James 2:2 contains a statement which, at first sight, may be difficult to understand, as it seems to contradict other biblical passages. A careful analysis of the Scripture shows, however, that there is no inconsistency, and that James addresses an important principle related to our Christian way of life.
James 2:1-6 reads, in context:
“(1) My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. (2) 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, (3) 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,’ (4) have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?… (6) But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into courts?”
Some commentaries understand this passage to refer to Church worship services of early Christians. If this is correct, how can we harmonize the fact that the Bible demands of us to appear before God in proper and acceptable clothing, as we will show below, while James seems to be saying that we must honor a poor man in “dirty” clothing when he worships with us on the Sabbath?
For a general discussion on proper dress of Christian men and women — including on the Sabbath — please read our Q&A on that topic.
That we ought to appear properly dressed for worship services, has been the long-standing teaching of the Church of God, and for good reason:
We must understand that we are appearing before GOD. God is a great King. God is the Creator of everything that is good and costly and priceless. He is the Creator of beauty. He most certainly is the Creator of quality. He owns all the gold and silver, and it is He who made it all. If we were to be invited by an earthly king, how would we appear in front of him? Imagine, that the Queen of England would invite you to visit her at Buckingham Palace. Would you want to appear in unwashed, dirty clothing, wearing washed-out jeans, a T-shirt, and sneakers?
How much more should we appear before GOD, the KING over His creation, in proper clothes! The famous parable in Matthew 22:10-13 about the king’s wedding feast for his son contains a spiritual lesson, but it also describes a physical principle–that we dress appropriately for the occasion. It DID matter to the king–God the Father–how the guests were dressed for the wedding of His Son, Jesus Christ.
In this context, we must not neglect culture. In the Western World, it is normally appropriate for men to wear a suit, or a nice combination, with a shirt and a tie. But even in certain parts of the Western World, it may perhaps be appropriate to wear a shirt without a tie, or to wear something else, instead. Other countries have still other customs. In the Philippines, Hawaii or Africa, people may dress up differently. But the key is – they dress up. They know what it means to dress up. In the U.S.A., Canada or in England, men don’t dress up, when they appear in worship services with an open shirt, a T-shirt or jeans.
Ladies should also wear appropriate clothing, of course. In addition, their dresses should not be too short or too tight or too revealing–but this principle would also apply in general, not just during Church services. But especially when focusing on our worship of God in an official setting, we should always think in terms of how we would want to dress if we were invited to appear before the Queen of England in an official capacity. (When discussing worship services, we are of course not talking about a ball, when we would wear a tuxedo or an evening dress.)
God gives us the freedom to determine what is appropriate clothing, within the acceptability of proper dress in our cultures, but to clarify, God does not give us the freedom to violate His specific instructions so that we can follow our culture. For example, God has told us how to wear our hair. We are told that it is a shame for a man – young or old – to wear long hair. If Native Americans are called to God’s Way of Life, they cannot continue wearing long hair, following their cultural upbringing, as God has specifically said not to do it. Also, God told us that women – young or old – are to wear hair long enough to distinguish a woman from a man. You might want to review our Q&A on proper hair length for men and women.
In addition, some brethren are scattered. They cannot physically join with other members on the Sabbath, so they listen to sermon tapes, or they sit in and listen to live Internet worship services (In passing, those who can physically attend are commanded to do so, and they are not permitted to just use Internet access as a substitute and as an excuse for not “having” to attend Church services in person). If scattered brethren have Sabbath worship services “in their home,” while listening to tapes or to live Internet Church services, they still appear before God during that time, and again, we don’t want to appear before God uncombed, unshaved and unwashed, or by just wearing our pajamas.
Having said all of this, how are we then to understand James 2:2, which seems to be teaching the opposite–that is, that it does not matter how we appear before God in Church services, and that we can appear in dirty or vile clothes and God does not mind.
However, this is not what James is saying at all.
If we apply James’ statements to worship services on the weekly or annual Sabbaths, two factors have to be kept in mind.
First, James is drawing a comparison. He compares the appearance of a rich and prosperous man — who is aware of his riches and manifests them without any sense of recognition or compassion for others — with the appearance of a poor man. The translation of the words “with filthy clothes” in James 2:2 (“vile raiment” in the Authorized Version) is somewhat misleading in the context. The Greek word for “filthy” or “vile” is “rhuparos” and can ALSO have the meaning of “relatively cheap” (compare Strong’s under No. 4508). Some translations say, “shabby,” but it is used in comparison with the splendid appearance of the rich man.
Second, if applied in that sense, it is important to note that the context speaks of a person “coming into your assembly.” James does not seem to be talking about regular Church members (who know how they ought to dress when they appear before God), but a newcomer or a guest.
Albert Notes’ on the Bible writes: “The reference here seems to be, not to those who commonly attended on public worship, or who were members of the church, but to those who might accidentally drop in to witness the services of Christians. See 1 [Corinthians] 14:24.”
In addition, there is another possibility as to how to understand this passage–and that is, that the context does not even address worship services, but formal judicial or administrative proceedings within the Church.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible writes that “assembly” refers to the “place of religious worship where saints are assembled together for that purpose; though some think a civil court of judicature is intended, and to which the context seems to incline; see [James] 2:6.”
Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible elaborates:
“Assembly here is meant of those meetings which were appointed for deciding matters of difference among the members of the church, or for determining when censures should be passed upon any, and what those censures should be; therefore the Greek word here used, sunagoge, signifies such an assembly as that in the Jewish synagogues, when they met to do justice. Maimonides says… ‘That is was expressly provided by the Jews’ constitutions that, when a poor man and a rich plead together, the rich shall not be bidden to sit down and the poor stand, or sit in a worse place, but both sit or both stand alike.’ To this the phrases used by the apostle have a most plain reference, and therefore the assembly here spoken of must be some such as the synagogue-assemblies of the Jews were, when they met to hear causes and to execute justice…”
Whatever the exact context and application of the passage, it is James’ desire to show that we must not condemn another person or judge him or her based on his or her outward appearance, and that we should not show preference or partiality by honoring one person more than another, only because one is rich and one is poor. James was not saying that it is immaterial how we appear before God. When representing ourselves in Church services (or even during an internal “court” proceeding within the Church, see 1 Corinthians 6:4-5), we must be dressed for the occasion.
But others are not to condemn a “poor” person who is visiting for the first time or who has just begun attending because he is not dressed in an appropriate way. In addition, the way in which he is dressed might be the best the person can do. Also, when a person shows up for the first time for Church services, he or she may not know exactly what the proper dress standards for worship services are. And finally, rather than condemning a person or looking down on him for not dressing up, we should be lending a helping hand and give the needy what is necessary to meet the proper standard.
The same would be true in the context of a court setting within the Church. Even though proper etiquette and dress code would be important even in such a situation, the failure of applying such appropriate standards must not induce a minister to look down on a poor person–and to elevate the rich at the same time–and to render an unrighteous judgment as a consequence.
James points out that we must be careful not to condemn or mistreat one who is not appropriately dressed, because he may not know better, or because he or she does not have better clothes. James discusses our approach and conduct toward the rich and the poor. We are not to look down on a poor person, dishonoring him or her, while giving preference and undue attention to a rich person. We must love the poor person, and not reject him, even though he comes in with less than appropriate clothing, but rather than condemning, we could try to help him to dress more appropriately in the future.
Lead Writer: Norbert Link