Status-Mongering in the Church
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called
–James 2:1-7 [NKJV]
The above passage is generally used to show that all Christians are equal in the eyes of God, and therefore no one should be treated with partiality. That is certainly one application that can be made from James, but there is another, broader application that can be drawn: The church has no place for status-mongering.
The problem in the first century, as implied by the passage, was that wealthy people were making ostentatious displays of their wealth and thus receiving preferential treatment. By their dress and by their behavior, the wealthy were essentially telling the brethren that they were special, and Christians were confirming the beliefs of the wealthy by treating them with favoritism. James isn’t clear on whether the wealthy were tacitly expecting preferential treatment (their dress would generally indicate as such) or if the early Christians were alone in taking the initiative. At any rate, the early Christians paid attention to the displays of status (fine apparel, gold earrings, etc.) and responded by displaying favoritism.
We often do the same thing in the Church today, only our status signals are less overt. In the first century, the most common display of high status was one’s luxurious clothing; today, the most common display of high status is piety.
Piety is demonstrated in many ways: defending the truth (often in pointless debates), condemning denominationalism, holding the right opinions (e.g. beliefs regarding the indwelling of the Holy Spirit), conforming to extra-biblical behavioral norms (e.g. having two worship services on Sunday), and so on. Now, this form of status-mongering is especially clever because none of the aforementioned actions are inherently sinful, nor are they wrong. But they do serve as status markers nonetheless.
Since we are so clever in signaling our high status through innocent and occasionally laudable means, we are also clever enough to reward high status through equally clever and innocent means. For preachers that we consider high status, we generally confer high honors upon them, usually in the form of invitations to preach Gospel meetings and, more impressively, preach at lectureships. For high-status non-preacher males (admittedly, few of these seem to exist), they also get special invitations to participate in high-status events (think along the lines of Polishing the Pulpit and such like). For high-status women, they tend to receive invitations to host ladies’ days and women’s retreats.
Again, lectureships, symposiums, gospel meetings, ladies’ days, and women’s retreats are not, in and of themselves, bad things. But they can be used as a way to show preference to high-status Christians, and therefore are a means to status-mongering.
Therefore, our all as Christians is to examine the motives behind our behaviors. Are we inviting an esteemed preacher to our lectureship because he will do a good job at explaining his assigned subject? Or are we inviting him because he will lend more prestige to our lectureship? Are we inviting the ambitious young creator of a successful evangelistic program to our symposium because he will provide people with the mental tools they will need for evangelism? Or are we inviting him because he’s famous and we want to appropriate some of his fame for ourselves? Are we inviting an esteemed elder’s wife to speak at our ladies’ day because she’s a good teacher? Or are we inviting her because her name is well-known?
We are called to act on God’s behalf, without concern for our personal ambition. And from what we see in James, we are not to act out of concern for others’ ambitions either. Our job is to do what’s best for God and his kingdom. Any other motive is wrong, and the work that comes from it will be its own reward for God has no pleasure in it. Therefore, let us resolve ourselves to do those things which are pleasing to God without concern for the status that can be derived from them.