Everyone knows that teenagers in highschool struggle with an intense desire to be part of the popular crowd. Yet, few realize that this desire doesn’t always end after graduation and can continue into adult life, though it may look different. As an introvert, I always instinctively observe the people around me, and sometimes this can take a negative turn. Have you ever been talking to someone at church and suddenly get a sneaking feeling of superiority as you realize you are the more impressive person in terms of style, speech, or interests? Do you notice when the cool people walk in on Sunday morning and try to get their attention? I do these more than I’d like to admit. The thing I’ve found most difficult about rooting out this sin is that I really like the things I like, I take pride in liking them, and I think they are better than their opposite or alternatives, which makes it hard for me to appreciate people who have different likes.
In his book on church fellowship called Eshcol, John Owen reminds us that popularity has no place in the church. Owen gives fifteen rules for loving your fellow church members, and rule number twelve reads, “in church affairs to make no difference of persons, but to condescend to the meanest persons and services for the use of the brethren.” Owen then lists several passages to support this idea, including exhortations from both Jesus and his followers (see James 2:1-6, Matthew 20:26-27, Romans 12:16, and John 13:12-16).
Next, Owen delves into an extended explanation of what this rule means. He first teaches that believers should see others as God sees them: “Where the Lord hath not distinguished, neither ought we. In Jesus Christ there is neither rich nor poor, high nor low, but a new creature.” In fact, Owen believes that God often calls those who are unimpressive. This doesn’t mean that there is something inherently evil about being wealthy and successful, but that those things don’t have a direct relation to what it means to be a part of God’s family:
Generally, “God hath chosen the poor of this world to confound the mighty.” Experience shows us that not many great, not many wise, not many mighty after the flesh, are partakers of the heavenly calling;—not that the gospel of Christ doth any way oppose or take away those many differences and distinctions among the sons of men, caused by power, authority, relation, enjoyment of earthly blessings, gifts, age, or any other eminency whatsoever, according to the institution and appointment of God, with all that respect, reverence, duty, obedience, and subjection due unto persons in those distinctions, much less pull up the ancient bounds of propriety and interest in earthly things; but only declares, that in things purely spiritual, these outward things, which for the most part happen alike unto all, are of no value or esteem. Men in the church are considered as saints, and not as great or rich. All are equal, all are naked, before God.
Thus, Owen says that all who are in God’s family are marked by the fact that they are recipients of free grace, which determines everything about their status in the church:
Free grace is the only distinguisher,—all being brethren in the same family, servants of the same Master, employed about the same work, acted by the same precious faith, enjoying the same purchased privileges, expecting the same recompense of reward and eternal abode. Whence should any difference arise?
Last, Owen encourages believers to serve one another out of humility:
Let, then, the greatest account it their greatest honour to perform the meanest necessary service to the meanest of the saints. A community in all spiritual advantages should give equality in spiritual affairs. Not he that is richest, not he that is poorest, but he that is humblest, is accepted before the Lord.
In light of Owen’s other rules for fellowship—including admonishing each other about sin, bearing with each other’s weaknesses, and financially supporting each other—it is clear that making no difference of persons does not mean overlooking egregious and unrepentant sin, or not properly identifying those who have material needs in order to help them. Rather, making no difference of persons means that outward aspects of life should never hinder true friendship, admiration, and care between members of a church. This is because the church is not a club of people brought together by similar styles and interests, but a spiritual entity of people joined together by the Holy Spirit and by their special, voluntary love for one another.
John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Gould (1826; repr., London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 13:80.
Owen, Works, 81.