Can the PCA Remain United? (Part 4) Can We Act as Impartial Judges?

I would like to make an argument here that if we show partiality in judging a brother in Christ outside of the church courts (Presbytery & General Assembly) then it will make it virtually impossible to be impartial in our judgement when a brother’s case comes to a church court. It appears, based on what many are writing and speaking on social media, that the purpose of Overtures 23 & 37 is to get Greg Johnson out of the PCA and prevent another Greg Johnson from coming into the PCA. Its interesting to me that all the arguments for these Overtures at one point or another come back to Dr. Greg Johnson. He is a fellow elder being judged on social media by those who will judge him in the church courts. First, in our votes regarding Overtures 23 & 37 in our presbyteries. Secondly, as we possibly make a final vote regarding those overtures at the 2022 General Assembly and decide on matters related to SJC actions pertaining to him, God’s Word urges us toward extreme caution as we act as judges. It is imperative that we are able to act as impartial judges.

Acting impartially isn’t merely about the kind of judgment we make. It’s also about the kind of judge we are and the kind of character we display. One could come to the right decision while still committing the sin of partiality. With God, the ends don’t justify the means. Displaying God’s glory in the means we use are just as important as the outcome of our judgment as elders in Christ’s Church.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. 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? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God 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? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:1-13 ESV)

In James 2:1-13 we see the Holy Spirit, through James, challenge those who profess Christ but commit the “sin of partiality”. To get James 2 in context we need to look at James 1. There James identifies true Christians as one who remain steadfast in the faith despite the trials they face, seek God for wisdom, and are moved by their faith to not only hear God’s Word but to put it into practice, that is, to be “doers of the Word”. (1:3-25). Christians are those who remain steadfast, seek God for wisdom, and put God’s Word into action in their lives.

This general context leads into James 1:26-27. This often-quoted passage serves as the bridge between what James says in 1:3-25 and what he will say about making judgements as a church in 2:1-13. First James observes that a professing Christian who does not bridle his tongue not only deceives himself but also has a worthless religion (1:26). He will pick up why bridling the tongue is important for Christians in 3:1-12 where he concludes that the tongue is a “restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8). Ultimately for James, how one uses their tongue is a great indicator of the reality of their faith and standing before God.

James goes on to speak of what pure and undefiled religion looks like. He first mentions what we do, “visit orphans and widows in their distress”. Practicing true religion sees the needs of the marginalized and meets them where they are suffering. Next, he mentions what we resist. We keep ourselves “unstained by the world.” (1:27). This is a picture of a doer of the Word. Their faith can be tangibly seen in their lives by their conduct. James picks this up in 2:14-26 where he argues that “faith, by itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” (2:17) and “for as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (2:26). Thus, how one lives their lives tells the truth about the reality of their faith.

In other words, true Christians are careful about what they say and the things that they do point to a genuine faith. The ones who remain steadfast in this kind of life through trials while seeking God for wisdom are the ones we’d truly count as our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It’s in the midst of this argumentation that James 2:1-13 appears. The sin of partiality is one that bears witness against the genuineness of faith. The sin of partiality is not “doing the Word” and it is not “bridling the tongue”. So, what is the sin of partiality?

Holding to, being “steadfast”, in our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ means that we will not show partiality (προσωπολημψίαις)(2:1). As Keener notes, “The language of impartiality was normally applied especially to legal settings.”(p. 693). Johnson notes that the word is a Christian neologism of the Hebrew “nasa panim”. He observes this Hebrew word at work in Leviticus 19:15, ““You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor,” (p. 221). Yahweh ingrained into the justice system of his people that judging is to be impartial. Davids also notes that James would refer to Leviticus 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord,” in 2:8 (p. 110). Spencer quotes Deuteronomy 10:17-18: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe. He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” She observes, “God is not affected by any external pressure to be unjust,” before concluding, “Therefore, since God the Trinity is impartial, it should be impossible to maintain a faith in Jesus that is partial to the wealthy.” (p. 100-101).

God does not show partiality between Jews and Greeks (Rom. 2:11). Masters are to treat their slaves well because of God’s impartiality (Eph. 6:9). God will show no partiality in paying back the wrongdoer for what he or she has done (Col. 3:25). So, if we show partiality by not “loving our neighbor as yourself” (2:8) then we are sinning because we are falling short of God’s glory shown in His impartiality. Thus, we are convicted by God’s moral law as lawbreakers. The sin of partiality is a serious offense against God. It is not something to take lightly according to James.

How does he describe this sin? James speaks of two men. The first man wears a gold ring and fine clothing, while the second man wears shabby clothing (2:2). This echoes back to 1:9-10a where James writes: “let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation.” The lowly, the poor are lifted up by the Gospel while the rich are brought low, humbled by the Gospel. One would expect, then when these two people come into the assembly of Christians that no distinction would be made between the poor man and the rich man. But that’s not what happened. What happened is the opposite of what one would expect from reading James 1. Instead, the rich man is given the place of privilege and the poor man is marginalized (2:3). The assembly is making a distinction between the rich man and the poor man. Craig Keener notes that, “Jewish legal texts condemn judges who make one litigant stand while another is permitted to sit” (p. 694).

Of note, the Greek word used for the assembly is συναγωγὴν. They are at the synagogue which was not only a place of worship but also a place where elders of the assembly gathered to resolve community disputes (Johnson, p. 222). The language and setting harkens back to the day when religious people would seek to have their disputes resolved by religious leaders. In this case, it is possible that this was not a worship gathering, rather a rich man and poor man come to the synagogue to have their dispute resolved by the elders of the congregation. Maybe the same case or two different cases. It could have also been a worship assembly. In any case, the congregation telegraphs their hearts in the disparate treatment of the rich man and the poor man. McKnight has a footnote that lists the many modern scholars that see this passage describing a judicial function of the synagogue rather than a worship function along with a scholarly work that traces this view back to the 17th century (p. 185).

The assembly of Christian judges “pays attention” to the rich man (ἐπιβλέψητε). Johnson notes the force of this word is to look upon favorably based on the appearance of the rich man and the poor man (p. 222) and in doing so become judges with evil designs (p. 223-24). The evil design is to reject the command of God in Leviticus 19 to judge impartially. Without hearing any evidence the assembly is already judging guilt or innocence based on appearance. When they do this they are not loving their neighbor as themselves (Lev. 19:18).

The world looks with favor on the rich man and with contempt upon the poor man. This is true even today. I heard someone once say, “True justice in the American courts is only for those who can afford it.” In my ministry to the poor, I have seen this happen over and over. There is a great difference in the quality of representation between an overworked, usually inexperienced public defender and an experienced and well-paid defense lawyer. This is not God’s way. James reminds his hearers of this in 2:5-7. God chose the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom in His economy (2:5). In contrast, the rich are the oppressors who drag the less fortunate into court and they are the ones that blaspheme the name of Jesus (2:6-7). The world is pressing the judges to view people a certain way, but James is reminding them the folly in God’s economy of showing partiality.

James urges that those who judge, do so according to the “royal law” that one must love one’s neighbor as oneself.” (2:8). Spencer quotes Michael Fiorello’s observation about Leviticus 19, the chapter that serves as a foundation for James 2:8, “communal holiness is defined as love expressed in displays of integrity and guardianship for one’s neighbor.” (132).

Would we want people judging us to show partiality and favoritism toward those we are in a dispute with? Why then would we do that to others? Why would we want to single out one sin that Scripture condemns for special judgment while not addressing other sins the Word of God mentions in the same sentence? Why favored treatment toward those who commit “respectable sins” while adding to Scripture words that are not there when judging one particular sin regarding hierarchies of “heinousness”?

James clearly states that showing partiality is a sin and makes one just as much of a lawbreaker as the one being judged (2:9). Breaking one aspect of the law makes us guilty of all of it (2:10-11). This doesn’t seem to leave much room to debate the heinousness of sin, making out our brother’s sin to be more heinous than ours. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t degrees of heinousness of sin, but it means that it is immaterial to how we judge others. We can debate whether adultery or murder is more heinous but James isn’t measuring the degree of the sin but what it does to our relationship with God. That is the danger of legalism, we drift into it when we begin to show partiality in our judgment towards others. We begin to excuse our own sin while harshly condemning the sin of others. We get into discussions where we make our own sins less heinous than another’s.

It seems to me, based on this passage, that we can misuse the Westminster Larger Catechism at this point. We quote the answer to question 151: “All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.” What about the “sins in themselves?” What could the Westminster Divines have in mind here? The answer is in the Scripture proofs they provided…idolatry (Ez. 8), unbelief (Ps. 78), betrayal of Jesus by the religious leaders (Jn. 19), and the “sin unto death” (1 John 5), that many commentators would argue as the sin of failing to repent and believe the Gospel. Notice that any reference to homosexual sin is absent from the minds of the Westminster Divines. That such would be a more heinous sin in and of itself is a modern creation.

We also seem to forget that question 152 further defines the “several aggravations” of question 151 by placing those aggravations into four different categories, the persons offending, the parties offended, the nature and quality of the offense, and the circumstances of time and place. The Westminster Divines didn’t view the determining the heinousness of sin by creating a hierarchical list. Rather, they noted that the heinousness of sin was determined by a number of factors that required wisdom and insight.

After clearly condemning partiality in judging in the church, James goes on to point to a better approach to judging. He calls those judging to, “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.” (2:12). John Calvin writes that James is making the point that, “…unless you wish to undergo the rigor of the Law, you must be less severe on your neighbors. The law of liberty, then, is the equivalent to God’s clemency, which free us from the curse of the Law.” (p. 281). Christian judgement is to be done as those who are under the law of liberty. Calvin saw this as referring to a deliverance that comes from the Gospel that frees us from the “rigor of the law”. Jesus quoted the Septuagint version of Hosea 6:6 when challenging the legalism of the Pharisees, “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hos. 6:6). Mercy is of high value in God’s Kingdom among His children.

In Luke 4 Jesus goes to Nazareth, his hometown, and preaches the Gospel from Isaiah 61. It declares the Messiah will bring liberty for captives and those oppressed. Then He tells the citizens of Nazareth that God chose to show mercy on Gentiles and not Jews only. This enraged his Jewish audience who thought it was by their law-keeping that they had a special standing with God (Luke 4:16-30). Again, mercy rises to the top in connection to liberty.

The Apostle Paul issues an exhortation and warning in Galatians 5:13-15, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.” If we treat others without mercy then we are not using our liberty in Christ to do the good work of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

Are we surprised that James ends his argument with, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” (2:13)? Its interesting that after Jesus speaks about church discipline and judgment in the Church (Matt 18:15-20), he goes on to tell the parable of the “Unforgiving Servant.” Peter wants to know how often he has to forgive a brother. Jesus follows with the parable that tells of a servant who has a great debt that he can’t repay and his master shows mercy toward him and forgives the debt. That same servant has someone else who owes him a much smaller amount. The servant does not show mercy to his fellow servant like the mercy he was shown by his master. That angered the master and the servant was sent back to jail to pay off his debt. The point Jesus was making about forgiveness to Peter is that God has shown him much mercy so he should show mercy to others. Receiving mercy begets giving mercy, and forgiveness is part and parcel of showing mercy.

To sum up, I think the point of James 2:1-13 is that Christians are not to show partiality when making judgements in the church courts. Partiality is shown by singling out people (like the poor) based on pre-judging their character based on appearance and giving favoritism to other people (the benefit of the doubt) based on their appearance. By showing partiality in any form a judge has evil intentions and sins against God. Rather than showing partiality, a judge is to love his neighbor as himself and in doing so speak and act as one under the Gospel (law of liberty). In understanding this, mercy will triumph over partiality in judgment. The key to overcoming partiality is loving neighbor by showing him mercy.

The one who would judge but does not bridle his tongue (1:26) is not as religious as he imagines himself to be. Why? According to James, the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness (3:6) and restless evil, full of deadly poison (3:7). Paul warns about these kind of men becoming elders in the Church, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” (Acts 20:28-30). They do not embody Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4:29, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” In 1 Timothy 6 Paul identifies false teachers as leading people away from behavior that honors God (1 Tim. 6:1-6). They are known as people who have an, “unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” (1 Tim 6:4-5). In Galatians 5 the Apostle Paul warns against people who stir up “rivalries, dissensions, divisions” saying they will not inherit the Kingdom of God (Gal 5:19-20). Those who make it a practice of reviling (being verbally abusive) will not inherit the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

In other words, unregenerate men like this will be flagrant violators of Westminster Larger Catechism questions 144-145 because their focus is gain over godliness (1 Tim. 6:1-6). Pursuing the truth for God’s glory does not require violating our ordination vows.

The WLC on the Ninth Commandment (not bearing false witness) is written with the spirit of James 2:1-13 at the forefront. Consider the wording:

What is commanded in the Ninth Commandment: “The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging tale-bearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.”

What is forbidden by the Ninth Commandment: “The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment are, all prejudicing the truth, and the good name of our neighbors, as well as our own, especially in public judicature; giving false evidence, suborning false witnesses, wittingly appearing and pleading for an evil cause, outfacing and overbearing the truth; passing unjust sentence, calling evil good, and good evil; rewarding the wicked according to the work of the righteous, and the righteous according to the work of the wicked; forgery, concealing the truth, undue silence in a just cause, and holding our peace when iniquity calleth for either a reproof from ourselves, or complaint to others; speaking the truth unseasonably, or maliciously to a wrong end, or perverting it to a wrong meaning, or in doubtful and equivocal expressions, to the prejudice of truth or justice; speaking untruth, lying, slandering, backbiting, detracting, tale bearing, whispering, scoffing, reviling, rash, harsh, and partial censuring; misconstructing intentions, words, and actions; flattering, vain-glorious boasting; thinking or speaking too highly or too meanly of ourselves or others; denying the gifts and graces of God; aggravating smaller faults; hiding, excusing, or extenuating of sins, when called to a free confession; unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense; evil suspicion; envying or grieving at the deserved credit of any, endeavoring or desiring to impair it, rejoicing in their disgrace and infamy; scornful contempt, fond admiration; breach of lawful promises; neglecting such things as are of good report, and practicing, or not avoiding ourselves, or not hindering what we can in others, such things as procure an ill name.”

It is hard for me to imagine the PCA remaining united through the challenging times posed by the current culture war raging around us. If we get caught up in that and begin to turn the judgements of the church courts into political battles I think we will suffer greatly. If, as we get caught up in battles over overtures, we begin to show partiality in our judgements in violation of Scripture it will be far too easy for us to take the easy way of fighting political battles rather than the hard way of setting aside our biases and judge based solely on the Word of God guided by the system of doctrine we believe accurately reflects Bible teaching. In the next part I want to examine some biblical texts that are very pertinent to the judgements we will likely be called to make at the 2022 and 2023 General Assemblies.

Bibliography of Study Resources:

John Calvin. Trans by A.W. Morrison. Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: Matthew, Mark and Luke Volume III, James and Jude. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)

Peter Davids. New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Epistle of James. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982)

Craig Keener. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993)

Luke Timothy Johnson. The Anchor Bible: The Letter of James.(New York: Doubleday, 1995)

Scot McKnight. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Letter of James. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011)

Douglas Moo. The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter of James (Second Edition). (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2021)

W.E. Oesterley. Edited by W. Robertson Nicoll. The Expositor’s Greek Testament, Volume IV: The General Epistle of James. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970)

Aida Bensancon Spencer. Kregel Exegetical Library: A Commentary on James. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020)

2 thoughts on “Can the PCA Remain United? (Part 4) Can We Act as Impartial Judges?

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