Two fellows came upon each other walking down the street – they were both carrying Bibles.
“Are you a believer?” one asked the other.
“Yes,” he said excitedly. (But you can’t be too careful. He started asking questions.)
“Virgin birth?” he asked. “I accept it.”
“Deity of Jesus?” “No doubt.”
“Death of Christ on the cross?” “He died for all people.”
Could it be? Another true believer?
“Status of man.” “Sinner in need of grace.”
“Definition of grace.” “God doing for man what man can’t do.”
“Return of Christ?” “Imminent.”
“The church?” “The body of Christ.”
They were starting to get excited. “Conservative or liberal?” “Conservative.”
“Heritage?” “Southern Congregationalist Holy Son of God Dispensationalist Triune Convention.” That was his!
“Branch?” “Pre-millennial, post-trib, noncharismatic, King James, one-cup communion.”
His eyes misted. Only one other question.
“Is your pulpit wooden or fiberglass?” “Fiberglass,” he responded.
He withdrew his hand and stiffened his neck. “Heretic!” he said and walked away.
I am astounded when I think about what an enormous portion of the NT is devoted to teaching people how to get along with one another. Whether it is Paul telling the Roman church to “Accept one another” in spite of their differences of opinion, or telling the two sisters at Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche to “agree with each other,” or when John wrote, “Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” Or when Jesus said, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”
The Bible addresses every imaginable kind of relationship – husbands and wives, parents and children, elders and congregations, believer and non-believer. And in every situation it is with a view toward restoring relationships. Even when Paul tells the Corinthian church to hand the brother over to Satan who is guilty of sleeping with his father’s wife, it is with a view toward bringing him back to the Lord, not cutting him off.
Christ said that the world would know we are his disciples “if we love each other.” That is why disunity and broken fellowship are such a disgraceful testimony to unbelievers. That is why Paul was so embarrassed that members of the church in Corinth were splitting into warring factions and taking each other to court. It’s not just that it destroys relationships, but that the resulting shock waves affect the church’s ability to speak for God and represent God to the world. Any time you see a church fighting within itself, doesn’t it destroy their credibility? Unity is the litmus test for everything else a church claims.
We seem to have an innate ability and insatiable appetite for picking each other apart and dividing over things insignificant.
The church at Rome was polarized by two issues that we have a difficult time understanding: whether one could eat meat, and whether one could celebrate holy days. They don’t sound all that important to us, but back then they were real church splitters. They had to do with issues that divided Jews and Gentiles – the eating of meat had implications in the Jewish dietary laws and meat offered to idols (it was the same issue in Corinth). The Jews would not eat meat that was not kosher or was tainted by idolatry. The issue of holy days was about Jewish Sabbath and Feast days that the Jewish Christians insisted must be observed. They took sides – the strict Jewish Christians thought the Gentile Christians who ate non-kosher meat and didn’t observe the Sabbath were as bad as infidels. The Gentiles thought the Jewish Christians were legalists and backward. They called each other names (like liberal and conservative), and they were ready to split the church over them.
Isn’t that ridiculous? If you’re going to have a church split, do it over something important like whether you can have a church kitchen, or whether women can wear pants, or whether you should use one big cup or many little cups for communion, or whether your Bible should use “thee and thou” or “you and your,” or the color of carpet in Fellowship Room. Those are issues you can really take a stand on and are worth splitting a church over. (At least, those are the kinds of issues the church has split over the past 100 years). (Just to remind us that we haven’t gotten much beyond those kinds of issues the church in Rome dealt with.) Paul’s harshest criticism and condemnation are reserved for those who would split the church and divide the body of Christ.
The odd thing about this whole discussion is that Paul doesn’t address the issues and debate which side is right and which side is wrong – though it is obvious from what he writes that there is a right and a wrong (he refers to those who are weak and those who are strong. Could one eat meat? Yes. Could one not observe the Sabbath and be a good Christian? Yes. But regardless of who is right and wrong on these issues, Paul says, “You are ALL wrong,” if you let these issues cause division among you.
Here is Paul’s antidote for division that began in the first verse of Romans 14: “Accept him whose faith is weak without passing judgment on disputable matters” (14:1). (Eat meat if you want, be a vegetarian if you want. Observe Passover or don’t observe Passover. But don’t condemn the person who doesn’t follow your practice.) And then he puts a bookend on the far end of this discussion in 15:7 – “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” Everything he says in between those verses is toward that goal – that they should accept one another, despite their differences.
It was a tough sell, telling the Jewish Christians that the Gentiles didn’t have to become Jews in order to be Christians. And just as tough telling the Gentile Christians that the Jewish Christians didn’t have to abandon their Jewish heritage in order to be followers of Christ.
Their problem really was selfishness. Each of them wanted things their way. They wanted to be right. And if they didn’t get things their way, they would leave – they would sacrifice unity at their own personal altar of pride.
And pride will destroy a church, it will destroy a family, it will destroy relationships. Selfishness is the root problem in every church fight, in every family conflict, in the breakup of every relationship.
Here is Paul’s antidote to our selfish thinking: – Romans 14:7-8 “For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”
Paul is telling us two, very important things:
First, we are in this together.
Second, leave judgment up to the Lord.
If we follow those two principles, then we’re not going to do anything that is going to jeopardize that unity or destroy relationships.
Now, don’t think that everything is up for grabs and nothing we believe is important. There are some issues that are non-negotiable – that we should take an uncompromising stand against. The Bible names a few:
Following a different gospel than the one preached in God’s Word – that gospel being the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15 and Gal. 1);
Denying the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15);
Saying that Jesus was not God become flesh – that is the teaching of Christ which, John tells us, if you don’t continue in, you don’t have God, and if someone doesn’t bring it, don’t welcome him into your house (2 John 9);
A church that tolerates false teachers (1 Tim 1,4; 2 Peter; Jude)
Teaching a salvation by works of law instead of grace (Gal 1,3)
Some things are so fundamental that there can be no negotiation. To accept them or accommodate them would be to change the nature of the church and jeopardize our salvation. But notice that the list of non-negotiables in the Bible is significantly shorter than our list.
There are myriads of other issues one can have an opinion on – issues that range in value and importance. The problem is that some people can’t distinguish the difference between the non-negotiables and the insignificant. For some people, every issue is a matter of salvation, and every departure from their opinion is a cause for division.
I saw this kind of thinking played out dramatically in the little town of Vernon, TX where I preached for several years…
Where does that kind of thinking end? When you’re sitting by yourself in your living room passing a communion tray to yourself because no one else measures up to your standard of doctrinal purity. I hope the absurdity of that strikes you as being, not just dysfunctional, but ungodly.
Paul never downplayed doctrinal purity. But he also knew there was a higher priority involved than being right – unity in the church. He said, we don’t and won’t always agree on everything, but we must not despise our brother or destroy the unity of the church for the sake of our opinions.
When you start living by the right priorities you are going to realize that most of the things we argue about and get crosswise over with each other just aren’t very important. Look at vs. 17 “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Our highest priority has to be the unity of the body. We need to be willing to sacrifice an awful lot before jeopardizing and destroying that just because we want to be right and get our way.
And the goal of unity – the purpose of unity? We see it in Rom 15:5-6 “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This isn’t about us. It isn’t so that we feel good about ourselves and have a nice peaceful church. Unity in the church is a reflection on God himself. When we are criticizing and condemning, and fussing and feuding, a very strange sound comes out of our mouths. It is discordant and grating. It sounds like we’re trying to say “we love God.” But what the world hears is “don’t believe a word we say.” But when we have a spirit of unity, Paul says it is like a choir – and the conductor comes to the front – he raises his arms – and with one heart and mouth our voices join together in beautiful harmony to glorify God.
Let’s back up to chapter 13 though, and see that there is a principle that undergirds everything that Paul will say in chs 14 and 15: “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Rom 13:8-10).
Did you realize you have an unpaid debt? It is a lien on you that is outstanding. And it is one that you will never be able to pay off. Now some of us understand that language when we think about the mortgage we have on our houses. Those mortgage payments stretch on forever, and it would take two lifetimes to pay it all off. But you actually have a piece of paper that says when a certain amount of money is paid (no matter how large it seems), that debt will be paid off and the lien cancelled.
The debt Paul talks about is one that can’t ever be paid off – it is a debt you owe because of another debt that has already been paid. You have a debt to love one another. It is a debt that costs you nothing, because it cost Jesus everything. But it is a debt you don’t want to default on (you think Countrywide and Bank of America get upset when you miss a payment….)
My debt is to love you. No matter what. Whether you act like I think you ought to act, whether you think the way I think. You might offend me, you might betray me, you might not reciprocate my love. But Paul says I still have an obligation to love you. Not because you love me, but because Jesus loves you. And if Jesus loved you enough to go to the cross for you, who am I to pass judgment on you and refuse to love you? And I can’t love you begrudgingly (“well God says I have to love you so… I love you”). With the same kind of love that God loves you – that’s how I am to love you… and you are to love me. Because we are both God’s children. We’re flawed and sinful and far from perfect, but God loves us. And because he loves us, we must love each other.
What if every person in this congregation thought like you think? What if every person served like you serve? Gave like you give? What if the life of this congregation was dependent on people like you? Would it be healthy and strong, or weak and sickly? Would it be vibrant and making a difference in this community, or would we be dying on the vine? If you were the only person a visitor met this morning would they want to come back and be a part of this church family, or would they walk away shaking their head?
The real question is, where is your heart? Are you sold out for Jesus, or are you playing church?