Those of you who have followed my writing for the last few years should have noticed by now that there are a few things that I am really passionate about.
1) Responsible stewardship
2) Peace, Justice and Reconciliation
3) Church Unity
It’s that last one that I want to touch on again today.
A few months ago I wrote a post about the Chick-Fil-A controversy in which I was careful not to come down too hard on one side of the debate or another. I got criticized for that. Not because my opinion was viewed as wrong by a certain element of the Christian Church but because, as one person put it, they couldn’t figure out what my opinion was and therefore couldn’t decide if I was a heretic or not. What??
I couldn’t figure out what to say about that other than to ask them to read the post again. My opinion on the specific issue wasn’t what I was writing about it was my opinion about the behavior of a church divided that mattered.
This past week in my morning devotional I happened to read through Romans 12-15. Contained in these four chapters are some of the most beautiful descriptions of Church unity and instructions on how people at different points on their faith journey are to work together ever written.
Over the years, as a pacifist I’ve had to defend my position on the church’s role in government and society on numerous occasions. Inevitably the discussion ends up landing on a “proper” interpretation of Romans 13. If the entire book of Romans were just that one chapter, my detractors would have a point, but when I remind them that Romans 13, follows Romans 12 and proceeds Romans 14, the conversation usually stops, or is deflected in a different direction. Why is it that people who are strong in their convictions about certain things just refuse to look at them in a broader context?
Here’s what the passage in Romans 13 says.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. [Romans 13:1-5]
They way most people read that is to provide justification for their assertion of a Just War theory or that it’s important for Christians to get the right guy in power so the will of God can prevail but that’s not what it says at all. If you read that passage as a stand-alone statement it’s very easy to interpret it as meaning that we are to do everything the governing authorities say without question because ultimately God has put them there for His glory. That’s easy to say when you agree with the government but what about when you don’t? How many Christians today, especially right wing evangelicals would honestly agree that Barak Obama is God’s servant for their good? Conversely, how many left leaning social justice Christians would vote for Mitt Romney on the same grounds?
Who’s in power isn’t the point. The point is that God can and does use whoever is in power to achieve His goals at different times. What this passage is saying is that we are to have faith that whatever is happening on a earthly level, God is still in control and we need not try to force our agenda on top of what God has already done.
If Romans 13 gives the church instruction on how to live under governing authority, Romans 12 gives us instruction on how to govern ourselves within the context of the church.
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. [Romans 12:1-2]
We then go on to learn what a “living sacrifice” does; it is a humble part of a larger body, loves sincerely, “joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer”, (v. 12) and “lives at peace with everyone” (v.18). This is unity in action but it doesn’t stop there.
After the aforementioned passage in Romans 13 on submission to governing authorities we are reminded that love is the fulfillment of the law. “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (v. 10).
And then it gets really interesting…
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. [Romans 14:1-4, emphasis mine]
Here’s where I really get into some trouble but to me this is the heart of the matter. While truth is not open for debate, as one of my detractors once put it, one’s ability to live by faith and his or her ability to accept or apply that truth may vary significantly at different points in their life. There is therefore no point on brow beating people with a truth stick. God’s grace is sufficient no matter where you are in your faith journey, ours is not to judge but to walk along side and support.
Finally in Romans 15 the point is driven home indisputably.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2 Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. [Romans 15:1-2]
Don’t judge your neighbor for their weakness but please them and build them up. Wow! Many would say that is just pandering, I call it being compassionate and acting like Jesus.
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, 6 so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. [Romans 15:5-7]
Amen! – Go and do likewise…