Responding to Differences with Unity
© C. O. Bishop 10/21/16 THCF 10/23/16
1We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.
2 Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification.
3 For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me.
Romans 15:1-7 concludes Paul’s argument in Romans 14:1-23. I have no idea why the translators (or Erasmus…whoever) chose to place the chapter division at Romans 14:23 instead of seven verses later. The second word, “then”, shows that it is definitely a continuation of the idea being taught all the way through chapter 14. It is actually the conclusion of the context, though the concept in verse 23 has such impact that possibly they chose to end the chapter on that note just to maintain the impact of that statement. I just don’t know.
But Paul says, in v.1-3, “We then who are strong ought to bear (endure) the infirmities of them that are weak, and not to please ourselves.” I wonder how far this can be taken. Doesn’t this ultimately pool infirmity and ignorance, so that the whole body grows weaker? Or is it really a matter of “bearing up under” their weakness, while they get stronger, and not causing them to stumble as they are trying to grow? That is what these two chapters are about.
Partnership and Fellowship
Imagine a team competing in an obstacle course. By the rules of the game, the whole team has to complete the course; so it would be of no use for the strongest to simply rush ahead, saying “See you at the finish line!”. On the other hand, the weakest member may not be able to complete the course at all, without significant help. And even if he can, the others are not promoting group success if all they do is stand around and criticize the weaker member. So, what is the solution? (It is interesting: in the context of sports, even amongst unbelievers, no one ever has a problem with this question.) Teamwork is the solution.
The weakest member in that team on the obstacle course is being helped along by all the others, and he in his turn is helping where he can, and willingly accepting help from the others because it helps the team effort by hastening his own success. His pride does not induce him to reject their help, because, if he did, they would all lose. Their pride does not induce them to say, “Well, you just need to work harder!” They all know that all of them are part of the team, and all have value. All have to succeed, or none will. They are all partners in this struggle. Incidentally, that is what the word “fellowship” means…”partnership;” having something in common.
So, in terms of the church: while we are each individually accountable to God, we are also collectively accountable. We are a single organism: our testimony and health as a local assembly is dependent upon how we deal with one another. What did Jesus say about that? “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have Love (Agapé) one for another.” It seems to me that there are two forces at work, here: the one says, don’t put a stumbling-block before your neighbor. The other is the need for edification…building up the brethren. We have to grow!
Corrective teaching can be used to build up the believers, but it has to be done very gently. I know of a pastor who gave correct teaching (not even intended to be “corrective”) regarding the Bible’s stance on alcohol. He did not mean to cause division, nor to give any cause for offense, but a couple who held to total abstinence were so offended that they left the church. They were gone for over eight years, before finally returning, realizing that their response had been wrong.
He never condemned them at any level…but they condemned him. He had reached out to them, but they were adamant, and refused restoration. When they finally recognized that their bitter condemnation of another servant (the pastor) was sin, they repented, and apologized to him for their bitterness, and came back and reestablished fellowship with the other believers there.
We have vegetarian acquaintances who have frequently eaten at our house. When they eat with us, we serve them and ourselves food that does not contain meat. We have had vegetable soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, fruit, peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, cookies, tea, coffee, etc. We have never placed anyone in the uncomfortable position of having to refuse the food we offer. On the other hand, they are fully aware that we habitually eat meat, when they are not there… and they are not offended by that. It is OK for them to choose vegetarianism. There is no call for corrective teaching: there is nothing to discuss. We simply serve a meatless meal when they visit. Now: some of these are not even believers…how much more should we be moved to accommodate our brothers and sisters? We are not to risk losing fellowship over things that God does not condemn. We are partners in much deeper matters than food.
Romans 14:1 through 15:5 make it pretty clear that neither those who are strong nor those who are weak are to try to “twist the other person around” and force the others to live as they themselves do. We are to love one another, and accept one another, appreciating our differences in gifts, and our variety in expression.
Let’s take another example: I personally have no desire to drink wine (or any other alcoholic beverage), but I do not condemn those who do. I do see it as a potential hazard, and in our culture especially, I see it as a possible snare and potentially destructive to our testimonies. But there are those who condemn the use of alcohol entirely, and they condemn anyone who believes otherwise, as well. How does that square with this passage? This is a good example of the need to compare scripture with scripture:
There is no question that the normal drink in the time of Christ was wine, not water, nor even grape-juice. Wine was the only means by which fruit juice could be preserved. It was seen as a normal beverage, but one that had to be taken in reasonable quantity…Drunkenness was spoken against as early as the time of Noah, and was warned against in the Proverbs, 1700 years later, as also in the epistles to the church, another 700 years after that. There is no question in any dispensation, that drunkenness is sin.
But: gluttony also seems to be sin, and no one condemns another person for “eating lunch.” Excess in eating may be sin; but food is necessary. Excess in wine is sin, but the use of wine is not only permitted, it is blessed by God, and even commanded by Him under certain circumstances. Some believers may feel uncomfortable with that statement, but God’s Word makes that completely clear. (Judges 9:13; Psalm 104:14, 15; Deuteronomy 14:26)
When Jesus turned water into wine (John 2), it was not only definitely an alcoholic wine, but apparently a supernaturally aged wine, so that it was seen as superior to what the householder had been able to offer on his own. (And, by the way, the exact same Greek word (oinos) is used for that wine, as is used for the command not to be drunk with wine (Ephesians 5). Either Jesus created alcoholic wine for that wedding, or we are commanded to not get drunk on grape juice.) This should never be a source for contention!
But: we believers are continually seen by unbelievers as tearing each other up over peripheral issues like this, while absolutely wallowing in sin that is specifically forbidden. What do I mean?
What Really Bothers God?
Take a look at Proverbs 6:16-19…God says there are several things he really hates. Pride and haughtiness (arrogance) is one of them. Gossip is one of them. Spreading discord (stirring up trouble) among brethren is one of them. Lying is another. But all of these things are commonly seen in Christian circles among those who would be completely shocked to see one of their members buy a bottle of wine or smoke a cigar, or whatever thing they think “ought not to be done.” Some take it even further and condemn coffee, or even the use of anti-depressants, or other things about which the Bible is utterly silent.
Some churches establish dress-codes, including limits on hair-length for men, grooming codes (Trim that beard, mister!), or forbidding make-up on women, etc. This entire attitude is expressly forbidden by Romans 14 and 15. Dr. McGee makes an interesting point: He says if you were at dinner at the home of someone who had household help (cooks, butlers, etc.), and if the cook were to serve you cold biscuits (his example), you would never consider criticizing the household staff (aloud, at least), because they don’t work for you!
But we seem to forget that the believers around us also do not work for us. We are each accountable to God. If the Scripture really is silent about an issue, or at least does not forbid it, we had better do the same. Don’t condemn what God doesn’t condemn. Do not deny someone else’s freedom, nor use your freedom in such a way as to damage another believer.
Isn’t it interesting: In Genesis 18:25, Jesus is identified by Abraham as being “the Judge of all the Earth” (compare John 1:18, John 5:22); but, during his earthly ministry, he condemned very few: mainly just those who were busy condemning others. He endured the natural perversity of the human race in order to offer Himself for our sakes…and he did not endure the vicious, self-righteous condemnation that the Pharisees, Scribes, and Lawyers, along with the Priests and Temple Rulers pointed at everyone they didn’t like. Does that mean that the Judge of all the Earth doesn’t care about sin? Absolutely not! He cared about it enough to condemn the whole world for sin (Romans 3:19), and to substitute Himself for the whole world, so as to die in our place (1st Peter 3:18). So, what can we learn from this? Verse four begins to give the answer:
4 For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
v.4: The Old Testament writings are for our learning, that we, through patience (endurance) and comfort of the (Old Testament) scriptures might have hope. I think (in context of the previous chapters) that Paul is pointing out that the Old Testament writings do NOT place us back under the Law. We are to learn from them, not be oppressed or enslaved through them. Remember what James and Peter said, in Acts 15:10, 19—Peter said that the Jews were “tempting God”, by placing a yoke (a burden) on the Gentile believers, which none of the Jews, either present day or at any time in history, had been able to bear. The Jews, born and raised under the Law, had uniformly failed to keep it. But now they were insisting that the Gentiles keep the Law to be saved. Peter pointed out the failure in logic, and James decreed that “…we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God.” (Wow! That is a really good thing to hear! A Comfort, in fact! It gives me Hope, so I can Endure!)
It is so easy to fall into a trap of “adding things to faith.” We are saved by Grace, through faith…plus nothing. The result is to be good works “…which God has before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10) This by no means disposes of the Law…we are to study it and learn from it. But we are not to use it as a weapon against one other, nor allow the enemy to use it to enslave us again. (Colossians 2:20-23 reiterates this message.) Our interaction with the Word of God should produce Endurance, Comfort and Hope, not guilt and hopelessness.
Conclusion: The Goal is Unity.
5 Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus:
Paul says that we are to be like-minded toward one another “according to Christ Jesus”. We are to glorify God with full unity. That is tough to do when we are always sparring, jousting and bickering over petty doctrinal issues, or even behavioral issues.
Notice: Unity and conformity are not the same idea. Legalists preach conformity. Christ preaches unity, based upon the Agapé love.
Jesus endured our natural stubbornness, and wrong-headedness, loving us through the Cross. Shouldn’t we “Forbear one another in Love”, as we are commanded to do in Ephesians 4:2? We are to put up with each other’s quirks and habits, and value one another for who we are in Christ!
In v. 7, Paul concludes that we are to “receive one another” (present tense) as Christ received us (past tense) to the Glory of God. How can that include the rejection and condemnation that is so prevalent among churches? Do you see why the unbelievers might see us as hypocrites? And yet, there is a difference between hypocrisy and failure. A hypocrite is pretending to be something he is really not. So, a person who seems to be quite pious, and whose life may meet every outward requirement for holiness, may in fact be a counterfeit, and only doing all the things he does because it gains him a good standing with others like himself, and he may even be convinced that it gains him a good standing with God. But it does not. Jesus pretty harshly condemned that sort of “outward show” of religiosity.
On the other hand, a believer, who truly has been born of God, and who truly desires to serve God with his life and live a blameless, committed lifestyle, may fail frequently and be deeply grieved by his own failure. He is not pretending at all. He is a saved sinner, still struggling with the reality of his old sin nature. Paul went through this struggle also (Romans 7). Can’t we at least appreciate that a brother or sister is trying? That he or she has a love for God, and a hunger for God’s Word? Can’t you extend to him the same grace that God has extended to you, forgiving his failures, and bearing with him in his imperfection, as God bears with you in yours?
There is not a single one of us who was required to “clean up” before being saved. We do “wash up” before “coming to the table”—either the Lord’s Table or the Word of God. We call it “confession.” But confession is all the “washing up” required of us. 1st John 1:9 tells us that this is how we restore fellowship with God. Here are three things to remember:
- Faith in the shed blood of Jesus for our sins is how we were born into the family of God, establishing the basis for fellowship with God and with other believers. (John 5:24)
- Obedience (walking by faith) is how we keep peace in the family (1st John 1:7) and maintain fellowship with God and each other.
- Confession (again, by faith) is how we restore fellowship with God (and others) when we have sinned. (1st John 1:9)
If the issue in question is not actually spelled out in the Bible as sin, don’t add to another believer’s burden. We are already completely accepted in the beloved (Ephesians 1:6). So we must completely accept one another, particularly in the vast areas of liberty where God’s Word does not command the body of Christ in any specific way. And what will the result look like?
6 That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The result will be that the church (or the family, or whoever else is in view) will actually bring honor and glory to God, not cause offense and shame. Romans 2:24 tells us that the name of God is blasphemed among the people of the unbelieving world, specifically because of the inconsistencies that the world sees in the lives of believers. Paul’s conclusion?
7 Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.
That is pretty clear: If you have any confidence at all that Jesus has received you, then you need to apply that same level of acceptance to the brothers and sisters around you, and receive them as well. We have the assignment (Ephesians 4:3) to “keep (maintain) the Unity of the Spirit in the bond of Peace.”
That is an order, folks! And, it applies to every Christian relationship. Let’s take it seriously.
Lord Jesus, we ask that you would shine the light of your Word, administered by your indwelling Holy Spirit into each of our hearts, and allow us to see our own behavior and heart attitudes for what they are. Bring us to repentance for the hardness of our hearts, and teach us to love the brethren. Allow us to maintain the unity that your Spirit provides, so that unbelievers will be drawn to You and not be turned away.