The Inner Circle
Peter, James, and John are sometimes referred to as the inner circle of the apostles. There are at least three times in Jesus’ life when He will take these men to witness events that, so far as we know, the other apostles did not see. These occasions are the time of Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:33; Matthew 26:37), Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain (Mark 9:2; Matthew 17:1; Luke 9:28), and the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51).
Why were these men shown what seems to be preferential treatment? Perhaps these men needed more encouragement than the other apostles. However, John and Peter proved to be the boldest of the apostles on the night of Jesus’ betrayal, even in spite of Peter’s denial. Both men risked being identified as one of Jesus’ disciples and being condemned with Him. Additionally, Philip and Thomas were not too strong to be confused or to have doubts about what Jesus had been trying to tell the apostles to prepare them for His death (John 14:8, 9; 20:24, 25).
The best explanation for the preferential treatment of Peter, James, and John may be the simplest explanation: Peter, James, and John were Jesus’ closest friends among the apostles. It certainly does not fit to think that Peter, James, or John had more authority than the other apostles. All of the apostles had equal authority. Even Paul, the apostle born out of due season, was equal to the 12 who had been with Jesus during His earthly ministry (2 Corinthians 11:5).
We have spent a lot of time making the case for our position about Peter, James, and John because we want to use their example to talk about what is sometimes perceived as a problem in the church - the fact that some Christians are closer to some of their brethren than others. At times, this fact has become a tremendous obstacle to some brethren. Accusations of hypocrisy, favoritism, and cliques within local churches have abounded in the past and such will probably continue in the future. However, the example of Jesus and His relationship with Peter, James, and John should make it evident to us that it is not a sin if we are closer to some of our brethren than others.
We are not trying to excuse real favoritism here. There is no place for such among the people of God (James 2:1-9). But how many of us have really seen the kind of favoritism that James describes? We all would like to think that we are equally willing and ready to help any of our brethren at any time. Yet, we are probably realistic enough to know that many of our brethren aren’t going to come to us first. They are going to go to their parents, their siblings, their spouses, or their close friends who are Christians. This is to be expected, especially when brethren look to their families first in times of need (1 Timothy 5:16).
The issues of partiality and favoritism must be discussed carefully by reasonable brethren with the intentions of lovingly correcting a real problem, if such a problem truly exists. If not, the issues of partiality and favoritism, whether real or perceived, can become continual cancers that debilitate individual Christians and local churches. These issues are also sometimes used as opportunities to introduce false teaching. For example, if a person or a group of people can be convinced that favoritism is a symptom of “traditionalism” (whatever that may be) or an overemphasis on obedience, then such people may become willing to embrace “non-traditionalism” (whatever that may be) or to believe that teaching people to obey God is a bad thing.
Satan is trying hard to get us to embrace extremes and to keep brethren from working out their differences through study and a patient commitment to the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:1-3). If Satan can get brethren to relinquish their commitment to the unity of the Spirit, he will win - even if the charges of favoritism are proven to be false and not a single person becomes more susceptible to error in the process. He will still have managed to render brethren fruitless in these circumstances.
We believe that true cases of favoritism among the people of God are rare, though we know that we cannot speak to every situation in the life of every individual or among every local church. Yet, consider this - if we have the kind of love for our brethren that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 it should be very difficult for anyone to even convince us that any of our brethren would be capable of treating us unfairly. Such love believes all things, thinks no evil, or does not take into account a wrong suffered in the past (1 Corinthians 13:5-7). The love that Paul is talking about believes the best about people, no matter what has happened in the past. Such love chooses to hear every word and to see every deed done in the best possible light. We hope that our conclusion does not seem overly simplistic, but such love would go a long way in eliminating the potential harm of favoritism.
Please don’t misunderstand our intentions here. This is not really a challenge for “other people” to behave differently. It is a challenge for ALL OF US to think differently.