they see their tiny flock, with their little dab in the offering plate – just enough to make the rent for another week. But one morning, a world-famous computer industry executive, one of the wealthiest corporate tycoons in the world, enters through the back doors. You see the face you’ve seen on business magazines and leadership manuals, the head you’ve seen talking about investment and economic strategy and global philanthropy on television. Wouldn’t you stop what you’re doing and greet him, thank him for coming? If the chairs were crowded with “regular people,” wouldn’t you ask someone to give up their seats for this man and his family? Wouldn’t that just make sense? After all, what if he were to come to Christ?
The kingdom is driven by the gospel, and the gospel is defined by strangeness.
Wouldn’t that be a powerful witness to your community that Christianity isn’t for losers or for the superstitious weak? And what if this multibillionaire learned to tithe? Think of the missionaries you could send to unreached people groups. Think of the lives you could save, in the name of Christ, through global water purification and hunger alleviation. That just makes sense. This I know. But the Bible tells me “no.”
The churches thought they were politically savvy by showing partiality to the wealthy and powerful, those whose influence could give the church cultural cachet and perhaps save them from persecution and marginalization. The problem wasn’t that they were too politically savvy, but that they weren’t politically savvy enough. They didn’t have the next trillion years in view. “Has God not chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” (Jas. 2:5), he wrote. Notice the favor of God doesn’t rest with the poor simply because they are poor. These are “rich in faith.” But the heirs of the kingdom don’t enter by accident but instead by the initiative and calling of God. Paul told the church in Corinth to remember that “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). Why is this important? It’s because the kingdom is driven by the gospel, and the gospel is defined by strangeness. The wisdom of God and the power of God aren’t defined by the way human cultures define wisdom and power. God’s wisdom and power aren’t things to drive human ambition; they aren’t things at all. They are a Person: Jesus of Nazareth (1 Cor. 1:24), who is a stumbling block that crosses the cultural boundaries of Jew and Greek (1 Cor. 1:23).
I once read a leadership book by a business executive in which he pointed out the importance of always being friendly to one’s company’s interns. His concern was not compassion or kindness, but Machiavellian self-interest. After all, he advised, you don’t know where these interns are headed. One of them just might rocket up the corporate ranks faster than you, and may be your boss one day. You want to be kind to them when they are brining in your coffee because, for all you know, they may one day be in charge of your annual performance review.
That’s kind of crass, I’ll grant you. But it isn’t dumb. And it is, in one sense, the argument James was making. The kingdom of God changes the culture of the church by showing us a longer view of who’s important and who’s in charge.