Every year in Osaka, Japan, the Number Nine Chorus performs Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Ode to Joy. The Number Nine Chorus is 10,000 people strong. To deem it impressive would be an understatement. I am no expert on choral music, but great choirs (and perhaps even smaller ones) demonstrate a beauty and timelessness that is rare today in music—the melodies and countermelodies, the intricately woven harmonies, the beautiful textures of voices. The best of choirs contains a multitude of voices, but they sing as one. Their voices meld into a sweetness that is pleasing to the listener.
And yet when we turn to the church, it so often lacks a beautifully unified voice singing praise to the glory of God the Father. But this has always been the intention for the church. Paul writes, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Jesus Christ, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5-6).
What does it take for us to live in unity? For us, with one voice, to glorify God? My question is this: despite differences in conviction and varying levels of spiritual maturity, differences in preference and in priorities, how can we live in unity? Despite our differences in what we should watch, drink, eat, or put on our bodies—on whether we should listen to Hillsong or not, on whether schooling should leave the home or not, or in how we vacation—in our view of what is godly and what is foolish and what is allowable and what is weird—how do we, with one voice, glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Paul addresses this question in his letter to the Romans. Paul sees a disunity in the Roman church, and this inconsistency in their church is so devastating, that Paul himself says it risks destroying the work of God (Rom. 14:20).
At first glance, the issues Paul addresses in Romans 14 seem much different than ours. But this text has much to offer the church today. This text confronts our individualistic, just-me-and-Jesus, hide-from-unbelievers-who-aren’t-like-me Christianity. It calls out our my-way-is-best-no-one-at-this-church-understands-me way of thinking. It asks the simple question: do you love those who are different than you? Do you love those who are of different spiritual maturity than you—whose convictions differ from yours—whose love for Christ manifests itself in a way that is weird or offensive to you?
As Christians, we must pursue unity in the church
In Romans 14, Paul gives two directives to the Roman Church on how to treat believers who are different.
Accept One Another (14:1-12)
Paul calls believers to receive one another, to welcome one another into their homes. Paul gives believers three reasons not to judge one another, but to accept one another:
- The person that you despise and judge, God has welcomed (14:3);
- The Lord is the master of your brother, and he is able to make him stand (Rom 14:4); and
- We will all stand before the judgment seat of God (Rom 14:10).
Paul’s point is simple: believers have no right to judge or despise one another. Instead, they are to accept one another. When you don’t accept another believer, you begin to judge others as if you were God—you begin to act as a gatekeeper in the church for who should be welcomed—you begin to act as if your own personal evaluation of another matters to God.
But Paul makes clear that this humble acceptance of one another does not mean you are to change your convictions, even on matters of preference, because in everything you do you should be fully convinced in your own mind (Rom 14:5). So if you are living unto the Lord, there should be a sweet spot in your humility that allows you to hold your personal convictions on certain preferences and still be able to accept others for their differing preferences.
In Romans 14, Paul is pushing both the strong in the faith and the weak in the faith toward each other, toward the middle, toward unity as one voice. And he creates a new category of strong person who could say, “I eat meat, but I accept Christians who don’t,” and a new category of weak person who could say, “I don’t eat meat, but I accept Christians who do.”
In our conviction-driven Christian culture today, Romans 14 has much to say to us. We should not cast aside our personal convictions, but we are to hold our convictions with the tone of Christian charity toward one another, especially toward those who are different.
Where Scripture is silent, we ought to stand down
We ought to be quick to listen, and slow to speak. If your instinct is to speak up and give your opinion on something someone else is doing, don’t. Simply accept your brother or sister. Relish the reality that God has accepted you both into his kingdom, that he is the one who has justified you and made you stand, and that before God all will be judged, including you. Accept your brother.
As those who have been freed from slavery to sin to serve our righteous master Jesus, we ought to be careful in wielding any hint of undue spiritual authority in others’ lives. Instead, we should develop an instinct that responds to others in the love and warmth and welcoming spirit that God demonstrated as he first loved us. Humbly accept the brother or sister who differs from you, and thank God that he has welcomed you both into his kingdom.
Build One Another Up (Rom. 14:13-23)
Between the weak and strong believers, Paul identifies with the strong. Paul agrees that as believers, we have complete freedom in Christ to do as we like. The believer is freed from the ceremonies and sacrifices and prohibitions that God designed specifically for the people of Israel. And in Christ, we are freed from the bondage of sin and its ultimate end—death—to now serve our new master—righteousness—and Jesus Christ—the righteous one.
We have the freedom in Christ to do anything that is not sin
We have the freedom to enjoy the good things that God has created. As Paul writes to Timothy, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4-5).
So Paul’s plea to the weak is—get stronger. Learn about your freedom in Christ. The full force of Scripture is behind this. Don’t sell short what your Savior has accomplished for you—the reality that you are freed from the Law and sin. Grow in understanding your freedom in Christ. Don’t stay the way you are; grow in conviction; grow in faith and trust in your Savior.
To the stronger brother, Paul rebukes him for thinking he understands his freedom in Christ. True freedom is to be lived in humble faith, in exercising your freedom in such a way that it builds others up. Paul concedes that theologically, the strong brother is correct. The strong brothers have the freedom to do what they’re doing. But that is just not how consciences and people work. Paul wants the strong believers to resolve “to never put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother,” (14:13) but instead, “to pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (14:19).
Paul would like to see strong believers get to a place where they can defer on their preferences and decide never to put a stumbling block in front of their brothers, where they could eat meat in freedom, but they choose to abstain from eating meat.
Walking in love to your brother is more important than barbecue
His urge to the strong is to stop flexing their freedom—there is no need to show off. Hold your faith humbly; “the faith that you have, keep between yourself and God” (Rom. 14:22). Keep your faith between you and God. There is no need to cause others to stumble just to exercise your faith.
Theologian Sinclair Ferguson writes,
The proof that you have real Christian liberty in respect to something that someone else may feel bound by—is that you do not need to exercise that liberty, and you do not flaunt it. The moment you need to exercise your liberty may be the moment you are in bondage all over again.
Demonstrate your freedom in Christ through your love, not your arrogance. Paul admonishes the Thessalonians to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess 5:14, italics mine). He wants believers to help those who are weak. Walk in love by being willing to give up what you might insist upon.
May the only thing that you insist on be that your brother does not stumble
Romans 14 has so much truth for us as believers today. It teaches us a host of lessons. Love defers. Love doesn’t jump to conclusions. It doesn’t judge. Love believes the best of others.
Recognize the work of God in other people’s lives. And when you see it, affirm it, with actual words. When you see weakness in others, be slow to speak, but quick to pray and listen. And always be on the lookout for opportunities to build others up—kindly, appropriately, gently, and humbly. And may our different voices unite in singing praises to the God who has redeemed us all.