Unity In Times of DisagreementThings got a little rough over at the “First Church of the Wholly Sanctified and Exclusively Saved” last year. There had been rough times in the past; the church had split at least three times in the fifty years since it had been born from a split over at “Jesus’ True Followers Christian Church,” but none of those splits even moved the needle on the Richter scale compared to the latest squabble. Back in the 60’s there was the group that left because they didn’t like the decision of the Pastoral Oversight Committee which allowed the minister to preach in a suit and tie instead of a pastoral robe. In the 80’s there was the group that left because the music ministry decided to bring in an electronic keyboard to play alongside the “anointed” music of the pipe organ. Then there was the group that left to start their own church because the minister started using the New International Version over the King James Version of the Bible. One of the members wrote a letter to the church Board that said, “How could any man who portrays himself as a ‘man of God’ not teach out of the Bible that Jesus and Paul used—The King James 1611?” That was a big split. Many of the members wondered if they would ever recover from the loss. As devastating as that split was it was nothing compared to the latest brouhaha that came about just before Christmas of this past year.
The rumbling and gurgling noises began to arise from the church like Mt. St. Helens preparing to blow. Calm was the order of the day until the Mayor and his family came forward one Sunday morning to place their membership. All of the citizens of the community had known Mayor Johnson since he was a little boy. He had won two consecutive terms by a landslide. The word from the “stained glass” section of society was that Mayor Johnson was a God-fearing man. Mayor Johnson and his family had been attending the “First Church of the Wholly Sanctified and Exclusively Saved” since Easter, but trouble came the week before Christmas when the Mayor’s family came forward to officially place their membership.
Everyone was excited to think that a local celebrity could be sitting next to them in the pew on any given Sunday. Then the pastor asked Mayor Johnson’s family, one-by-one, if they had been baptized. The Mayor announced that he and his wife had been baptized while they were members of the Methodist Church when they were children. Mayor Johnson didn’t specify which form of baptism they had undergone. The pastor asked, “Were you immersed, sprinkled with water, or did the pastor pour water over your heads?” The Mayor and his wife looked at one another and said, “We were sprinkled.” The pastor didn’t want to make a scene, but he knew he had a problem on his hands.
Elder Thompson overheard the conversation between the pastor and Mayor Johnson. As soon as he left church he called his pastor to see what he was planning on doing about the Mayor and his wife. Elder Thompson recommended they have an emergency Elder’s meeting to discuss the matter. The meeting was called and what had begun as a rumble quickly turned into a full blown eruption of emotions and theological debate. Elder Smith, a graduate from Truth Seminary, had prepared a hand-out with every biblical reference to baptism complete with the Greek definition of the word. Elder Davis said, “Baptism is not essential for salvation and if the Mayor and his wife are at peace with their baptism then we should be as well.” He quoted Paul in his letter to the Corinthians where Paul said that he was thankful he had not baptized any of them except for Crispus and Gaius and the household of Stephanus. (1 Corinthians 1:14) After two hours of debating, quoting Scripture, huffing and puffing, stammering and stuttering, two Elders stormed out of the meeting.
The Mayor and his wife heard about all of the commotion and decided that they didn’t want to be the cause of trouble. They decided to never return to the “First Church of the Wholly Sanctified and Exclusively Saved.” That didn’t settle the matter at all for the Elders. They had an issue on their hands and they were determined to make the church “sound” in its theology.
During the month of January letters were mailed out to the members of the church by random people choosing one side or the other. Other letters were quickly fired out in response. Some were called heretics. Others were called apostate. The eruption inside the church quickly flowed like lava into the streets of the small community. Eventually one group left, the pastor resigned to take another church in another community, the Kingdom was scarred once again, and Jesus wept.
Jesus was preparing to go to the Cross. To give His very life for sinners like you and me, sinners who are much more prone to divide and conquer than love and unite. He was in the Garden of Gethsemane when He prayed for His followers, and those who would come to trust Him through their witness. Jesus prayed,
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21 NIV)
As we have been studying Romans 12-13 we have seen how Paul has emphasized God’s call to all of us to love those that He has placed in our lives. This is no casual love of convenience, a love that we make available to others when we feel attracted to them or when they are nice to us, but it is “agape” love that lavishes the unlovely, the unworthy, even the unlovable with the love that we have received from God. When this love is absent from our daily living then we fail to live out Jesus’ prayer for us and unbelievers are unquestionably repulsed by our hypocrisy. Brennan Manning once said,
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable. (Brennan Manning)
Paul is not done with his urging to love. As we move into Romans 14-15 we will continue to be challenged to put love into action. Let’s read our Scripture for today from Romans 14:1-12 and see what we can learn.
1Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. 8 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. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. 10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written: ” ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ ” 12 So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:1-12 NIV)
This section of Scripture that we will take a look at this morning is really the beginning of a longer section of the letter to the Church in Rome that is devoted to helping the followers of Jesus get along with brothers and sisters with whom they disagree. The section runs from Romans 14:1-15:13. This is such a relevant section of God’s Word for us today. Studies show that most church growth today is not made up of unbelievers deciding to give their life to Christ and get involved in a church. Most church growth is made up of Christians moving from one congregation to another. People get dissatisfied. Folks become upset at “this” or “that.” People don’t get their way. Folks feel strongly about some issue that comes up that they feel the leadership doesn’t deal with in a biblical way. There are all kinds of things that lead to brothers and sisters not agreeing and allowing their disagreement to divide and separate them one from another.
Evidently what we are witnessing in our own day is not new at all—it was taking place in the church in Rome as well as other churches that Paul addressed in the New Testament. The two issues that Paul brings to light in our section of Scripture today is the eating of certain foods and the celebration of some days as more important than others. Take a look at Romans 14:2-3 with me.
2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. (Romans 14:2-3 NIV)
One brother in Christ is perfectly at peace eating anything and everything while the man seated on the pew next to him will not eat any meat at all—he eats only vegetables. Now, if we don’t seek to understand the context of this statement we might be led to believe that the second man who refuses to eat any meat is a strict vegetarian for some of the reasons that folks are vegetarians today. I don’t think there were any members of PETA in Paul’s day. There were different issues going on that I briefly want to touch on.
Some Jewish Converts Still Kept Strict Dietary Laws
First of all, there were Jewish converts that were present in the church in Rome and although they were not commanded to be vegetarians there were restrictions on their diet. In Leviticus we find dietary restrictions spelled out. In Exodus 23:19 we find the verse, “Do not cook a young goat in it’s mother’s milk.” This verse is the basis for Jews keeping two sets of cookware, dishes, silverware, and cups: one for milk dishes and one for meat dishes. Some Jews, those who can afford it, even have two separate kitchens, one for preparing meat dishes and another for preparing milk dishes. All of this is designed to help the Jews remain Kosher.
Some Pagan Converts Refused To Eat Meat Sacrificed to Idols
Secondly, there were people who had been accustomed to frequenting the pagan temples. Paul doesn’t mention this in his letter to the church in Rome, but this is a real issue in the church in Corinth. Corinth was a major metropolitan community which, because of its seaport, entertained people from all over the world. There were at least twelve temples to gods in Corinth. Pagan worship was everywhere and the sacrifice of animals was very prevalent, not just among the Jews, but among the pagans as well. After animals were sacrificed in the pagan temples they would be taken and sold in the marketplace, the Agora. Paul addressed this in 1 Corinthians 8:4-7. Read along with me.
4 So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), 6 yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live. 7 But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. (1 Corinthians 8:4-7 NIV)
For Paul, idols are no gods at all. They have no power and therefore food sacrificed to them is just food, it is no worse or no better than any other food. Yet, because Paul understood that others whose faith is “weak” were affected, he had a higher law that he was willing to follow. In 1 Corinthians 8:13, Paul writes,
13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:13 NIV)
Paul doesn’t mention anything about food being sacrificed to idols in his letter to the Romans, but we can guess that the mindset of those in Corinth was also present in Rome. There may be other circumstances and situations that were present which brought about this division in the church at Rome, but there were definitely those with these two mindsets present.
Another illustration that Paul gives us of things that cause division in the church is the observance of some days as more important than others. Paul writes in Romans 14:5.
5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. (Romans 14:5 NIV)
For the Jewish converts to Jesus they would have brought their upbringing with them to the Cross. They were raised observing the Sabbath and special Jewish festivals and holy days. For some of these Jewish converts these days had to still hold a special significance for them. Paul, in his letter to the church in Colosse, writes,
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. (Colossians 2:16-17 NIV)
For some in the church who didn’t have a Jewish background, these days meant nothing, as Paul says, “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
These are just two issues that were present in the church in Rome which could have led to disastrous division if not addressed. Paul addressed them. He talks about those whose faith is “weak” and those whose faith is “strong.” What’s really interesting is that we would describe the “weak” and the “strong” opposite of how Paul described them. We would say that those who are “strong” live the more disciplined, strict lifestyle. Paul identifies the “weak” as those who are vegetarians and observe some days as more important than other days.
Nobody was more “strict” with their diet and certain that they had followed all of the laws of cleanliness and washing than the Pharisees. In Mark 7, the Pharisees were upset with Jesus and His followers because they ate their food with their hands, hands that had not been washed. Jesus responded to them and basically charged them with being hypocrites. Later, His disciples asked Him about what He had said to the Pharisees. In Mark 7:17-22, Jesus said.
17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.”) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ 21 For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. (Mark 7:17-22 NIV)
Who had the stronger faith—Jesus or the Pharisees? Well, you and I both know the answer to that question, it was Jesus of course. Yet, who lived the more externally “religious” life? It would have to be the Pharisees. They used their external religious rituals to separate and elevate themselves from all others.
In Jesus’ day, in Paul’s day, and certainly in our day, it is so much easier to focus on externals rather than to focus on what truly matters in our walk with God. We find so many things to separate us, divide us, and elevate us above our brothers and sisters. For the Pharisees it was Jesus’ failure to wash His hands or His choice of dinner companions that caused them to look down at Him. For some of the folks in Rome it was eating meat that might have been sacrificed to idols or failure to recognize the Day of Atonement as a special day. What it is in our day that we use to separate, to elevate us as more spiritual, more godly, than those around us? John R.W. Stott writes,
In our day we might mention such practices as the mode of baptism (whether by immersion or affusion), Episcopal confirmation (whether it is a legitimate part of Christian initiation), the giving and receiving of a wedding ring (which was hotly contested by the Puritans in the seventeenth century), and the use of cosmetics, jewelry and alcohol, together with such beliefs as which charismata are available and/or important, whether miraculous ‘signs and wonders’ are intended to be frequent or infrequent, how Old Testament prophecy has been or will be fulfilled, when and how the millennium will be established, the relation of history to eschatology, and the precise nature of both heaven and hell. In these and other issues, today as in the first-century Rome, the problem is how to handle conscientious differences in matters on which Scripture is either silent or seemingly equivocal, in such a way as to prevent them from disrupting the Christian fellowship. (Stott, John R.W. The Message of Romans, Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. 1994. pg. 358.)
None of the issues mentioned by Dr. Stott are “core” issues, they are all non-essentials. We are not dealing with Christology, or “Is Jesus the only Savior, the only Mediator between God and humanity?” We are not dealing with the trustworthiness of the Word of God. We allow non-essentials, periphery issues to divide us most often.
There are essentials, matters that are absolutely non-negotiable for us as followers of Jesus. We can’t compromise on the supremacy of the Bible as God’s Word. We can’t compromise on the Sovereignty of God over all the affairs of history. We can’t compromise on the Virgin Birth of Jesus because it is the bedrock for our understanding of His being the perfect sacrifice, a Lamb without spot or blemish. We can’t compromise on the sin nature of all who have ever lived except for One, the perfect Son of God. We can’t compromise on the truth that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works. We can’t compromise on the substitutionary atonement of Jesus for our sins. He died in our place, a perfect substitute for our imperfect, sin-scarred lives. And we can’t compromise on the resurrection of Jesus from the grave. It was His resurrection that validated every claim He ever made. These are non-negotiables.
For some of you, you may disagree with me. You might think my list is too short or too long. I would love to visit with you about your lists if you would like. I will promise you this—I will love you whether we can come to an agreement or not. And this leads me to close our study today by asking, “What do we do when we disagree on non-essentials?” Well, Paul says that we are to “accept” one another. He uses an interesting Greek word there in Romans 14:1. Read the verse with me.
1 Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. (Romans 14:1 NIV)
The Greek word for “accept” is “???????????” (proslambano) and it means, “to take to one’s self, to take as one’s companion, or to grant one access to one’s heart.” It is not merely being willing to be in their presence, but it is taking them into our hearts, to love them. The same word was used by Paul in Philemon when he wrote to his friend about his runaway slave, Onesimus. Paul wanted Philemon to take this brother in Christ back so he wrote him a letter and sent it with Onesimus. Read with me from Philemon 1:15-17.
15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good– 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. 17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. (Philemon 1:15-17 NIV)
“Welcome him as you would welcome me.” That’s it. We are to welcome our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree. We are to love them.
There is more. We are not to “look down on” our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree. Paul writes in Romans 14:3.
3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. (Romans 14:3 NIV)
The Greek word for “look down on” literally means, “to make no account” or “to despise utterly.” Luke uses the same word to describe how the Pharisee regarded the tax collector. Read along with me in Luke 18:9-14.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14 NIV)
We are not to regard our brothers and sisters as inferior, unspiritual, or ungodly simply because they see things differently than we do. We are to honor all who follow Jesus as brothers and sisters in Christ because they belong to Him, He died for them just like He gave His life for us, and we are going to give an account to Him for the life we’ve lived just like they are. One of the areas in which we are going to have to give an account is every word that comes out of our mouths. I sure don’t want to be guilty of slamming my teammates. I sure don’t want to let careless, harmful, prideful words indict me before my King. Jesus said,
36 But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37 For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37 NIV)
Paul had great hopes for the believers at Rome. I have the same hope for us at Britton Christian Church. There are so many things that could divide us if we allow them to, but if we will keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, His glory and majesty, His grace and mercy, then we will be the most humble and gracious of all people.
I told you that this section runs from Romans 14:1-15:13. Let me give you a glimpse at how Paul closes the section. Turn with me to Romans 15:5-7 and let’s read together.
5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, 6 so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Romans 15:5-7 NIV)
Is this your prayer for Britton Christian Church? Is this your passion for this body of believers? Are you a living answer to Jesus’ prayer that we would all be one or are you part of the problem? Won’t you allow the Lord to search your heart this morning as we close this service of worship. Come forward if you would like to ask Jesus into your heart. He will fill you with a love for those around you. He will fill you with a desire to work for the unity of the Body. He will fill you with His Spirit so that you might be His witness in this world. Come.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
October 21, 2014