“For 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; And 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: Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?” (James 2:2–4, AV)
Kowtowing refers to the act of kneeling and touching the forehead to the ground as a token of homage and respect. It comes from a practice in far-eastern cultures. However, we use the phrase today to refer to the act of fawning over a person for personal advantage. For example, one might kowtow to the boss or the leader of an organization in order to gain favor.
Here, James is speaking critically of any assembly of believers that kowtows to the rich and alienates the poor. Anytime one practices kowtowing to a group of people, there will be a group that feels alienated as being left out. Such is the case to which James speaks. I have sensed in some Bible preaching churches a bit of kowtowing. Parishioners will kowtow to the leadership. It is not that they should fail to honor those in the difficult position of leading in a church, but their priorities are often taken away from ministry to the non-leaders.
Yet, there is often a significant kowtowing by the church leaders to those who are rich in a congregation. It can be because money in the collection plate is vital to the church’s ministry. A prime example from Hollywood is seen in a movie, “The Bishop’s Wife,” where the Bishop kowtowed to a lady in the parish who would be a major contributor to building a grand new place of worship. The problem was that this new grand edifice would not meet the deeper needs of those in the community.
We can never afford to neglect the poor who are in our congregations. This does not mean that poverty will be eliminated. Even Jesus stated, “you will always have the poor among you” (John 12:8). However, it does mean that we should care for the poor just as we care for the rich. We are not to show preference for one over the other.
This work of treating the rich and the poor in our assembly as equals should not be so difficult. I think we make it difficult when we look at the outward appearance rather than the heart, which we cannot see. Christ is the great leveling ground. Everyone who has faith in Jesus stands on equal footing. At the foot of the cross, there is no difference between rich and poor. There is not difference between black and white. There is no difference between the boss and employee. There is no difference between male and female. All have been made one with equal standing in Christ.
If there are prejudices in our hearts, we need to confess these and repent. We also need to examine our actions. Do our actions towards others in our congregations speak of the reality that Christ has made us one? If not, we need to change our course of action.