Unity in the Church
© C. O. Bishop 10/31/16 THCF 11/6/16
Romans 15:8-13: The Gentiles in Prophecy; Unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.
8 Now I say that Jesus Christ was a minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers:
9 And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.
10 And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people.
11 And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people.
12 And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust.
13 Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.
The Old Testament is full of promises; mostly (but not all) directed specifically to Israel. In the verses we just read, the Apostle Paul states that Jesus came to serve Israel with regard to the truth of God; in confirmation of the promises made to the patriarchs; but also so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his Mercy.
Paul alludes to Isaiah 42:6, 7, where it says that the Messiah would be a covenant (confirmation of the promises) to the people (Israel,) and a light to the Gentiles, providing healing to the nations. He then gives several examples (by no means exhaustive) of the prophecies specifically referring to the Gentiles. He quotes Psalm 18:49; Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 117:1, and Isaiah 11:1, 10. There are many other passages that make promises specifically directed to whole Gentile nations, or to all the Gentiles as a group. I suspect that, while the Jewish teachers were aware of the theory that the Gentiles would also inherit the mercy and blessing of God, they were, at best, less than enthusiastic about it. Thus, the seeds of division were still present in the early church, though the foundation for unity had been laid at the Cross.
How are the Gentiles to Fit In? And, how can the Jews be at Peace?
Paul’s conclusion regarding the Gentile believers (who were the recipients of this epistle) is, “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.” They are not to feel inferior to the Jewish believers in any way, nor, as we saw in Romans chapters 9-11, are they to feel superior in any way.
Both groups were condemned under sin, and guilty before God, according to Romans chapters 1-3, and both have been the recipients of God’s Grace through the person of Christ, according to Romans chapters 4-8. They are called to be a blessing to one another and live in unity even regarding things about which they traditionally are in disagreement. (See verse 10: they were to rejoice WITH God’s people the Jews.) Have you noticed that the Jewish believers (as a whole) were never told to drop their customs and start eating foods they considered unclean?
Peter was commanded (Acts 10) to graciously receive the Gentiles who had come to him in obedience to the angelic command given to the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. And the means by which Peter was commanded was by a vision, wherein he was shown some unclean animals, and was told “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” Was God commanding him to eat unclean food? No; the three repetitions of the command in the vision were only to prepare him for the three Gentile men who were approaching the front door at that moment. God told him three times that if God had made something clean, he, Peter, had no authority to call it unclean. Peter responded correctly to the Gentiles because God correctly prepared him. Romans chapters 14 and 15 are the equivalent preparation for the whole church—the small differences we may have because of cultural backgrounds, diverging traditions within churches, etc. are not allowed to cause division. All believers share in the blessed hope of Christ. But the seeds of division are still there!
The Gentiles were frustrated by the Jews continual emphasis on the Law, and the feast days, and their dietary restrictions. The Jews were horrified that the Gentiles were not in compliance with all these things. Paul said that they were not to be divided over such things, but rather that they were to appreciate one another, and recognize that, just as each part of a human body has a different task (1st Corinthians 12), so we are to appreciate one another for how each fits into God’s Building, the Church.
What about Other differences?
Other potential areas of division (and just as inappropriate) would include styles of ministry, or individual gifting. One Elder may be specifically gifted as a preacher, and he may completely give himself to encouraging, edifying, and comforting the flock (1st Corinthians 14:3). He will be a blessing to all those in his care. People are moved by preaching, and blessed, and their hearts are warmed. They find reassurance, and a stronger faith thereby. All of which is good!
But: another elder in the same assembly may be specifically gifted as a teacher. He may spend countless hours ferreting out the most accurate interpretation for any given passage of scripture, so that he can teach others, also, to clearly understand God’s Word. To those hungering to understand, he, too will be a blessing, but in a different way. No one gets “warm fuzzy feelings” over a well-taught point of theology, though some may be thrilled to see how ALL of God’s Word holds together in full agreement. But the emotional content simply is not the same.
And yet, both gifts are valid, and need one another, as well as being needed by the assembly. Good application is built upon good interpretation. Good interpretation still requires appropriate application, as well. It is not a safe practice to simply “jump” to application in one’s life when reading a passage of scripture. One has to read carefully, and consider what is being said, by whom, to whom, and so forth, before deciding how to apply it. Neither is it appropriate to simply understand a passage. Understanding demands action. This is not just “fun stuff to know and tell.” Knowledge is for the purpose of conduct. (Think that over.)
There are cultural divides within major cultures, as well. Music, aesthetics, clothing styles, dietary choices, public behavior, table manners…virtually anything can be a source of division, so long as we are willing to take occasion to do so. The key is to not be willing to break fellowship over such things.
Jew and Gentile issues, again
So, how does all this tie into the issues between the Jewish and the Gentile believers? Consider: How might it help for the Jewish believers to continue on with the Jewish feast days? How might it hurt? How would it help for the Gentile believers to cheerfully go on with their work, their clothing choices and their diets, without regard for the Old Testament Jewish laws? (This is not in reference to moral issues, or things condemned as sin in all dispensations.)
Paul had Timothy circumcised, as a Jew, because he was a Jew, though he had a Gentile father and was not raised as a practicing Jew. He made no attempt to have Titus become a Jewish proselyte, though he had a seemingly identical ministry. Why? Because Timothy was better able to reach Jews with the Gospel, and minister to the needs of Jewish believers, if he fully embraced his Jewish heritage, and was someone they did not see as a renegade, or an apostate. Titus, on the other hand, was a full Gentile by birth, and it would have been detrimental to his testimony to become a Jewish proselyte, because it would add confusion to the message of the Gospel. It may have pacified the “Judaizers”, but it would also have strengthened their claim that one has to become a Jew to be saved, which is pure heresy, and which was exactly what Paul was fighting against from the beginning.
This is why it was so important for the believers at Rome to accept one another as they were, without criticism about things that had no bearing on one’s relationship with God. The enemy was already at work to divide the newborn church, to split it into warring factions, and to destroy the credibility of its testimony. They could either overcome the differences by obedience to God’s Word, or allow the Enemy to destroy the church.
What did the apostle James say about the matter? (Acts 15:19) That the Jewish believers were not to “trouble those who from among the Gentiles had turned to God”. The same could be said of the Gentile believers, that they were not to trouble the Jewish believers. The whole issue, here in Romans 14 and 15, is the matter of unity in spite of differences. They could either choose to appreciate one another for the unique ways that God had gifted them, or choose to destroy the work of God through self-centered arrogance.
So, What about Today?
Those are the choices today, as well. It is never a question of condoning sin, but rather of allowing and appreciating liberty within the holiness of God. A well-meaning pastor once accused my youngest son of being a “worldly man” while he himself claimed to be a “Godly man,” based entirely upon my son’s choice in music. I felt that it was a sad thing, to destroy fellowship over such a thing, and I privately wondered what the music had been that occasioned such an attack, but I didn’t ask. A week or so later, my son and I were driving somewhere, and he had some pretty rocky-sounding music playing on his car system; then he said “This is the song that the pastor was complaining about, when he called me a “worldly man.” So, I listened more closely to the lyrics, to see what the content of the song really was. This is what I heard: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me! Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me! Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation…”
The song was the 51st Psalm, set to music. That is what he was being condemned for. Why? Because the human accuser did not like the music. But the Accuser of the Brethren is not human, and he doesn’t like the lyrics. He will use any means possible to cause division, and to diminish the effectiveness of the Church. Frequently the damage done is irreparable…the wounded brother quietly leaves, and the accuser feels justified, and grimly quotes, “They went out from among us because they were not of us!”
If you drive away another believer with your criticism, don’t accuse them of being unfaithful, or of being false brethren. It is your critical heart that is doing the damage. Ezekiel 34:15-22 says that God sees such doings, and will judge those doing the damage.
15I will feed my flock, and I will cause them to lie down, saith the Lord GOD. 16I will seek that which was lost, and bring again that which was driven away, and will bind up that which was broken, and will strengthen that which was sick: but I will destroy the fat and the strong; I will feed them with judgment.
17And as for you, O my flock, thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I judge between cattle and cattle, between the rams and the he goats. 18Seemeth it a small thing unto you to have eaten up the good pasture, but ye must tread down with your feet the residue of your pastures? and to have drunk of the deep waters, but ye must foul the residue with your feet? 19And as for my flock, they eat that which ye have trodden with your feet; and they drink that which ye have fouled with your feet.
20Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD unto them; Behold, I, even I, will judge between the fat cattle and between the lean cattle. 21Because ye have thrust with side and with shoulder, and pushed all the diseased with your horns, till ye have scattered them abroad; 22Therefore will I save my flock, and they shall no more be a prey; and I will judge between cattle and cattle.
Those who are driving away the weaker believers will be judged by God. We need to develop a very tender heart toward such offences, and be very careful about our words and actions.
This is not just about what happens in church, by the way: it is a warning that touches on every human relationship. James says that we all tend to sin with our tongues. We tend to have big mouths, and we need to put a guard on them, so as not to injure others with thoughtless words. The root of the tongue, of course, is the heart. Jesus said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.”
The self-will and self-centeredness that controls the heart of every unregenerate man is still there, in believers, but we are no longer its slaves. We no longer have to sin. (Romans 6:1-18) We are dead to sin, just as surely as we are dead to the Law. So, we need to set aside the critical spirit that wells up within us, and embrace the New Life in Christ, to the extent that we no longer reject one another based upon differences in tastes, mannerisms, styles, giftedness, or even minor doctrinal differences. It is simply not acceptable to reject one another over things that God accepts…to reject a person whom God says is “Accepted in the Beloved.”
Paul says that the church is to be filled “with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.”
We are to abound in hope through whose Power? That of the Holy Spirit. This is not a “do-it-yourself” project. We are told to endeavor to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of Peace.” We don’t create that unity, and, as the Psalmist says, “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” But we are not to disrupt that unity for the sake of any of the types of things listed here: Not what we eat or drink (both strictly temporal, at worst); not what we wear, not our ministry style, or our taste in music; not what we believe about the end times (which are easily misunderstood at best, and not everyone who is “confused” is necessarily a false teacher.)
We are to be characterized by the Agapé love, not by our many divisions and schisms. Paul sternly warned the Corinthian church against such divisions. (1st Corinthians 1:10-16) They were divided over who their individual mentors had been. Some claimed that Paul was their leader. Others claimed to follow Apollos. Still others took the high road and said “Well I follow Jesus!” That one sounds good, maybe, but what they were actually accomplishing was more division, not corrective teaching. Had they said “Can’t we all just follow Jesus? I mean that’s who both Paul and Apollos follow, right?” Then, I would say they were part of the solution. But as it is, they were part of the problem of contention, self-will and sectarian pride.
That still happens today: There was a fellow with whom I attended high school, who was not a believer when we graduated. I was a brand new believer at that time. We met about eight or ten years later and he was a brand new, enthusiastic, and friendly, warm brother in the Lord. We had good fellowship! But I met him again, perhaps five years later, in a grocery store, and something had changed:
He asked me what church I attended. I had been attending a Baptist church, because it was local, and because, doctrinally speaking, it was the closest thing I could find, nearby. So that is what I told him: “We’ve been attending this Baptist Church, up the street.” He physically straightened up so that he could look down his nose at me, and in a sanctimonious, smug, self-satisfied tone, said, “Well, I’m still gathering to the name of Jesus!” I was so disappointed to have him respond that way. He had not asked me about my beliefs, nor my practices. The only thing that mattered to him was the fact that I fellowshipped with people who were “part of a denomination.” The group with whom he met for fellowship, claimed to have no denominational ties, but, in fact they do! In separating themselves from all other believers, they have become a very tight-knit, world-wide denomination (or at least association). They are tarred with the same brush!
Division is serious business. We are to avoid it like a fatal disease…because it is one! If the Jewish believers were not to reject the Gentile believers because of their worldly habits, and the Gentile believers were not to reject the Jews because of their legalistic bent, and if Paul rebuked the early beginning of sectarianism based on personality cults, then how can we feel we have the right to break fellowship over anything that is not flagrant sin?
We are not to cause division, nor to allow it to continue, if it is possible to heal the rifts. We do not sacrifice sound doctrine to create a false unity…called Ecumenism; but we do seek to maintain unity with those who truly believe the Bible is God’s Word, and who see the Priorities of the Gospel as paramount. It is difficult to sort out, sometimes, but we must be committed to the unity of the true church while not abandoning the Holiness of God.
Lord Jesus, give us the wisdom through your Word, and by your Holy Spirit to discern good and evil, and renew in us a pure heart with which to offer the agapé love to those around us. Apart from your divine help and intervention and empowerment, the task is impossible. Arm us for the fight, and fill us with your Joy, for the sake of your honor and glory.