Do You Love Others?
In chapter 15, Paul continues his discussion of interpersonal relationships that he began midway through chapter 13. Your group may have a similar conversation to that of the previous week or so because the same principles apply in general relationships (chapter 15) as in the specific context of maturity in Christ (chapter 14).
We can find three principles in Romans 15:1-13 and pull in a fourth important one from Romans 16:17-18. (The intervening verses primarily cover Paul’s travel plans and personal greetings.)
I. Be Patient with Others (15:1-3)
This chapter begins with an echo from the previous one when Paul instructs us that those who are strong have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength. This, of course, should sound familiar from Paul’s discussion of how the more mature believer and less mature believer should relate with one another. Here though, the principle is being expanded. In general, we are admonished to simply be patient with those who are not as strong as we are.
Paul continues by explaining that we are not to please ourselves, but each one of us must please his neighbor for his good, in order to build him up. What is more important to you? Your good or the good of your neighbor? Which are you pursuing? If only one could experience good, who would you choose?
Clearly, the biblical command is for us to value our neighbor’s good over our own, which Paul illustrates by stating that even the Messiah did not please Himself. Surely being patient with our neighbor, even when he is engaged in sin, is how we can focus on his good instead of our own. What better communicates the gospel to him: stern judgmental condemnation or loving grace-saturated correction?
Let’s take this to a different level. How should this passage direct our speech and behavior in daily church life? What happens when you have a different idea of what color the new church carpet should be? Or when you have a different notion of who should lead a new ministry? Or when you have a different perspective of the church budget? Surely you should be able to advocate your position, but in the end, if you are going to be obedient to Scripture, you ought to ask yourself, “What will please God most and my fellow believer next?” That should be your motivation for what you say and do.
II. Be United with Others (15:4-6)
Paul next explains that what has been written in the Bible has been written for our instruction with the intention of it being the fuel for our endurance in Christ and the source of our encouragement so that we may have hope. Simply put, we turn to the Bible to seek comfort, instruction, and confidence in our walk with Christ.
But we cannot pick and choose when it comes to the Bible. The same Bible that directs our lives and gives us comfort and hope also instructs us to be united with other believers. We must be in agreement with one another according to Christ Jesus. Why? So that we may glorify the Father with a united mind and voice. A united church glorifies God. A church in disunity dishonors Him. When we read we must be in agreement with one another does that mean we have to share the exact same ideas, thoughts, preferences, etc.? Of course not (although we must share the same biblical understanding of the gospel). A church may certainly be diverse and unified at once. Agreement concerns maintaining a humble attitude that defers to others for the good of God and them. Church members may have ten different ideas for the church’s new carpet, but in the end, they may agree on one color for the good of all.
Being patient with someone is one thing. Being unified with them is another. But accepting them is a whole new level of relationship. I can muster patience with someone and avoid disunity in the church by primarily avoiding him. It’s much easier to be patient and unified from a distance. But when I accept them, when I allow them into my life and I step into theirs, patience and unity becomes that much more challenging.
Let me offer a simple analogy. I am an Orioles fan. I have been my entire life. It was easy being an Orioles fan as a child in the 70s and early 80s because they always fielded great teams. But starting in 1985 the wheels began falling off and the team began a period of decline that has landed them as one of the worst teams in baseball. They haven’t had a winning season in 14 years! Now it’s still easy to be an Orioles fan if I don’t watch the games or pay attention to the box scores during the season. But it is much more difficult when I allow the Orioles to be part of my life during the summer.
Accepting is risky. Accepting is difficult. But accepting is biblical. Paul tells us point blank: accept one another. Why? He continues: just as the Messiah also accepted you, to the glory of God. We love because God has first loved us. We accept because God has first accepted us. Paul illustrates this by pointing the reader’s attention back to God unifying Jews and Gentiles as one people. Paul quotes several Old Testament passages to support this concept. If God accepted the Jews and the Gentiles, then who are we to not accept one another? Do we know better than God?
I have long contended that a diverse church increases God’s glory. A church that is full of people of different races, genders, ages, socio-economic levels, and backgrounds most pleases God because it most clearly pictures the scope of God’s redemptive work. God is not the God of rich white people. He is not the God of Americans. He is not the God of the “good” people. He is the God of all who is redeeming people of all different groups to Himself. This is why we must embrace and accept others in the church.
IV. Be Discerning of Others (16:17-18)
With all of the discussion of unity, patience, and acceptance it is possible some may draw the wrong conclusion about how we are to relate with all others. For example, some may look at chapters 14 and 15 and conclude that we should partner with Mormons. But that is not what is being taught. In 16:17-18 Paul emphatically calls on the church to be discerning in their relationships. Notice that he implores the reader here, denoting seriousness. We are to watch out for those who cause dissensions and pitfalls contrary to the doctrine learned. Anyone who teaches a false gospel (such as Mormons) or who advocate disunity in the church would fall in this category.
So what should we do with these people? Avoid them; for such people do not serve our Lord Christ. We are not to partner with those who are against the gospel. We are not to be unified with them or accept them. Instead we are to avoid them. This requires discernment and wisdom. We have to be careful to know when we should seek unity and when we should not. We should consider carefully whether we as individuals and as local churches can work with other organizations or whether doing so would compromise the gospel and glory of God.
Today we live in a period that celebrates ecumenicalism more and more. Much of the heart of this movement is positive. Many of the denominational isolationism and arrogance should be broken down. However, we have to be very careful not to go too far with this and forge partnerships with those who do not hold to the same core gospel convictions.