Copyright © 2011, John
W. (Jack) Carter. All rights reserved.
There is one characteristic of mankind that has always amazed me. When we consider the billions of people who populate this small planet, we find that each one is profoundly unique. At the same time, people are extremely social. The application of society to such uniqueness is a bit of an oxymoron. Every other animal, species, and genus socializes only within its genetic peers. We do not see hawks flying in flocks of sparrows, or owls among pigeons. At the same time, as a people, we have a basic need for significance and acceptance, needs that scream out for conformity and are only frustrated by our uniqueness. However, when such an array of uniquely gifted and talented people come together in society, great things can be accomplished when each one is given the opportunity to express themselves. Of course, the church is such a community, and a mature and healthy church expresses itself in its love for God and for one another.
Differences in close community also engender conflict. One would not introduce a hawk into a community of mice unless one wishes to control the mouse population and make one hawk very happy. World history is replete with the conflict among people when those with differences attempt to share the same space without respecting other's rights and sensibilities. Most violence and wars are fought over such issues. Yet, in God's wisdom, He has called upon people of all backgrounds to come together in the body of believers, the Christian church. Is there any wonder that conflict can arise within the fellowship of the church? Such conflict "robs the church of peace and joy. It often damages the reputation of the church in its neighborhood. It makes outsiders wonder what kind of God the church serves, if they really serve God at all. Fights fracture fellowship, inhibit evangelism, and make it impossible for the church to glorify God." While the church fails due to internal strife, its community suffers. Those whom it needs to serve the most become disillusioned, and satan laughs. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is not the author of this type of conflict in the church, but it is rather the expression of selfish motives by demanding church members.
A lack of unity in the fellowship of believers is by no means an isolated or a new issue. Much of the biblical New Testament content that is directed at the church deals with issues of church conflict. Many have said that they want their church fellowship to be like those of the first-century Christian church. However, one making such a statement may not be quite aware of how conflicted the first-century church actually was. Satan was busy at work in his attempt to disrupt the fledgling congregations as demons of pride, selfishness, and arrogance exercised their divisive works within the body of believers.
Satan is not free to exercise his evil ways in an environment that is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Evil succeeds in disrupting the unity in the fellowship only when we invite it in by the expression of our own evil motives, quenching the work of the Holy Spirit in the body. Our selfish desires can turn our priorities upside down and cause us to forget what is really important. People will divide themselves over a discussion concerning the color of a carpet or the color of paint used in the sanctuary. Such destructive events are an indication of spiritual immaturity in the body as the combatants throw away their very purpose for existence as a church solely to satiate their selfish motives. Paul writes to a church in Rome that is suffering from internal divisions that are motivated by the great diversity of the background of its membership. Jews want legalism, Romans want freedom. Greeks want to mix doctrine and philosophy. Individuals want the church run their own way and the body is fractured. It is no wonder that Paul addresses this issue firmly.
Romans 15:1. We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.
The natural expression of strength is through power. That basic need for personal significance often leads people to produce their own false significance through the overpowering of others. A metaphor for such power can be found in Niagara Falls, a very large waterfall on the New York - Canada border. No water craft in the world can stand under the thousands of tons of water that fall over 200 feet to the chasm below. People travel many miles to come and marvel at the thunderous cataract. This is how the world sees power, as something that is independent and overwhelming in the expression of its own character. This metaphor changes when power is brought under the control of the Holy Spirit. This latter type of power is more like a mighty bridge that has the capacity to withstand the mighty loads it is designed to carry without any mixture of weakness or fracture. The bridge stands under the loads of heavy traffic, as well as for the school children who confidently yield themselves to the bridge's safety as they cross the mighty river and enjoy the magnificent view. Both the waterfall and the bridge are metaphors of strength, yet are profoundly different in their character. One represents power in destruction, and the other represents power in the accomplishment of a great purpose. It is in this latter area of character that strength is appropriately expressed in the church fellowship.
Paul states that those who are "strong" should "bear" the infirmities of the weak. In the previous chapter, Paul challenged those who are mature in the faith to show grace and love to those less mature. The word used for "bear" means to bear the burden of another. Rather than showing one's strength by flexing one's muscles and demonstrating acts of strength, Christians have the opportunity to put those muscles to work for each other's benefit. Each individual has a unique set of gifts that can be applied to the glory of God as they are used to express love, one for another.
Note that Paul was not abashed at referring to himself as one of the "strong." People have been given sufficient intelligence to know in the depths of their heart whether their faith is mature or shallow. Paul is speaking to those who know of their own Christian maturity, and admonishing them to use their strengths for the needs of the kingdom of God rather than for themselves.
Romans 15:2. Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification.
Too often, those who are members of a Christian fellowship show their strength in an effort to please themselves, and it would seem that this was taking place in the church in Rome. Instead of using their strengths to lift one another up, they use their strengths to lift themselves by imposing their personal will on the body, flexing their muscles in front of the weaker (younger and more fragile) members to assure that their own agenda is agreed to by others. Such individuals lift themselves by looking at the "weaker" as "lesser." It is obvious that such bullying attitudes are not consistent with the expression of a genuine love that is without hypocrisy. This bully in the body of believers is the mighty waterfall, pounding down on everyone who can be beat into submission, and rather than engender conflict, most Christians will cower to such bullies, and further empower their sinful behavior.
The context and grammar of "please his neighbour" can be easily misunderstood, and applied in a manner that would compromise the appropriate expression of faith in an attempt to make the neighbor "happy." However, such a position ignores the complete phrase that refers to the edification of the neighbor. One edifies another when they use their own strengths to strengthen another. The edifier shares his strengths instead of showing them, and the sharing is for the expressed purpose of ministering to the needs of others. Christians are not called to compromise the gospel in order to make everyone happy, but rather to share the love of the gospel in order to make everyone stronger.
Pleasing our neighbor for their edification is accomplished simply by the expression of that unconditional agape love, that non-hypocritical love. When one expresses love for another there is no hesitance to sacrifice. When one expresses love for another, there is no thought of self and one's own desires. Communing in a body of Christian believers is not an exercise in pleasing one's self, but rather a ministry of meeting the needs of one another. Christian love is characterized by self-sacrifice and setting aside petty personal desires. True sacrifice, by its definition, comes with a cost. However, the reward for obedience is far greater than that found by conforming the body to your own desires.
Romans 15:3. For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me.
When we look at Jesus, we see the example of expressed strength. As the Messiah, He humbled Himself by coming down from His position as Jehovah, and indwelled the life of a lowly human, willingly submitting himself to abuse and a tortured death so that God's work could be accomplished. A society that equates strength with personal power would see Jesus' submission to the Cross as weakness, but our knowledge of who Jesus is, and why He died reveals His tremendous power. The Messiah did not come down from Glory to please Himself, but to minister to the needs of man. Strength in the Christian body is expressed in the same way for the same reason: agape love. Service in the name of Christ inspires the mature Christian to a mindset of sacrifice: using strengths and resources to serve others, rather than to serve ones own wants and desires.
As the LORD illustrated, the mature Christian does not come to the church fellowship with the purpose of pleasing him/her self. Furthermore, Jesus illustrated how the expression of love accepts reproach without compromise. We may not suffer reproach for expressing love in the body, but we may find that love empowers patience, tolerance, and a non-demanding spirit. The color of the carpet is not important when one truly considers the purpose of the body, the needs of its members, and the need to defend the body against the wiles of satan's divisive attacks.
Romans 15:4. For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Quoting from Psalm 69:6, Paul also invites his readers to consider their behavior in light, not only of Jesus' example of sacrificial love, but also in light of the context of the scriptures that they already know. When a Christian acts in an unloving manner, he/she is forced to ignore the truth of the scripture that they profess to believe and accept (hence comes the charge of hypocrisy.) I have had the opportunity to ask those who act in such ways how they justify their behavior in light of its direct opposition to the truth they know. Almost to the person, the response is, "I know it is wrong, but ..." followed by a description of a counter charge against someone. Somewhere we get the idea that our own choice of response to circumstances somehow trumps scriptural truth. Paul reminds us to maintain our hope through the application of the scripture we know, holding to its teaching of love and grace as the foundation for our choices. In it we find patience instead of reaction, and we find comfort instead of turmoil. It is often to our own impatience and discomfort that we yield, rather than to the Holy Spirit, and in so yielding we become part of what quenches the work of the Spirit in the church rather than one who promotes His work.
It may be instructive to reiterate Paul's instruction that hope is realized in patience. The word for patience here can also be translated as long-suffering, and note that the word for suffer also refers to permission, for example, "Suffer the little children" is archaic English for "Permit the little children." One who exhibits long-suffering can wait a long time to see fruit. One who exhibits long-suffering can wait until the body is in unity behind an issue.
Romans 15:5-6. Now the God of patience and consolation grant you to be likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: 6That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is interesting that as Paul calls for a spirit of unity among the markedly unique personalities that make up the Christian fellowship, he first points out the patient and consoling nature of God. Paul, in the previous chapter, admonished Christians to maintain their uniqueness when they are, through their actions, praising and bringing glory to God. Consequently, Paul is not teaching that everyone must be alike. There is a tremendous difference between unity and conformity. Paul is not instructing us to conform to one personality or to one opinion. Paul teaches us to maintain our uniqueness, even celebrating that uniqueness as we work together, focused towards the same goal. We are to allow each of us to express our unique character as we together glorify God.
As an orchestra director, I have had the opportunity to lead others in unity. The orchestra is made up of people with profoundly different personalities, some bullying, some meek, some timid. Some have great talent in the playing of their instruments, and others struggle to keep up with the pace of the music. When they play their instruments by themselves there is a uniqueness about each that is always identifiable. Some like the music fast; some like it slow. Some like long-hair music while some prefer rock, and others enjoy country. Yet, when they submit to the direction of the conductor, the music they produce together is tremendous. They have not given up their personalities, and the measure of their talent has not changed. The desires in their hearts for what they would prefer are not changed. What is happening is a concerted effort on the part of each individual to work with the others towards a common goal. Each one is making use of every bit of talent they can muster, and when the downbeat strikes, each can hear their contribution to the magnificent beauty of the whole. Each one is also making a sacrifice as they are called upon to perform music that they may not particularly enjoy themselves. This is the nature of the unity to which Paul refers. The "like-mindedness" of the orchestra members is built upon the foundation of the music, led by the conductor. The "like-mindedness" of the church is built upon the foundation of the gospel message and is led by the Holy Spirit.
Notwithstanding, even the orchestra members are in need of patience and consolation. When the lesser talented squeaks the clarinet reed, when the piccolo player misses the beat, and the other myriad of little errors are heard by the instrumentalists, they will often respond with criticism and even condemnation of their peers. However, when patience and consolation are expressed, the instrumentalist is not the least concerned with the flaws of another musician, but can maintain their focus on their own responsibility and can stay attentive to the conductor.
This metaphor cannot be taken too lightly. The fellowship of the godly and faithful church does operate much like an orchestra where each individual contributes their own unique strengths to form the whole, sharing together in the work toward one goal: to glorify God through both obedience and praise.
Romans 15:7. Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God.
Bear with me as I push this orchestra metaphor a little further. One of the reasons I chose to follow a career other than music was the conflict that I always saw among musicians (mostly secular) when they stepped out from under the authority of the conductor. There was often an arrogance among those who played particularly well, that was expressed towards those "lesser" musicians whom they despised. The community tended to group itself together into cliques of similar skill level. Never one to be part of a cliquish group, I found myself as one of the more gifted (by God) musicians, developing the deepest friendships with those lesser skilled since it has always been the people I loved and not their resume. So, to the upper-crust, I was always considered a good musician but barbaric in culture.
This experience in many ways describes some Christian fellowships. They fail to "receive" one another when they gather into cliques that "look down their noses" at others. The church boss looks down his nose at everyone. Such behavior may be acceptable to the members of a pagan orchestra, but it is unacceptable to God when demonstrated in the fellowship of the church. Love without hypocrisy loves without condition and shares without condition. True love receives all people without reservation. Mother Theresa was venerated for her love without reservation that fully received all people from the most venerated to the most destitute, yet this same selflessness is the only appropriate behavior of all Christians.
When we fail to receive one another we, in a way, place ourselves even higher than Christ, as Paul reminds us that Christ received us, not only in our low and sinful state, but did so to lift us to the glory of God. For us to reject one who Christ receives is the height of arrogance, and certainly not an act that is led of the Holy Spirit. Rather than look down at those who a selfish spirit would call "lesser," Christians are called to lift up those who are weaker, lifting them up to the very glory of God.
Such a concept flies in the face of what this world teaches. Where the world teaches that those who we think are of a lower estate are of less value. The Holy Spirit teaches us that those who we think are of a lower estate are of greater value because they are in greater need. It is the height of arrogance and hypocrisy for a Christian to think that they are somehow better than one who may demonstrate less commitment or a weaker faith. True Christianity embraces those with less commitment or a weaker faith in love. True Christianity helps bring the weaker into the fold that they can also enjoy the blessings of the gospel. True Christianity receives one another without reservation as we seek to bring one another closer to the LORD.
Romans 15:8-9. 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: 9And 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.
If we maintain the context of this passage we can see how Paul uses the illustration of Jesus' receipt of both Jews and Gentiles without prejudice. As a "minister of the circumcision", Jesus was called to bring the good news of the gospel message of faith to the Jewish community. This is the community of the Promise, the community through whom God chose to reveal Himself and His purpose to the world, first through Abraham, and then through the nation of his children. Furthermore, Jesus' purpose as a prophet to the Jews fulfilled scripture. However, Jesus' message was not reserved for the Jews alone. Jesus died on the cross for all people. His passion was not expressed just for the physical seed of Abraham, but to the faith seed of Abraham that includes all who trust in God. Even the presentation of the gospel to the Gentiles was prophesied, as Paul points out in his quote from Psalm 18.
Just as we are called to receive one another without prejudice, Christians are to extend that invitation to all peoples, both within the culture that is indigenous to the church, and those without. This call to transcend worldly distinctions is becoming more and more relevant as communities are becoming more diverse. Walls of prejudice and intolerance that have been built by satan will fall when blown upon by the gentle breath of the Holy Spirit. The purpose for receiving one another without compromise is simple: that all can share together in their praise of God. Like the orchestra that together forms a musical passage from an array of unique instruments and instrumentalists, the praises of God are lifted up by a chorus of diverse voices from diverse cultures. This is the plan for God's church.
Romans 15:10-12. And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. 11And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people. 12And 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.
The acceptance of divergent world cultures into a single church body has always been difficult because of the expression of man's sin. With quotes from Deuteronomy 32:43, Psalm 117:1, and Isaiah 11:10, Paul is clearly speaking to the Jews who are coming to grips with the acceptance of Gentiles into the church. The call in these scriptures is not so much for the Jews to accept the Gentiles as it is a call for the Gentiles to praise God, and to do so under the authority of Christ. God's plan of salvation is not reserved for the Jews alone, but is extended to all people. The extension of the gospel to all people is difficult for any people of an existing non-diverse culture to accept. In a world that uses uniqueness to divide people and to create chaos and strife, God's plan is that the church will bring all cultures together, standing upon the foundation of the gospel and their praise for Him. It is only when the prejudices of this world seep into the congregation do people regain their worldly and sinful distinctions. We may stand back and declare that no such biases exist today, and that our church is the zenith of Christian unity. If so, look deeply into the cultural diversity of your own fellowship and its attitudes towards people who are radically different from those who populate the core of the congregation. Are all people treated with the same love and respect? Are women treated with the same respect and deference as men? Is the congregation characterized as a diverse group, fellowshipping together in peace and unity, and praising God together? Or, can you identify cliques and prejudices among its members?
Romans 15:13. 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.
A church that is in unity is a church at peace. A church that is in unity is a church that experiences the joy of experiencing that peace. A church in unity is one that is populated by people who are vastly unique in many ways, whether they be in appearance, skill set, talents, interests, social status, or any other characteristic that we use to classify people, yet its members stand together and serve God. Like the individual members of an orchestra, each contributes his/her gifts and talents while maintaining their own uniqueness, yet with the others is fully submitted to the task at hand under the leadership of the conductor, Jesus Christ. This is a church that will be filled with all joy and peace, and one that is abounding in hope as they experience the power of the Holy Spirit as He takes for Himself the true leadership of the church as He speaks through the hearts of each of its members, and those members are empowered by their love for one another to express His will.