These are critical days for our churches. The Devil is always prowling around like a hungry lion, looking for opportunities to sow division between the people of God. He has been doing this since the beginning and is very very good at it. We shouldn’t underestimate our Enemy. The covid pandemic has provided him with a perfect storm of circumstances that he is surely trying to exploit to his full advantage.
In light of that, I’d like to encourage us to make Paul’s prayer in Romans 15.5-6 our daily prayer for our churches in these days: May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s so important to realise that unity in the church is something we’re commanded to strive for, maintain, and practise. It’s up to us, by the grace of God, to preserve it. When issues arise in our churches that threaten unity, that’s our opportunity to put these commands into practice. It’s a bit like patience: the only time you can really show patience is when something (or someone) is testing your patience, making you want to tear your hair out! Whether you are submissive to those in authority is only really tested when you are told to do something you don’t agree with. A child given $100 by his father and told to spend it in his favourite store is not going to say, “OK dad, I submit!"
So too our commitment to unity is only really put to the test when something comes up that we have different and strong opinions about. One way to maintain unity would be to eject the minority who think differently. That would leave a very united congregation! But it would be the artificial unity of the cults, where everyone has to think the same on every issue. Gospel unity looks very different – that’s where we bear patiently with one another, love one another and strive to think the very best of one another.
Paul’s prayer for unity comes at the end of a long discussion dealing with exactly this kind of situation. He’s been dealing with serious tensions between two groups in the church. They were all Christians, but one group was mostly Gentiles who didn’t have any of the scruples the Jewish Christians in the church had about food laws or respecting Jewish holy days. Why should they? They never kept them in the past, and now Christ’s death meant they weren’t needed any longer. But Jewish Christians found it hard to reconcile themselves to eating food they’d been taught all their life was unclean. They knew they didn’t need to keep the Jewish feasts, but they always had and they loved them.
These differences in background and perspective were threatening to split the church in Rome. So Paul writes in Rom 15.7: Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. The Gentile Christians are to welcome the Jewish Christians and the Jewish Christians are to welcome the Gentile Christians. They were to do much more than just tolerate one another—they were to welcome each other gladly into their fellowship and hearts. They were not to allow secondary issues to divide them. As Paul puts it in Rom 14.1, they are not to ‘quarrel over opinions’.
But that’s just what they were doing in Rome. The Gentile Christians were looking down on the Jewish Christians with ‘a disdainful smile of contempt’ (as John Stott puts it), while the Jewish Christians were condemning the Gentile Christians as sinners ‘with a frown of censorious judgment.’ The Gentiles saw the Jews not eating certain foods, shook their heads, and said, ‘Stupid’; the Jews saw the Gentiles eating those foods, put their head in their hands, and said, ‘Sin’. And both were in the wrong.
How many ‘opinions’ do Christians today quarrel over instead of welcoming one another? Face masks, online services, political opinions about how our governments are handling the pandemic. Of course we all think our views on these things are based on biblical principles. We may feel passionately about our opinion. But we need to remember that it is an opinion at the end of the day—and the Lord of the church commands his people not to quarrel over opinions. Don’t judge one another and don’t show contempt for one another. On any issue we’ll be tempted to do one or the other of those two things. Do you know which way you are tempted?
As Paul prays for unity in the church at Rome, just notice a couple of things he says:
1. He prays to the God of endurance and encouragement. Why does he single out these things as he prays for unity?
· Endurance—patience—is going to be needed in large supply if there is to be unity in a church. There is a huge temptation to be impatient with those who don’t see things as we do. We say and do insensitive things. The scruples of one group and the apparent laxity of the other troubled and annoyed each other. Praise God that he is the God who sends endurance. He is so patient with us when we really are stupid and sinful, and he enables us to be patient with each other when we merely think others are being stupid and sinful. We need patient endurance or our churches will become very bitter, nasty places.
· Encouragement. This word has a wide range of meanings: comfort, give support, exhort, spur on. Unity doesn’t come easily or naturally to fallen human beings. In our pride and selfishness we want to do things our way. We need all the help, support, and encouragement God can give us to consider one another more important than ourselves.
2. ‘Live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus.’ If anyone ever had the right to please himself it was Jesus Christ. But he willingly bore with the weaknesses of others. He freely surrendered his rights and bore the hatred of men. So Paul asks, ‘Are you really going to refuse to forgo a pork chop for the sake of others?’ ‘Are you going to insist on having your way, even though it will damage your brother for whom Christ died?’ Whenever you’re tempted to privilege your own preferences and rights above the scruples of others, meditate on Jesus’ lifetime of self-denial for the sake of others and pray this prayer.