The second chapter of James has a common theme running through it, which is how the poor, whether believers or unbelievers, are treated. We may imagine that expressing concern for such is straightforward. Yet a brief glance at what James says will show that he wants his readers to think theologically about it. Among the doctrines mentioned by him are the current position of Jesus (v. 1), the doctrine of election (v. 5), the dignity of all humans (v. 6), the believer and the law (v. 8) and the relationship of faith and works (v. 18). Often, we make mistakes because we do not consider our actions from a doctrinal point of view.
The Bible has a lot to say about the poor. Here are some challenging verses: ‘Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honours him’ (Prov. 14:31); ‘But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just’ (Luke 14:13); ‘When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”’ (Luke 18:22). We can see from those verses that a correct attitude towards the poor is necessary for a relationship with God, for our use of our possessions, and for the depth of our discipleship.
It is good that James here identifies who he has in mind by the rich because we might try and apply it to those who are wealthy in financial terms today. The rich are the ones who were orchestrating the persecution that his readers were facing and they also spoke against the dignity of Jesus (v. 6). He may be referring to the leaders of Jewish communities who despised the gospel. At that time, the rich would be the powerful in society. Today it is possible to be wealthy and have no more power than someone with a lot less. But in James’ time, the rich and the powerful would be the same people.
I suppose we should ask why his readers would try and favour the rich as against the poor. He is not referring to converted rich people when he talks about seating arrangements, but to any rich person who chose to come into their gathering. It may have been the case that their response was connected to the persecution the Christians were enduring. Maybe they imagined that if an important person became their friend he would have the influence to prevent any further troubles coming their way. But showing favouritism in this manner would be an expression of worldly wisdom and would be to engage in a sinful practice.
James does not suggest that the rich should not be welcomed into a service. Nor does he say that they should be offered the worst seat because that would be a form of favouritism as well. Instead he is stressing that the values of the world should not be the values in the church. I recall reading of a wealthy landowner who was driven to the church by his employee. Both were Christians. In the church, the employee was an elder and the landowner was not. In everyday life, they were master and employee; in church life, one was an elder who helped make church policy, the other was not. Both were happy in their two relationships.