Giving up Freedom for Unity (Romans 15:1-7)
Introduction: The Importance of Unity in the Church
"In the October 4, 1992 issue of the Magazine 'Our Daily Bread' there was an article on unity. Here is what it said:
During World War II, Hitler commanded all religious groups to unite so that he could control them. Among the Brethren assemblies, half complied and half refused. Those who went along with the order had a much easier time. Those who did not, faced harsh persecution. In almost every family of those who resisted, someone died in a concentration camp.
When the war was over, feelings of bitterness ran deep between the groups and there was much tension. Finally, they decided that the situation had to be healed. Leaders from each group met at a quiet retreat. For several days, each person spent time in prayer, examining his own heart in the light of Christ's commands. Then they came together. Francis Schaeffer, who told of the incident, asked a friend who was there, "What did you do then?" "We were just one," he replied. As they confessed their hostility and bitterness to God and yielded to His control, the Holy Spirit created a spirit of unity among them. Love filled their hearts and dissolved their hatred.
When love prevails among believers, especially in times of strong disagreement, it presents to the world an indisputable mark of a true follower of Jesus Christ."
It's no secret that the human race doesn't seem to be able to get along with each other very well. We don't tolerate those whom we feel look, think or act as we do. Sin not only separated us from God but from one another as well.
Sin in the world made mankind deeply selfish and disunified. We see the results of this every day by just looking at the news. Wars, terrorist attacks, murders, thefts as well as the break up of the family and other things like this. Just the fact that there are quarrels and fights among many groups, individuals and even in the Church shows a general lack of love and unity.
However, in God's new community, the Body of Christ, things are to be very different. The Lord is creating a whole new group of people who are characterized by agape love and true Christ-centered unity.
As we saw in a previous article, agape love is that selfless, sacrificial and unconditional love that God demonstrated when He sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins. Agape isn't dependent upon the worth of the object loved or whether or not they did something to deserve it. And it isn't some emotional sentiment like you'd find on a greeting card or in a song. Rather, agape is always demonstrated by positive actions on behalf of the person loved, and for their best interests.
True agape always leads to unity. It is seen in a group of people looking out for each other's interests and doing their best to help meet each other's needs. And it is the natural outcome that develops from maturity if one has been truly justified by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Paul likes to talk about this term, unity and sees it as extremely important in the life of the believer and in the life of the church. Ephesians 4 is just one example of this. There the Apostle tells us:
"Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (1-3).
Nowhere is this unity needed more than in the area of disputable matters which Paul has been talking about, beginning in chapter 14 of Romans and concluding in the first 7 verses of chapter 15. These are matters that don't affect the fundamentals of the Christian faith and salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Neither are they the things which the Bible clearly states to be sin. Rather they are the gray areas that the Bible neither condemns nor condones. In Paul's day, it was things like eating meat offered to idols and determining what you can and cannot do on the Sabbath. But, as we noted, there are issues that we deal with as well in our own day. These include such things as the use or nonuse of alcohol as long as you're not getting drunk, dancing, the types of music Christians listen to, whether or not we should ever see R rated movies etcetera.
We also said in the last message that Paul had an opinion on the issues of his day, as to who he thought to be right and who was wrong since he called some strong in faith and some weak. However, he wasn't going to act in a non-loving way and use his maturity and knowledge to destroy the unity of the Church and the faith of the weak brother or sister for whom Christ died. And we shouldn't either.
The weak believer can be defined as a person who has convictions over matters of misdirected or non-salvation related importance. They are people who have strong convictions about things that are not as important as they think that they are. They're matters that limit the freedom we have in Christ even though the Lord hasn't told us to do so.
With these fellow-believers, the Apostle tells us that we are not to be judgemental. Christ is their Lord and not us and He is capable of helping them to mature in their faith. Until then, we who are the stronger brother or sister are to have a self-sacrificial attitude toward those who are weaker. And if it takes limiting my freedom in order to keep them from having a wounded conscience and stumbling into sin then so be it. For if they think that what I see as freedom is sin and do it anyway, they are not acting in faith and to them it is sin. For as Paul tells us:
"Whatever is not of faith is sin." (Romans 14:23).
Once again, we cannot take lightly matters that are outright sin or which destroy major doctrines of the faith. But when it comes to those things for which there is not a direct command of Scripture for or against, there is room for disagreement. It was regarding these types of situations that St. Augustine said:
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
As we've said, these are the areas that don't affect either salvation or Christian doctrine. We must allow each other to have the liberty to follow our own conscience before God. When we don't, it actually destroys unity and wrecks our testimony before a watching world.
In today's society, where it seems that the church is more divided than ever before, it is good for us to talk about this subject of unity and how to maintain it. After having spent a whole chapter on how to deal with the weaker Christian, Paul's summary and conclusions can be found in the first 7 verses of chapter 15. In these 7 short verses, we can see the Apostle's advice on how to fulfill this daunting task of unity. We could break it into 3 basic admonitions.
I. The Strong Should Bear the Weaknesses of the Weak (15:1)
The first admonition that assures unity, is the idea of the strong bearing the weaknesses of those who are weak. Going back to chapter 14, Paul elaborates upon what he is referring to when talking about the weaker brother or sister. By this, he means weak in faith. The Church in Rome was made up of both Jewish and Gentile believers. Many weak Jewish believers had difficulty abandoning the rites and prohibitions of the Old Covenant Law. They felt a compulsion to adhere to the dietary laws, the Sabbath and the offering of Temple sacrifices. In the meantime, the weak Gentiles couldn't forget their past where they were steeped in idolatry. They felt that any contact with the past, including the buying of meat, offered to idols, as well as eating it was a sin.
The strong Jews, on the other hand, understood their freedom in Christ. They realized that the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic Law were no longer binding. While the mature Gentiles realized that idols weren't gods and could eat meat that was offered to them.
Paul knew that the strong Christians could understand the struggles and therefore he offered most of his comments to them. He tells them that they ought to bear the failings or the weaknesses of the weak. The word bear here literally means " to pick up and carry a weight." In Scripture, it is used of carrying a pitcher of water, of carrying a man and figuratively of bearing an obligation
The Apostle lets us know that we are not only to tolerate their weaknesses. We are also to help them shoulder their burdens as well. And not just for our own pleasure, to make us feel good about ourselves or to have them or anyone else feel good about us. It was not to win friends and influence people in order to make them feel indebted to us. But simply because it is the right and godly thing to do.
That is agape love at its best. Sacrificing for the good of another and putting their needs ahead of our own. This, like all of the Christian life, is not hard. It is impossible without the Spirit of Christ empowering us.
II. We Must Please Our Neighbor (15:2)
The second admonition is that we must please our neighbor. Why do we do this? It is not to give in to one who wants to control us. Rather it is for the edification of the weaker believer. This word 'edification' is one that means 'to build up.' Paul said essentially the same thing in Romans 14:19 when he tells us:
"So then pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another."
Only this time he adds the element of self-denial on the others' behalf. Self-denial goes against everything that our old nature stands for and it is the highest virture behind agape love. J.I. Packer had this to say about it:
"Jesus links self-denial with cross-bearing. Cross-bearing is far more than enduring this or that hardship. Carrying one's cross in Jesus' day, as we learn from the story of Jesus' own crucifixion, was required of those whom society had condemned, whose rights were forfeit, and who were now being led out to their execution. The cross they carried was the instrument of death. Jesus represents discipleship as a matter of following him and following him as based on taking up one's cross in self-negation. The carnal self would never consent to cast us in such a role. "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die," wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was right: Accepting death to everything that the carnal self wants to possess is what Christ's summons to self-denial was all about."
Apply that to the pleasing of the neighbor and we see what a drastic command both Jesus and Paul are making. Unlike our life outside of Christ which was totally selfish, our goal is no longer to please ourselves but to please God and our neighbor. The Lord's Kingdom comes ahead of our earthly possessions and goals and our neighbor's needs come before our own. It's the same thing that Paul is saying in Philippians 2:3 when he tells us:
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves."
It is only as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:1,2) and ultimately become like our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, that we can ever hope to achieve this type of love. Which leads us to the final admonition in this small section of Scripture. Unity only takes place when we follow the example of Christ found in the Scriptures.
III. Follow the Example of Christ in Scipture (3-7)
Our Lord, through Paul, isn't asking us to do anything that He wasn't willing or able to do Himself. Christ didn't please Himself. Rather He loved us enough to take upon Himself the reproach of others and ultimately death for our sins. Paul quotes Psalm 69:9 here when he tells us:
"The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me." (3).
Reproaches refer to the slander, false accusations and insults that our Lord endured for us. Mankind hates God and it hates His Son. Jesus came to earth knowing full well what He'd be going through. However, His love made Him come anyway.
Paul then goes into a teaching on the value of Scripture for the believer. Although Christians live under the New Covenant, God's moral laws that were given under the Old Covenant are of spiritual benefit to us. They help us to persevere in our faith by encouraging us and giving hope for the future that God has planned. And we can certainly learn from the example of Jesus Christ since He is the one to whose image we are being conformed.
Just as Jesus always brought glory to His Father, Paul's prayer is that the God who gives us perseverance and encouragement will grant us unity. And then with one single united voice, we can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul ends this section with another admonition that we must heed in following Jesus' example:
"Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God." (7).
Unless we practice acceptance of one another with all of our faults, foibles, and quirks we will never gain the unity that proves us to be the followers of Christ that we claim to be. Everyone wants to be able to be a part of some group where we can know that we are accepted for who we are, warts and all. The Church, the Body of Christ should be that group of people.
In conclusion, when thinking of the unity of the Body of Christ, I am reminded of a Peanuts comic strip written several years ago by Charles Schultz. Charlie Brown's friend Linus was watching T.V. once when Lucy came and demanded that he change TV channels, threatening him with her fist if he didn't. "What makes you think you can walk right in here and take over?" asks Linus.
"These five fingers," says Lucy. "Individually they're nothing but when I curl them together like this into a single unit, they form a weapon that is terrible to behold."
"Which channel do you want?" asks Linus. Turning away, he looks at his fingers and says, "Why can't you guys get organized like that?"
I am wondering what we could accomplish if the Church could get together like Lucy's fist and be the Body that we are meant to be. What spectacular things we could accomplish for the glory of God.
By following our Lord's example in bearing the weaknesses of the weak and pleasing our neighbor in order to build him up we could truly find this out. And we would become the new humanity that God intended us to be while spreading the good news of the Gospel to a planet full of people that have lost their way.
Alone, we can do very little. But together, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become something which is, not terrible, but wonderful to behold. I pray that God grants to us both the unity and the power that it brings. With it, we can change the world for His glory!!
© 2019 Jeff Shirley