Passage: Romans 15:1-7
This is sermon number 7 in our series “Foundations for Church Ministry.” Since we are pretty far along in the series, I think it would be helpful to review where we have been and where we are going. There are three “P’s” that form the outline for this series. The first “P” is purpose. We spent four weeks talking about our purpose as a church, which is to glorify God by reaching people with the gospel and then discipling them to full maturity. The second “P” is priorities. In other words, what are some central priorities for accomplishing our purpose? The first priority we studied was the priority of a Word-Centered Ministry. Second Timothy 3 teaches that the Bible is the means by which God accomplishes his purposes in us; therefore, the Word must be at the heart of our lives as Christians and as a church. Last week, we studied a second priority, the priority of Grace-Centered Transformation. We saw from Titus 2 that God’s grace through salvation is the engine that drives spiritual transformation. This week we will consider a third priority, the priority of Grace-Centered Unity. It’s important that we have a clear philosophy for how we pursue unity because until we see Christ, there will always be differences of opinion among God’s people. We will never all have the same convictions about a whole host of issues such as how we use our time and money, and what we believe about holiness and worldliness. And sadly, these things can create serious conflict in the church. We could talk for hours about all of the silly reasons churches don’t get along. But while we will never all see eye to eye on every issue, we can still enjoy incredible unity if we are thinking the same way about how we achieve unity. This morning, I’d like to discuss grace-centered unity from Romans 15:1–7.
This passage is part of a bigger section that extends from Romans 14:1–15:13. It’s a fascinating section of Scripture, but it’s also a highly abused section of Scripture. That’s because Paul is speaking to a pretty specific situation, and if we don’t understand the situation, we can easily draw incorrect principles and applications from it. Therefore, it’s essential that we understand the context for what Paul is saying. The conflict in Romans 14–15 was primarily between Jews and Gentiles over whether or not they needed to abide by certain Jewish food laws and over whether or not they needed to observe Jewish Sabbaths. Notice 14:2. According to this verse, some in the church thought it was fine to eat “all things” and others would only eat “vegetables” (what a sad existence). There were many Jews in the church that had truly accepted the gospel; however, their conscience was still bound by the OT Law. There’s another hint that the conflict centered on the OT Law in v. 14 where Paul refers to questions about what was clean and unclean. The law didn’t forbid eating meat, but it required that Israel only eat meat from animals that were butchered according to certain rules. Today we call this “kosher.” This was a problem for Jews living outside Palestine because they couldn’t be certain that the meat available at the store had been butchered appropriately. Therefore, rather than risking eating unkosher meat, they would restrict themselves to a plant diet. On the other hand, the Gentile believers and some Jews such as Paul recognized that there was no need to obey these laws because Christ had made the OT Law obsolete. Verse 5 mentions another source of conflict. Again, these same Jews who had grown up obeying the Law felt the need to observe the various Sabbaths prescribed by the Law. These differences were creating tension in the church. Imagine the church potlucks. Joe-Gentile shows up with a really tasty pan of BBQ pork, and on one side of the room, the Gentiles are chowing down, and on the other side, the Jewish believers are eating broccoli and carrots. And both groups are looking down their nose at the other. The Jews think the Joe-Gentile shouldn’t have brought that unclean food, and Joe-Gentile is annoyed that the Jews are so judgmental. Then little Johnny Jew asks his mom why he can’t have a pork sandwich because it smells really good and carrots aren’t all that exciting. Mom has had enough, and she storms over to Joe-Gentile and gives him a piece of her mind. The church potluck goes from being a happy time of fellowship to being filled with tension. This conflict continued to create real tension between the Jews and Gentiles within the Roman church. It might be that you are confused by my explanation because you have always heard that the conflict was over meat offered to idols. Meat offered to idols was the situation in 1 Corinthians 8–10, but nothing is said about idolatry in Romans 14–15. The fact that the Roman conflict was between Jews and Gentiles becomes especially clear in 15:7–13 where Paul talks at length about the new unity between Jews and Gentiles in the church. In sum, the Roman church was being pulled apart by conflict over the Law, and in these two chapters, Paul instructs the church regarding how they were to handle the division. In the process, he provides us with some valuable guidance for pursuing unity despite differences, what I would like to call “grace-centered unity.”
I’d like to divide our study of this passage into two questions.
How do we achieve grace-centered unity (vv. 1–4)?
Our text offers two basic answers to this question. The first answer is that…
We all take responsibility for edifying each other (vv. 1–2).
Verse 1 mentions two groups of people, the strong and the weak. Who is Paul referring to? Chapter 14:1–2 state that when Paul is talking about the weak he is talking about those who will only eat vegetables. In context, the weak are the Jewish believers whose conscience will not allow them to eat meat or to stop observing Jewish Sabbaths. The strong were those who recognized that we are no longer under the OT law and who felt the liberty to eat meat and to not observe Jewish Sabbaths. But why does Paul call one group “strong” and the other group “weak”? Those are pretty loaded terms aren’t they? No one wants to be thought of as weak, especially in the context of an argument? The reason is that Paul took sides in the argument. Notice what Paul says in 14:14. Paul is clear that there is a right and a wrong answer to the question. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, Christians are no longer bound to the Law, and the Gentile Christians were on the right side of the argument. Therefore, when Paul uses the terms “strong” and “weak” he is referring to the conscience of these individuals as it relates to the two questions in view. He calls those eating the meat (and notice in 15:1 that Paul includes himself) “strong” because their conscience was correctly informed. And he calls those only eating vegetables weak because their conscience was not fully informed. Does that mean that the “strong” were necessarily more spiritually mature? No, it does not. In fact, since the Jewish believers had grown up hearing God’s Word and had probably been Christians longer, they were probably more spiritually mature than many of the “strong.” However, on this particular issue the Jews’ consciences were weaker than the Gentiles.
Responsibility of the Strong:
What then were the strong to do with their strength or literally their power? If you are the strong, then your natural response would be to use your strength to get what you want, right? Paul said that the strong had the correct position. If the strong are right, then don’t they have the right to bring their meat to the church potluck and enjoy it? Shouldn’t the weak just grow up? That’s what we might think, but Paul commands the strong, “to bear with the scruples of the weak.” Literally he commands them to bear the weaknesses of those who are not strong. Paul uses the same verb in Galatians 6:2 when he says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Paul pictures the uninformed conscience of the Jews as a burden they are struggling to carry. And then he speaks to the strong, and he tells them that rather than using their strength to squash the weak and to “please themselves,” as the end of the verse states, they are to use it to help carry the load. The simple way to describe Paul’s command would be that we are to use our strength to serve others, not to serve ourselves.
Paul then builds on this idea of service in v. 2. He ended v. 1 by noting that the focus of our relationships within the church shouldn’t be on pleasing ourselves; instead, he commands us to focus on pleasing our neighbor. By using the word “neighbor” Paul references the second great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. Loving each other is at the heart of the Christian faith, and so Paul challenges the strong to make sure that love, not selfish interest is driving their relationship to the weak. He then adds to descriptions of what pleasing your neighbor looks like. Loving him means seeking his good and specifically, his edification. This word “edification” is very important for understanding Paul’s intent. When the NT talks about edifying a fellow-believer, it means building him up spiritually and helping him pursue godliness. This goal is very important because Paul does not say that the answer to every conflict is to simply push it under the rug. That’s certainly not what Paul did when a conflict involved essential truth. Consider Paul’s words in Galatians 1:6–10. Paul comes out swinging in this text. It’s interesting that in our text, Paul admonishes the strong to “please” their neighbor, but in Galatians 1:10 he says that he isn’t interested in pleasing people. Why the different approach? The answer is that in Galatians, minimizing the difference would have meant compromising essential gospel truth. However, in Romans, the weak were right on the gospel; they simply had an uninformed conscience. Therefore, in this instance the most edifying thing the strong could do was not to ram their freedom down the throats of the weak but to defer to them for the sake of their edification.
What then do we do when we have differing convictions from another believer? Paul’s basic point in vv. 1–2 is that we take responsibility for edifying each other. Our focus cannot be on getting what we want or winning an argument. Rather, our focus must remain as 14:19 says on “pursuing…” Sacrificial love and service, not my personal rights or preferences must drive my relationships within the church. And edification and unity must drive how we deal with differences as a body.
By way of review, the first question we are trying to answer is how do we achieve grace-centered unity? The first answer is that we all take responsibility for edifying each other. The second answer is that…
We follow Christ’s example of service (vv. 3–4).
Verse 3 sets directs us to the ultimate example of self-sacrificing, loving service. For the third time, Paul uses the word “please.” In all three instances, the idea is “service.” Verse 1 says don’t “please” or serve yourself. Instead, v. 2 says you should “please” or serve your neighbor. This is because Christ did not “please” or serve himself. Verse 3 goes on to note how Christ sacrificed himself to serve the Father’s will. Most likely, this verse is looking back on the hatred Jesus endured during his earthly ministry and especially in his trial and death. It notes that the hatred directed at Jesus was ultimately hatred against the Father. Christ didn’t deserve the hatred and the pain he endured and he could have stood for his personal interests, but Jesus was committed to his Father’s will, and so he willingly bore the brunt of this hatred in order to serve the Father’s will and ultimately to bring salvation to mankind. And we need to follow Christ’s example. He drives this home in v. 4. The basic point of v. 4 is to say that the reason the story of Christ and every other biblical story are recorded is so that we would learn from the example of those who have gone before us. Specifically, we need to follow the example of Christ. Just like Christ, didn’t stand for his personal rights and instead sacrificed himself to serve others, we need to be willing to set aside our rights and preferences in order to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ.
And so the basic answer to how we achieve grace-centered unity is that we all lovingly and self-sacrificially seek the edification of each other rather than pursuing our own interest. Maybe that sounds too simplistic, and I will admit that it is pretty simple. And certainly, there is more to it. In particular, determining what is the most edifying route is not always clear. Unfortunately, when we have a disagreement, we can’t expect an inspired letter to show up telling us which side is right and whether we should fight the issue or, as 14:5 says, let each person do whatever he is convinced is right. Instead, we’ve got to dive into the Word and prayerfully and humbly evaluate how dogmatic we can be about our conviction and how significant it is to the edification of the body. And since we have a fully sufficient Word, as we saw two weeks ago, we should be confident that the Word will tell us what we need to know. We’ve got to think and pray for discernment, but at the end of the day, if our focus is that we love each other and we want to edify each other, then we ought to be able to work through most of our differences.
The second question we need to answer is…
What will grace-centered unity produce?
Verses 5–6 are set up as a prayer, much like some of the passages we have been studying on Sunday evenings.
This prayer includes two requests that reflect what grace-centered unity will look like. First, it will produce…
Unity of Mind:
Paul addresses the prayer to “the God of patience and comfort.” The idea is that God gives patience (or endurance) and comfort. These are valuable gifts in the midst of conflict aren’t they? When there is tension over a disagreement, we’ve got to be patient with each other. We’ve got to give people time to grow, and we’ve got to endure their weakness. As well, disagreement can lead to pain and hurt feelings, but God is able to comfort us in those situations so that we don’t have to get defensive or protect ourselves from ever being hurt. There is comfort in the Lord. God gives patience and comfort, but Paul especially prays that he would “grant you to be like-minded toward one another.” The idea is pretty simple. Paul prayed that God would help the church all think the same way. Does he mean that they would all come to the same practice regarding their diet and the Sabbaths? No, he does not. The fact that this unity is “according to Christ” means that it’s based in sacrificial service, not that we all think the same way. That’s interesting because Paul said that the Jews’ conscience was wrong, but he makes no effort in this section to talk them out of their position because it was not a destructive position. Instead, he challenges them not to violate their conscience. Notice what he says in 14:23. Therefore, the unity Paul has in mind is not a unity of practice; it is a unity of purpose where everyone is focused on the big things that really matter. Notice what Paul says in 14:15–18. Verse 15 focuses attention on the value of your brother in Christ. He is someone for whom Christ died. Because of that, he is much more valuable than food, and you need to love him more than you love a burger. And v. 17 states that what ought to be most important to us isn’t the temporary pleasure of eating and drinking but pursuing the godly fruits of righteousness, peace, and joy. Unity of mind is essential if we are to enjoy unity as a church. We’ve got to stay focused on the big things. That’s because most disunity in any relationship is over things that are pretty insignificant. We get mad because we didn’t get our way or because our feelings got hurt. Most of the time, if we just step back and gain some perspective, what we are mad about isn’t nearly as important as the relationship we have damaged. This is the focus we have to maintain as a church. None of us, including the pastor, are always going to get our way. Your feelings will get hurt. You will have to defer to the conscience of another person. But as long as we are focused on the big picture, none of those things have to matter. We can enjoy tremendous unity as a church as long as we are filled with grace toward each other, and as long as we all have unity of mind about the goal of edifying each other. And as Paul prays in our text, may God help us to have this mind.
The second request in this prayer is for…
Unity of Praise:
Verse 6 describes the ultimate goal of unity within the church. As we have unity of mind, we are able to glorify God together. A few times while Heidi and I were living in Detroit, we had the opportunity to attend a performance of the DSO. The first time we went, I had never been to something like this before, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. We arrived a few minutes early, and what I didn’t expect was to hear a terribly grating mixture of noise coming from the stage. I remember thinking, what in the world is that? Then I saw that all of the instrumentalists were doing their own thing while warming up. Individually, I’m sure they all sounded great, but together, they sounded awful. But then the conductor came out, and everyone turned to the same sheet of music. And once they were united in purpose, they created the most incredible musical sound I have ever heard. As a church, we also have an incredible opportunity to glorify God as we build unity. Like an orchestra, we have a lot of different parts. We have people of different ages who come from different backgrounds. We have people who have been saved for years or a few months. We have people with a wide variety of convictions. But those things don’t mean we can’t make a beautiful sound. In fact, diversity creates a far richer sound than just a bunch of trumpets or violins. This should be our prayer as a church. Lord, give us one mind, so that with one mouth we will glorify the God and Father or our Lord Jesus Christ.
In light of that, I’d like to conclude with two principles we should take from this text.
Truth and the pursuit of godly convictions are important.
I want to emphasize this because this point can easily get lost in a sermon like this. The same Paul who wrote Romans 14–15 was willing to rip the Galatian church apart if need be, to preserve biblical doctrine. Therefore, we better never think that unity trumps sound doctrine. We can only glorify God together if we are singing the right song. As well, one of the very bad applications people will sometimes make from this passage is that convictions are opposed to unity and that if you have a strong conviction, it is inherently legalistic. We can assume that there is loads gray area to the Christian life and that if the Bible isn’t explicit about something, we can’t be confident either and we should never challenge each other over such things. But this passage doesn’t say don’t have convictions. Instead, God said it was okay to eat the meat. As well, the NT repeatedly teaches us, as Ephesians 5:10 says, that we are responsible to try to learn what pleases the Lord. That means it’s not always obvious what pleases the Lord, but just because it isn’t obvious doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. If some things please him others must not. It also doesn’t mean that we are off the hook if it’s not obvious. We are responsible to learn. If you’re take away from this text is that God has left us with a bunch of gray area and so I don’t need to have convictions and anyone who has them is schismatic, you have missed the point.
But if convictions are important, then how do we get along when we don’t share the same convictions?
We must humbly submit our convictions and passions to the purpose of the church.
It’s good to be passionate about a position or a cause that we think is biblical, but we’ve got to keep those things in perspective. I had a friend once who became very passionate about adopting children out of bad homes. That’s a good cause, but he became so focused on that cause that he got frustrated when everyone else in the church wasn’t as passionate as he was. As a result, he ended up leaving the church. I’ve seen ladies become incredible passionate about various diets or parenting techniques. They get very passionate about their message, and they are on a mission to convert the world. One of the unfortunate results of social media is that we have lots of access to various causes and lots of opportunities to irresponsibly advocate a cause. Mom-blogging may sound innocent, but stuff like this, tears at the unity of the church constantly when people get locked in on something and they don’t put it in perspective. My point is not to attack any position but to say we need to hold our convictions with humility, and we need to be careful to see the with the right perspective in light of the overall mission of the church. If we are going to remain unified through all of our different convictions and passions, we’ve got to stay focused on the fact that ultimately we exist to glorify God by reaching people with the gospel and by growing them into maturity. As we do this, we will extend grace to those with whom we differ, and we will receive grace from them as well. Together, we will help each other grow, and we will glorify God with one voice.