|The Gospel of God’s Grace #15
Devoted to My Brothers
February 15, 1998 / Romans 14:1— 15:13
Your New Testament has a number of exhortations about the unity of the body of Christ sprinkled liberally through its pages. Here are just a few representative texts that will serve to get the theme of Christian devotion to one another before us:
First, read these statements from Jesus. Surely they are the most important words on the subject, for they come from our Lord himself.
I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd (John 10:14-16).
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 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. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:20-23).
Now follow the same theme as it is developed in several of the writings of Paul, the church’s first and greatest theologian.
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas; still another, "I follow Christ." Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:10-13).
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph. 4:3-6).
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (Phil. 2:1-3).
The church has never been faithful to the ideal of unity among the people of God. There have been heresies, schisms, and pettiness aplenty across the centuries to divide the body of Christ. But a fragmented world will never be won to Christ by an equally fragmented church. It is time for us to take the call of the Word of God seriously.
Because there will always be differences of personality, interpretation, and preference among Christians, there will always be denominations (i.e., groups identified around common understandings and with distinctive names). One can even make a good case that non-denominational churches are by their very nature denominational. But that degree of "dividedness" is not necessarily sinful. The evil culprit in this picture is sectarianism.
Sectarianism is the arrogant posture of holding that one’s group is either superior to all others or is the only legitimate representative of the Christian faith. No one set of human understandings and performances can possibly be sufficient to contain God, to define the limits of Christ’s salvation, or to exhaust the boundaries of divine grace.
A Searching Generation
Research done at the beginning of the 1990s showed that nearly one adult in four (23%) has left the church of his or her family's heritage.1 Robert Wuthnow claims that fully 33% of Americans have switched from one religious affiliation to another.2 I seriously doubt these figures have declined with the approach of the new decade and the new millennium.
Robert Bellah had said that "it is unrealistic to assume that Christians today will stay where they were brought up. . . . Both the Protestant principle of voluntarism and the modern respect for autonomous decision make it natural for adults to choose their own religious affiliation."3
One would think that such a world is ideal for congregations associated with the American Restoration Movement. Our assemblies must be crowded. Our message must be attracting attention. We must be leading huge numbers of people to the experience of Christ in salvation.
Irony of ironies, though, most of our congregations cannot capitalize on the fact that this is a time when people are without denominational loyalties. Even with our in-house rhetoric about non-denominational Christianity, people on the outside do not see us as post- or non-denominational. In fact, we don't act very non-denominational either. We tend to preach more about the church than about Christ, more about our restorationist issues than about the atonement.4
Most who come into our assemblies can't even translate what they hear because they don't know what familiar-to-us terms such as "restoration plea," "old paths," "plan of salvation," or "church autonomy" mean. Much less do they care to know about our fratricidal wars over the authority of elders, instrumental music, church support of Christian colleges, or versions of the Bible. Walking into an assembly where these issues are the topic of instruction or discussion must leave such persons in the same state of mind as those who stumbled into an assembly where tongue-speaking was going on in the first century.5
People who are not already immersed in our traditions typically come to our assemblies or open themselves to conversation with one of us because of a situation of need in their lives. Perhaps there is moral confusion. Maybe there is brokenness. But these people are wanting to hear gospel (i.e., good news) that will give them hope. They want compassionate ministry to their needs and hurts. Only if they hear a message of God's presence and deal with people whose interest in them is genuine will they believe that they are in touch with the spiritual body of Christ. If we address their needs effectively by showing that Jesus Christ gives practical hope for their circumstances, they seem not to care that our music is a cappella, our organization congregational, and our eschatology amillennial. If we cannot address their needs constructively, they will likely move on and henceforth regard what we sometimes call "our distinctives" as mere peculiarities.
Whether religious or educational, social or business, any group that is identifiable in relation to the others of its kind has its distinctive features. The Church of Christ is therefore distinguishable from the Mormon Church or the Baptist Church or the Independent Christian Church. But just what are the distinctive features of our fellowship?
For the sake of beginning the discussion, let me offer that the Church of Christ is a Bible-believing fellowship which affirms that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died and was raised to atone for human sin and who now gives the free gift of eternal life to all who are born again through their obedient faith in the gospel. Yet I know that isn't enough for some people.
In more true-to-experience terms for some of us, it should be said that the Church of Christ is a Bible-believing fellowship which affirms that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died and was raised to atone for human sin and who now gives the free gift of eternal life to all who are born again through their obedient faith in the gospel, rejects the five cardinal tenets of Calvinism, worships with a cappella music exclusively, participates in the Lord's Supper weekly, organizes local churches under the oversight of a plurality of elders, embraces amillennial eschatology, believes in holding simultaneous Sunday School classes for adults and children, believes it is scriptural to donate money to cooperative evangelistic works such as "Herald of Truth" or cooperative benevolent works such as church-related orphanages or homes for the elderly, does not allow women to preach, and does not give the title "pastor" to its preachers. To this already complex identification, still others among us would insist on adding these additional items: pleads for the unity of the Body of Christ among all who see each of the items already named exactly as it sees them, and believes that anyone who is not a member of one of its (faithful) local congregations is in spiritual jeopardy of being lost eternally.
There are theological worlds separating these three attempts at characterizing the Church of Christ. The first is entirely biblical and fully sufficient to separate it from non-Christian and pseudo-Christian groups. Yet it is wholly unsatisfactory for most people who are its members. It is not "distinctive" enough. While it would distinguish the Church of Christ from the Mormon Church, it wouldn't mark us off from the Baptist Church, Independent Christian Church, or non-Sunday School Church of Christ. It wouldn't even set us off from evangelical churches in general or so-called "community churches."
To such a response, I would reply in two ways. First, so what? Second, such a description does not entail a loss of identity or require relinquishing our "distinctives."
First, a brief word about the "so what?" response. It isn't intended to be flippant or funny. I am as serious as can be about it! From a purely biblical perspective, any group satisfying such standards is certainly a church that belongs to Christ — no matter what name is over its door or how garbled its doctrinal and moral life may be. The church at Colossae had doctrinal heresy, and the church at Corinth had open immorality; both were nevertheless regarded as churches by a Spirit-guided Paul. Yet not even the churches of Jerusalem or Antioch could satisfy the second or third description above.
I am dismayed that we have had to remove ourselves so far from the clear statements of Scripture to create a suitable identification of the Church of Christ. Anyone who must replace the first description given above for the sake of either of the alternative ones cited (or its "purified" equivalent) is not defining the Church of Christ in the New Testament but the Church of Christ in the Yellow Pages. He has abandoned the biblical notion of the Church of Christ for a sectarian notion of the Church of Christ.
Our heritage in the Restoration Movement has claimed we are in pursuit of an understanding and instantiation of the Church of Christ that is informed by Scripture alone and therefore unencumbered by human tradition. Some appear to have repudiated that goal while thinking themselves in pursuit of it.
Second, adopting the first characterization given above would in no way compromise or require the abandonment of the long list of truly "distinctive" traits that were tacked to it in the second. It would only require that we distinguish in our minds and teaching between New Testament features and tradition-distinctive features of the Church of Christ in a particular time or cultural setting. Believe it or not, this is exactly what the early leaders of the American Restoration Movement envisioned in their language about "essentials" and "non-essentials." But we are so far removed from that ideal and so trapped within our received religious culture that we have not only lost that vision but no longer even speak of it meaningfully.
I happen to be committed to every one of the things in the second description above. I teach and practice them. I argue for them. But I refuse to accept the notion that doing so demands that I be divisive in the Body of Christ. They certainly are distinctive, and I have no idea of giving them up. But they are the distinctives of my particular religious heritage and are not requirements for being saved, being a member of the church one reads about in the New Testament, and having the confident hope of heaven.
The divisiveness that results from a sectarian desire to judge and exclude others need not be the same as a commitment to the distinctiveness that arises inevitably from interpretations and practices outside the core gospel. Two die-hard supporters of the University of Tennessee and Vanderbilt University may sit on opposite sides of the field during a football game, cheer their respective schools, and cherish the camaraderie of doing so in the section of the stadium reserved for people wishing to declare their school loyalties. Yet they may be dear friends who ride to and from the game together and stop on the way home to have dinner together. What a pity that interpretations about the millennium, music, or Christian Jubilee can separate baptized believers from one another so as to create mutually exclusive parties of sectarians.
We should resist with conscious effort any attempt to narrow the meaning of "church" from its New Testament parameters. Yet it is perfectly acceptable for us to have our conviction-based and/or heritage-based distinctives so long as we identify them correctly. They are the distinctives of our shared convictions or historical heritage, but they are not New Testament mandates. To present them as mandates is to be sectarian.
Without having to answer the questions "Are those people saved?" and "Are you endorsing this belief or that doctrine of theirs?", one who holds this understanding can have productive interaction among people within the alienated fragments of our own brotherhood and even among people from other Christian fellowships.6
Think in terms of representing this with circles in relationship with each other. First, picture one large circle that represents the church Jesus promised to build that completely contains a number of smaller circles that stand for particular religious groups known to us. Second, picture two circles that are precisely coextensive that represent the church Jesus built and our brotherhood of people and a number of additional circles that represent all other religious groups within Christendom.
The first picture is certainly incorrect, for it would embrace both groups and individuals who do not confess the deity of Christ or teach the doctrine of spiritual rebirth in Christ. The second one is the sectarian view of the church that I have already disavowed. But there is another possibility.
Third, imagine a single large circle that stands for the church Jesus purchased with his blood and then allow its perimeter to bisect the smaller circles that represent different denominations, non-denominations, and "movements" in the Christian world. Surely this is a more precise way of understanding the relationship between the church of the New Testament and the distinctive and/or divided bodies in the Christian religious world. The totality of no single small circle can be placed fully within the large one, for there is always the possibility that some who are identified with a given group "did not really belong to [the community of true faith in Christ]" (1 John 2:19). On the other hand, there is always the possibility that there are some "who have not soiled their clothes [of spiritual purity]" though they are identified with a group that would be judged by both God and men to be apostate (Rev. 3:4).
It is this third schema that I believe to correspond more closely to biblical teaching and reality as we encounter it. If this is correct, it is humility rather than arrogance that should characterize our relationships with people of other backgrounds and traditions.
A Call to Biblical Action
My primary concern is to challenge us to be about things that are biblical. I would betray both my personal commitment and our shared heritage to offer an agenda that is incompatible with New Testament teaching that has been given to chart our course.
Romans 14:1 — 15:13 is the section of biblical text from Paul's most sublime epistle that deals with doctrinal differences among Christians. Before attempting to apply anything from this block of text to our situation, I will probably need to defend its use. Some of us have been told that these verses relate to issues of taste, personal judgment, and speculation. The things Paul had in mind here, we have been told, were "mere matters of opinion."
A cursory reading of the verses without prejudice leads to a very different conclusion. Mere matters of opinion are things that all parties concerned admit are up for grabs, open to a variety of views, and on which we have no strong position to stake out. Matters of opinion for most of us would be the authorship of Hebrews, whether to use projected lyrics or song books in worship, or how many prayers to have during Sunday's assembly. These are issues on which we would agree that we are expressing personal points of view that will not affect our relationship with God — so long as we express our views in a civil manner.
The three issues named by Paul in these verses were most definitely not issues on which people felt free to leave each other to their private opinions. The very reason he wrote about them was that believers at Rome had been judging and coercing one another on these matters. An ancient version of our "liberalism" versus "legalism" controversy was taking place at Rome.
The terms liberal, conservative, and legalist are bandied about too freely and without clear definition among us. The best and most appropriate use of the terms is to indicate an attitude toward the authority of the Bible. Conservatives are people who believe that the Bible must be normative for both doctrine and practice in following Christ. Liberals do not share that conviction and believe that the Bible is something less than the infallible Word of God to which we must be obedient. Legalists believe they have the right to judge and exclude others based on their interpretations of complex biblical matters.
The common and inappropriate use of the terms falls out this way: a liberal is someone who does something the speaker doesn't do, doesn't like, or opposes; a conservative is someone who does, likes, and approves the same list as his own; and a legalist is someone who objects to something the speaker does, likes, or approves.
In larger evangelical circles, the distinction between a conservative and a liberal is typically made in relation to five issues: the inspiration (i.e., infallibility) of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, Christ's bodily resurrection, and his bodily return. Conservatives affirm all five, while liberals deny one or more of them. Within our Restoration heritage, these five doctrines would likely be definitive of the distinction. Yet we would probably offer Ephesians 4:4-6 as our list of distinctives so that we can be tied directly to the biblical text.
Returning now to Romans, some "weak" brothers were advocating a no-meat (14:2), no-holiday/holy day (14:5), no-wine (14:21) position — and insisting that everyone embrace their understanding and practice. They passed harsh judgment on those who viewed any of those issues differently. The "strong" brothers could eat meat, celebrate holidays/holy days, and drink wine without offending their consciences. Frankly, it is a bit difficult to be sure where these points of view originated. Were the "weak" Jewish believers who were offended by the Greek majority? Were the "weak" Gentile Christians whose philosophies led them to extreme, ascetic postures? We cannot be certain.7
Whatever the origin of their points of view, the problem is clear. Both groups were wrong and had sinned against each other. The "weak" had tended toward legalism, judgment, and condemnation; the "strong" had tended toward superiority, judgment, and condemnation.
The doctrine — note, doctrine — held by either group was tolerable to Paul. The attitude displayed by both groups was intolerable. The apostle was grieved that harsh feelings over these non-fundamental issues were causing a rift in the church. So he reminded them that Jesus is Lord over all believers (14:9) and told them that they had no right to sit in judgment on each other (14:10-11).
These same issues are still matters of doctrine, not opinion, among people in our local churches. We don't have many who press for vegetarianism. But I can take you to some who argue vehemently about the appropriateness of Christians observing Passover, Christmas, or Earth Day. And I guarantee that I can cause a church fight in practically any congregation by putting the question "Can a Christian drink alcoholic beverages?" on the floor. And the disputants will not be content to say their points of view are "mere matters of opinion." Each side will appeal to the Bible and believe that its case is right and the other's wrong.
Maybe hearing these verses from a fresh, contemporary paraphrase will make them emphatic to all of us:
Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don't see things the way you do. And don't jump all over them every time they do or say something you don't agree with -- even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.
. . . None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It's God we are answerable to — all the way from life to death and everything in between — not each other. That's why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.
So where does that leave you when you criticize a brother? And where does that leave you when you condescend to a sister? I'd say it leaves you looking pretty silly — or worse. Eventually, we're all going to end up kneeling side by side in the place of judgment, facing God. Your critical and condescending ways aren't going to improve your position there one bit. . . .
Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don't impose it on others. You're fortunate if your behavior and your belief are coherent. But if you're not sure, if you notice that you are acting in ways inconsistent with what you believe — some days trying to impose your opinions on others, other days just trying to please them — then you know that you're out of line. If the way you live isn't consistent with what you believe, then it's wrong. . . .
So reach out and welcome one another to God's glory. Jesus did it; now you do it! (Rom. 14:1, 7-10, 22-23; 15:7, The Message).
Healthy Tension Without Sectarianism
I need the experience of living in healthy tension with people around me whose points of view challenge my own, whose thinking is not a carbon copy of my own, but whose love for God and Scripture is equally as emphatic as my own. I need brothers and sisters who challenge me on my views about divorce and remarriage, the role of women, and the value of programs such as Jubilee or the ACU Lectureship. As iron sharpens iron, our vigorous and respectful challenges of one another's points of view will keep us intellectually honest and spiritually sensitive.
As groups of people gravitate to leaders and churches that have particular emphases about one or more of these subjects, they will be known (at least in part) not only for their faith in Christ but also for their free or restricted use of females in church life or for their use or non-use of instrumental music. The distinctives of the resulting congregations need not make them ineffective as witnesses to Christ. Neither do they have to alienate them from each other. But as surely as the latter happens, their witness to Christ — both separately and collectively — is diminished significantly.
Our post-denominational world is waiting for someone to offer what we have always claimed to preach. Will we serve it? Will we honor Christ?
The only path to answering our world’s need and our Savior’s command is to heed the related exhortations of Scripture. Do you remember beginning with Christ’s words and Paul’s? That is the way we must close.
First, read these words from Jesus: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13:34-35). Again: "My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. . . . This is my command: Love each other" (John 15:12-13, 17).
Now read Paul on the same theme: "As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:1-3). Again: "May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (Rom. 15:5-7).
The unity of the people of God is relational rather than organizational or doctrinal. Yes, some form of organization will be necessary for the local church or for any larger affiliation. And, of course, doctrinal agreement in the gospel of God’s grace (e.g. Eph. 4:4-7) is necessary. But neither organization nor doctrine will bring about unity in a family, local church, or the body of Christ apart from love and acceptance modeled on Jesus’ treatment of us in our flawedness.
Accepted by grace and cleansed by blood, it is time for us to be gracious with one another, to be totally devoted to one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.
1 Robert Bezilla, ed., Religion in America: 1992-1993 (Princeton: Princeton Religion Research Center, 1993), pp. 38-39.
2 Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 88.
3 Robert Bellah, "Finding the Church: Post-Traditional Discipleship," Christian Century (Nov. 14, 1990), p. 1061.
4 Cf. C. Leonard Allen, The Cruciform Church (Abilene: Abilene Christianity University Press, 1990), pp. 115ff.
5 1 Cor. 14:22-25 assumes the possibility of an unbeliever coming into such an assembly and leaving confused rather than enlightened.
6 It is simply wrong to speak of Baptists, Presbyterians, or members of Independent Christian Churches as people "from other faiths." Judaism and Buddhism are different faiths, but Presbyterianism is a different attempt from my own to understand and practice the Christian faith. This is not to claim that everyone who is a Presbyterian is a Christian — any more than to claim that everyone who is part of a Church of Christ is a Christian. Yet within these two attempts at pursuing the Christian faith, either or both of them is a Christian who has been "born of water and the Spirit."
7 Cf. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965), pp. 171ff.
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