God’s Desire for Christian Unity

The problem I run across the most in the letters of the New Testament seems to be unity in the early church. The newly established and multi-racial church of the first century really struggled with overcoming social, religious, and ethnic boundary markers in order to have full unity and acceptance of one another.

Why is this so important? It was and is important because since the beginning God desired all nations to worship him in unity. So this is all part of God’s plan and the apostles understood the need to achieve unity in order to be pleasing to God. In Romans 15:3-5 Paul tells the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome about three things that all come together to give them unity and which result in a unified glorification of God through their worship (15:6).

  1. He mentions the example of Christ who was not out to please himself. If Christ had only tried to please himself he would not have endured the cross. He would not have suffered shame. And so we, as believers and followers of Christ, are not out to get our own way at the expense of unity. Instead we should be willing to suffer to a great degree to maintain unity in God’s church.
  2. Next he mentions the scriptures that were given to encourage and give endurance. We turn to the examples of those God has dealt with in the past in order to press forward in the identity God has given us and the mission he has in store for us.
  3. Last he mentions God himself who also grants endurance and encouragement. But God gives something in addition to what the scriptures give. God gives a spirit of unity. Notice he says that spirit is given as we follow Christ. Well, Christ wasn’t there in the flesh to be followed. Instead, we all come to perfect unity when we are walking as Christ would walk and follow his example.

There is a fourth thing that brings unity to God’s people that Paul doesn’t mention here but mentions in Galatians 3-4. In Galatians Paul constantly refers back to the Spirit and its role in bringing unity to God’s people. This is probably the number one aspect of the Holy Spirit we miss out on in our teaching. Because all Christians have God’s Spirit inside them, all Christians have a unity that comes by that same Spirit (See Eph 4:3-4 as well). In other words, if we create disunity toward someone who has by the grace of God the same Spirit inside them that we do, we fail to grasp or understand the very nature of our existence and reality of God’s dwelling within us through his Holy Spirit. But if we realize that all Christians have been blessed by God with his promised Spirit then we should by nature seek out unity and peace with our fellow believers.


Romans 14 – Dealing With Those Who Differ in Doctrine

I am convinced if we all followed the principles laid out by Paul in Romans 14 that divisions in the church would be held to a minimum. In Paul’s discussion of the weak and the strong in their faith he unpacks some information that get our heats in the right place when it comes to how we view others and their relationship with God. I think this is key to much of what is floating around the blog world as we speak and the conversation started up by Todd Deaver at his blog and the new venture Grace Conversation. The principles unlocked in this single chapter helps weak and strong alike. It helps conservative and progressive alike. It puts us all back on the same page and gets our focus where God desires it. Let’s have a look.

Importance of Overlooking our Differences:
In the previous 2 chapters Paul has mentioned the importance for Christians, no matter what their differences, to have love for each other. The Christians at Rome had even bigger differences than we have today in conservative and progressive churches and yet Paul called them to overcome those differences through love for each other (Rom 12 & 13) and in focusing on God rather than nit picking what everyone else is doing (Romans 14). They had some nit-pickers in the Roman church. Judaising Christians had a hard time accepting Gentile converts. Gentiles converts had a hard time understanding all the rules and regulations the Jews brought with them. Add to that cultural norms on both sides…Romans (Gentiles) thought the Jews were rebellious and anti-Rome in their refusal to worship their Gods. The Jews grew up thinking Gentiles were anathema and were not to be associated with, eaten with, or have in their home. They had a lot of differences to overlook. They had to look past things they had grown up hearing were unacceptable and would condemn someone to hell. Sound familiar? Yet Paul calls them into unity with each other! They had a lot to overcome but Paul believed they were able to find unity in spite of their differences (both cultural and doctrinal).

We Don’t Live in a Bubble:
Romans 14 teaches us that our actions and attitudes have a direct impact on those around us. That impact can be for the good and edify our fellow believer or it can be to their detriment and even threaten their soul (14:15 – “Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died”).  We don’t live in a bubble. Over and over again Paul tells them that what they do impacts those around them. What they believe can impact their fellow Christians as well. It is important we go to GREAT lengths to build up rather than to tear down.

When it comes to division people always have their issues. There are those pet issues that are somehow more important than other commands (such as maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”). In Romans 14 Paul respectfully addresses several issues and he understands just how significant these issues are to his audience. However, he does not believe that these issues in particular are worth creating division over. In fact, he even says it is okay for believers to believe two different things on the same issue! This is even true of issues that they believe are of great importance especially to the Jews (holy days and dietary issues). This does not mean all issues are negotiable but some issues are. It takes a lot of care and concerned study to differentiate the two but it is important that we do.

Eating and holy days help us identify our own issues:
While the issues of Paul’s day are not our issues today it is important that we identify the things we disagree on and try to apply Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 today. The point is not the food and the point is not which days are or are not holy. Paul’s point is that we can disagree on some things as long as we aren’t looking down on those we disagree with (14:3). We have typically made a point of incorrect doctrine on matters being a sin and cause for disfellowship. Some have taken the stance that if you disagree with them on a single point of doctrine that there is cause for disfellowship. Paul clearly teaches against that point of view here. Paul says there are some issues where it is 100% okay to disagree on an issue and it not be sin for either person. However, if you look down on those you disagree with and start seeing them as less than yourself, even if you are correct in your doctrinal position, you just sinned.

The Slave analogy helps put things in perspective:
Paul uses the example of two slaves who are both working for the same master. Both are working but one likes to spend some of his time critiquing the work of his fellow slaves (14:4). Paul’s point is that the master judges the work of each slave. The slaves are on the same level with no authority to make those judgments. I wish those who spent their time nit-picking other churches, ministers, Christians, universities, etc could understand this verse and realize that though they believe themselves to be 100% correct in their doctrine, it is possible to be 100% correct in doctrine and still be in major sin! It is also possible to not have all your doctrine nailed down perfect and be fine in God’s eyes. How is that? Paul is saying it doesn’t matter what you believe about the food you eat or the days you treat as holy as long as you stick to what you believe and don’t look down on those who differ with you. Again, I am not saying that all matters are disputable but some are. Where is our example to divide over having a kitchen at the building? Sounds pretty disputable to me. Yet some have split God’s church over less and in the process looked down their noses, pointed fingers, and arrogantly accused fellow believers of disrespecting God and his church for things that were not to their liking, regardless for how clear or unclear scripture was on the issue.

“Therefore, let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” – Romans 14:13 Oh, if only we would all put that verse into practice! Paul gives this command and then wraps up the chapter with what we are to do in place of judgment:

act in love – 14:15
have righteousness, peace and joy – 14:16
Practice what leads to peace and mutual edification – 14:19

In verse 17 he sums it up well in saying that the kingdom of God is not a matter of finely tuning our doctrine on disputable matters, instead it is a matter of righteousness, peace and joy. It amazes me that we have Christians who try to be 100% correct in things but has no joy or peace and possibly even believe their righteousness comes from their doctrinal positions rather than from God, in spite of their own error and sinfulness! Paul is saying that kind of attitude misses the whole point.

Does this mean everything is wishy washy?
This doesn’t mean we can all have different beliefs across the board. Paul would certainly argue with you if you disagreed with him on the issues he laid out in Romans 1-8 and even beyond. Paul would certainly believe you less than Christian if you disagreed with him on the Lordship/Messiahship of Christ. This does not mean all matters of doctrine are disputable. This does mean some things are up for debate and some things only come down to a matter of conscience. On those issues we have to leave each other alone and not personally fall into the sin of treating our fellow believers with pride and arrogance. Paul seems to imply that behavior is a worse sin than error.

For my class notes on Romans 14 click here.

Ripening Issues in the Church of Christ – Alienated Older People

This is the last of the Ripening Issues in the CofC series. This is one that I am most worried about because the other issues all load into this one. There is pretty close biblical parallel that can help us handle this issue. For many years people thought Paul wrote Romans as a general layout of his theology. That would make Romans pretty exceptional because most of Paul’s letters are written to address problems and issues (that is called being an occasional letter). A new theory has developed that links a very specific occasion to the writing of Romans. Roman emperor Claudius ruled Rome from 41 to 54 AD. During his reign he issued a number of edicts including a prescription of “Yew juice” for snake bite (Suetonius #16) but also, and most importantly, an edict in 49 that Suetonius records as follows, “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [probably a misunderstanding of Christ], he expelled them from Rome.” (Suetoinus 25.4). Acts 18:1-2 also makes mention of this edict as to why Priscilla and Aquilla left Rome. To make a long story short, when Claudius died the edict was void and the Jews were able to return to Rome.

There was one small problem. Jewish Christians would have presumably been Christians longer than Gentile Christians in Rome and had previously had more leadership experience in the church than the younger Gentile Christians. We presume that when the Christian Jews left Rome younger Gentile Christians stepped up into leadership roles and led these congregations/house churches for roughly 5 years until Claudius died and the Jews returned to Rome. When the Jewish Christians got back they may have expected church to be “life as usual” but instead found Gentile Christians occupying “their” places of leadership. [I really am going some place with this trust me]. Paul’s occasion for writing Romans (which is probably dated in 57 AD) was that 3 years after the churches were reunited with the returning Jews they were still fighting and quarreling amongst themselves.

Dealing with Cultural Differences:

Here is my point, Paul is writing to a church that is struggling with cultural issues and leadership issues that stem from disagreements between younger and older Christians who are from totally different worlds/backgrounds. I think that is a fairly good parallel between what is about to happen in our churches as the younger people, who as Rex pointed out, are coming at it from a totally different background and perspective engage the older Christians in dialogue about how the church is going to operate, what the worship should be like, how much we are serving our community, outreach, etc. If the older members stonewall we are going to have a tremendous backlash and an exodus from the church. If the younger people push forward with no concern or deference from the older members there is going to be a tremendous amount of alienation as the older people will no longer recognize the church the spent their whole lives supporting and being a part of.

Paul’s Advice:

What advice did Paul give the Roman churches? He gave them an equal lashing until he felt both sides realized that as different as they may seem they are actually more alike than they realized. It all boiled down to 3:21-24,27-31 “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ JesusWhere, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.” Old or young faith is the same. Old or young our need for forgiveness is the same because we are all alike in sin and all alike in righteousness. As a famous wrestler used to say, “And that’s the bottom line.” This culture or that culture, Jew or Gentile, modern or post modern he is the God of us all because through faith in Jesus Christ he brings justification to both.

An older member might say, “But Paul doesn’t that mean in doing so we might nullify the law?” = “Doesn’t that mean to give deference to these young upstarts mean we are throwing away everything we have lived for up to this point?” Paul’s answer is just the opposite – he says to live in one accord with them is to live more closely in line for everything you have ever lived for up to this point. To be in one accord between the older and the younger means we are being more fully who God made us to be – people who are mutual submissive to each other who understand we do have differences and are still willing to worship and commune with others even though we will never agree on everything.

As this issue looms larger and larger let’s begin by never forgetting who we and our similarities in Christ. When we start from that position it will make the dialogue that much easier because we realize that even though we may differ on some of the “how to’s” the mission and identity of both generations is really the saem.

The Secret to Christian Unity

In 1985 it was estimated that there were 22,000 Christian denominations with 5 new ones forming each week. If those numbers held true we should be at about 28,000 today. I am not sure how those numbers were arrived at or what constituted one church being different from another to count as separate denominations but even if there were only 25 or 50 denominations that would be too many.

We are not sure how much division there was in the Philippian church but we do know of two members Paul encouraged to be in agreement (Euodia and Syntyche – 4:2). Starting in 1:27 Paul begins his appeal to Christian unity. He writes about them being in “one Spirit” (1:27), their “striving together” (1:28), and being “in one accord” (1:28) even in suffering and opposition (1:29-20).

In 2:1 Paul continues his plea for their unity. Notice in the first verse he talks about them and God:

  • “If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ”
  • “if any comfort from his love”
  • “if any tenderness and compassion”

He then moves to how a unified relationship with God/Christ that is characterized by tenderness and compassion should result in unified relationships with each other. It is easy to have tenderness and compassion for Christ. He has done so much for us! But it doesn’t stop there. It is made complete when what we have experienced with Christ is reciprocated and lived out with others, “then make my joy complete by [doing this]:

  • “being like minded”
  • “having the same love”
  • “being one in spirit and of one mind”

and by avoiding this:

  • “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit”

Then he pens one of the most difficult verses in the entire New Testament. Not difficult because it is hard to translate or hard to exegete. It is difficult because it dismantles life as we know it. These words are read with hesitancy because we know that if we take them seriously life will never be the same again, “Rather in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (TNIV). On this verse F.F. Bruce wrote,

The simplicity of Paul’s language should not blind us to its difficulty. Those who really try to consider others better than themselves soon discover that this does not come naturally. It is too easy to introduce permissible exceptions to Paul’s rule…There is a tendency, for example, to think one’s own denomination better than others, to the point of imagining that God himself is better pleased with it than he is with others (and therefore, surely, better pleased with me for belonging to mine than he is with others for belonging to theirs.). No such exceptions are permissible where true humility reigns.

Philippians (NIBC)

I appreciate what Bruce has to say and I know that what I am about to say is pie in the sky but I also believe it is what Jesus intended and so I am going to say it anyway – If we had the attitude of Christ and practiced what Paul is talking about here in Philippians, the only thing we would call a denomination are different types of coins. I know you have probably heard dozens of lessons on this passage or at least read it many times. I just want to point out a few things that if we really lived out would change Christianity and the world as we know it.

Christ was God. He had all the privilege and authority. But he didn’t use that to his own advantage. Society teaches us that you are to use everything at your disposal to promote yourself and your own agenda. Not so with Christ. He who was supreme and had everything became nothing and had nothing. He who had every right to be served came as a servant. The one who had every right to be proud and boast about himself humbled himself even to the point of death. And the question is, in light of all of that, how many of us can say we are better or more worthy of honor and getting our way than Christ was? None of us can say that. If the one who was able to get his own way refused it, who are we to selfishly chase after our own desires at everyone else’s expense? We can’t. Instead we are to die to our own arrogance and our own selfishness on a daily basis and instead we are to hold up others above ourselves. Death almost sounds easier than that! Oh, we are called to that too! If we lived like this division would be a thing of the past and we would all seek out Christ first and foremost.

What is the secret to Christian unity? Living out the example of Christ (humility, servanthood, and death to self) and removing all obstacles to making that happen (selfish ambition and vain conceit). Only then will our tenderness, compassion, and unity with God translate into tenderness, compassion, and unity with each other. One last bit of motivation. Have a look at John 17:20-23 and find out how the world will know about Jesus and will start to love his disciples.