What does it mean when I hear that God is no respecter of persons?
I saw a lot of confusion over this phrase when I recently answered a question about the order of ordinance of the sacrament. Since this phrase is found repeatedly in the scriptures (see here), I agree that God is no respecter of persons. I also agree with other scriptures that clearly show that God is a respecter of persons.
There is a universal respect that God shows all His children. After all, He causes the sun to rise “on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). In this sense, God is the greatest enabler, for He provides abundantly for even the most hardened blasphemer instead of cutting him down for his unrepentant attitude. We have been instructed to exemplify this common respect as one of the two great commandments. “[T]he second is [commandment] is like [the first], Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). We show this love by serving black and white, bond and free, male and female, rich and poor alike. We show this love by actively sustaining prophets, apostles, bishops, teachers, secretaries, organists, and others in their callings. It is in this sense that the Lord equally warns all nations:
“I the Lord am willing to make these things known unto all flesh; For I am no respecter of persons, and will that all men shall know that the day speedily cometh; the hour is not yet, but is nigh at hand, when peace shall be taken from the earth, and the devil shall have power over his own dominion” (D&C 1:34-35).
In recent years, God’s unconditional respect has been co-opted (by those without and within Christianity) to be the highest and only form of Christian love. This stance cannot honestly be held in the light of the teachings of that very Jesus being idolized. Reading His sermon on love should be sufficient to disabuse anyone of such notions.
Following the Last Supper, Jesus gives the apostles “a new commandment” – newer than the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself. “[A]s I have loved you, that ye also love one another” (John 13:34). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus “raised the bar” from Mosaic obedience to Messianic discipleship, and here he is doing it again with the very foundation of the whole Law. It is no longer enough to love one another in the same manner you love yourself. The mark of the disciple is a new level of love, a reflection of the Savior’s love. Consequently, He explains the relationship of His love and the disciple’s love.
As we take a closer look at Jesus’ love for us, we start to notice something funny. This love is conditional. Reading on we find: “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 14:9-10, emphasis mine). The Son earned the Father’s love through obedience, and we are to do the same. And again, “He that hath my commandments and keepeth them … shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him” (John 14:21). The love that we have for the Son is not bowing the head, but bowing the knee. Conversely, our Savior’s love for us comes with strings attached. Finally we have a statement of Christ’s great love for us: “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13) But He follows that verse with the stipulation: “Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you” (John 15:14). Simply put, the scriptures teach that neither the Father’s love, nor the Son’s, is universal or unconditional.
It is within the framework of this second love, this respect that insists that others square their shoulders and grow in the Lord, that we find Peter using the phrase you mention. He observed that the Gentiles were eligible for full fellowship in the Church.
“Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35).
Once again, God does not care about nationality, gender, or income when it comes to dispensing salvation. But He does care a great deal about righteousness and obedience. When considering the additional context the ensuing verse adds, a loose modern translation could render this phrase “righteousness is the only protected class for God.”
A fuller and more pragmatic treatment of these two levels of love and respect can be found in two of Elder Oaks’ conference talks. He includes references to both in each talk, but emphasizes first one and then later the other. See Love and Law from the October 2009 General Conference, and Loving Others and Living with Differences from the October 2014 General Conference.
As you can see, I still haven’t addressed the concerns voiced in my other post about whether various practices in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are actually a violation of this non-reciprocation clause – that is, if Church callings are a protected class. The simple reason for this is because the practices we find institutionalized in the Church are about order and organization rather than privilege and honor. You’ll see that I said nothing about respect or preferential treatment in my earlier answer. Someone has to be the first to take the sacrament. It’s simply impractical to have all taking it at once. The presiding authority, as key-holder, makes perfect sense. Similarly, someone should be speaking in class. We can’t learn a thing if we’re a cacophonous chorus. There’s an order to teaching and leading discussions, but only in the most petty of circumstances would we be crying foul.
On the individual and ward level, you may find some level of “respect” being shown the “persons” of bishops. During ward services, the bishop may be prayed for while no other calling gets that treatment. He may be shown services and acts of kindness that others do not receive. Although some of these may be motivated by an abuse of this principle, and may even be caused by an erroneous assumption that the “higher” the position the greater the righteousness, the reason behind each act is varied and should condemned or praised on its own merit.