I watched the beginning of John Piper’s Bloodlines documentary the other day, and something Piper said really stands out to me.
Segregation was referred to as “separate but equal” — but, as Piper points out, it was really just separate. There was nothing equal about it. It was discrimination, pure and simple. Claiming that you are discriminating and yet treating people as “equal” is simply to be double-tongued.
The Bible gives us many specific examples to illustrate the obedience that God requires of us. One of them directly relating to segregation is James 2:1-4:
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?
Now, here’s what’s interesting. Someone could easily have said: “James isn’t talking about segregation as it existed in 20th-century America. He’s talking about treating the rich better than the poor in church — which has nothing to do with segregation based on color. So, when people enforced and allowed segregation, they weren’t violating this passage.”
And to do so would miss the whole point. The whole point!
It’s true that James’ example here does not mention segregation based on color. But to think it has to is to completely misunderstand how to interpret the Bible, and to miss the spirit of the law.
For James started, in 2:1, by stating the main principle: It is wrong to show partiality. Treating the rich and poor differently in church is the specific example he gives to illustrate this. But it is not the only way to show partiality. “Separate but equal” was another way to do it. “Separate but equal” was doing the very thing James discusses in his example here, just in different clothes. “You go use this drinking fountain, while I use this one” is no different from saying “you sit in this seat here because you have money, and this other guy without money will have to sit way in the back.”
Here’s why this matters: When the Bible gives specific examples of sins, like giving good seats in church to people of wealth and bad seats to those without wealth, few people will commit the sin in that exact way as the example (though some, of course, still will!). The problem is that we often end up violating the true intent of the passage by doing things in a slightly different way than the specific example the Scripture gave — not realizing that, in doing so, we are violating the main point and spirit of the passage
Here’s the application: We shouldn’t ask, “Did I follow the letter of the law?” We are to ask: “Am I following the true intent of the law?”
Hence, “show no partiality” means not simply to avoid giving better seats to church members with more money, but not to discriminate at all. “You shall not murder” does not simply mean not to kill your neighbor, but rather that we are to positively seek his good and flourishing. “You shall not commit adultery” does not simply mean “don’t cheat on your wife,” but “love your wife and seek the prospering of your marriage.” And “you shall not bear false witness” does not simply mean “don’t lie,” but “uphold your word in all contexts (cf. James 5:12) and be consistent in your speech (cf. 1 Timothy 3:8) and make sure your actions match your word (cf. James 2:15-16).”
And, of course, in seeing this, we see what failures we all are! Which of us pursues the good of our neighbor 100% of the time? Which of us has a marriage that is everything it should be?
The glorious news of the gospel is that, in Christ, God does not condemn his people for these things. We are not under the condemnation of the law, but are forgiven and fully righteous in God’s sight.
But the law still shows us how we are to live. And this means we should not conclude it doesn’t matter how we live or take it lightly when we realize we are violating the spirit of the law (especially on a matter as significant as segregation — which, fortunately, is now outlawed). Knowing that we always fail in some sense in fulfilling God’s will, we are to press on in obedience eagerly and enthusiastically (Titus 2:14), knowing that as we do so God is empowering us and causing us to grow in holiness (Philippians 2:12-14). And, it also means that we should, perhaps, examine ourselves once in a while to see if there are any areas where we might be in accord with the letter of the law, but in violation of its spirit.