March 20, 2022

Christian Unity

Christian Unity

Yee Siew Meng

7 Minute Read

When the Jewish Christians returned to Rome around 54AD after an exile of about 5 years, they found that they had become a minority in a now predominantly Gentile church. This obviously posed problems for the church as one group continued to observe their strict dietary laws while the larger group of Gentile Christians chose to exercise their Christian liberty. Perhaps they took advantage of the pork sale at the downtown market and made roast pork for the fellowship lunch after church service, much to the horror of their Jewish brothers.

Romans 14 addresses these differences between the two cultural groups and Paul describes one group, those who understand their Christian freedom, as the stronger brothers. The other group, the Jewish background believers who continued to adhere to Jewish food laws, are called the weaker brothers. This evaluation is in relation to their progress in understanding their freedom in Christ, not their relative godliness.

In most societies and power structures, the majority is usually the stronger group while smaller groups are considered the weaker minority. The voice of the majority usually overpowers the weak, who must tread carefully in action and speech to avoid offending or provoking the stronger majority. In Romans 14 and 15 however, Paul shows us a gospel-centred model of unity, which contrasts strongly with how the world works. Gospel-centred unity is driven by love, pursues peace, and is sustained by hope.

1. Gospel Unity is Driven by Love

For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.”

~ Romans 14:15

Firstly, we see that Gospel-centred unity is driven by love. Paul agrees with the Gentile Christians in Rome that in Christ, nothing is unclean (Romans 14:14). That was the same message Peter was given in Acts 10 when God said to Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). Peter was subsequently brought to preach to a large Gentile crowd at the request of a God-fearer named Cornelius. It was there that he understood the meaning of the vision he had received. He summarises the lesson in this way:

I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right”

~ Acts 10:34-35

It wasn’t the keeping of diets and days that made one righteous before God, it was their faith in Christ.

The Gentile Christians in Rome had come to understand this gospel truth and Paul says he agrees with them. However, although Paul affirms their stronger faith, he reminds them of their obligation and duty to make room and welcome brothers and sisters who hadn’t quite grasped the full implications of the gospel in their lives:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.

~ Romans 14:1

It is the responsibility of the stronger believer to welcome the weaker believer, so that he feels comfortable and accepted. That means, that “if your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.” (Romans 14:15). Paul explains that whether you are acting in a loving manner isn’t determined by your motivation or intention alone, but also on the effect that your action has on the other. If he or she is distressed or offended by what you have done, you have not acted in love.

If in exercising our Christian liberties, we make a brother uncomfortable, offended or marginalised, Paul says that we have not walked in genuine love. The boundaries of my rights or liberties, therefore, is marked by love for the brethren.

2. Gospel Unity Pursues Peace

so then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding”

~ Romans 14:19

Secondly, we see that Gospel-centred unity pursues peace. ‘Pursue’ mean “to run after”, “to hunt down intensely”. We are to pursue peace intentionally.

Does that mean we could never disagree on anything? No. There are issues that are critical to the purity of the gospel, which we should take effort to defend and differ. Verse 17 suggests the things that matter supremely: issues to do with our justification by faith, our righteousness in Christ, of what makes for peace and what gives joy in the Holy Spirit. Certainly, not over the more trivial issues of diet and days.

As brothers and sisters, we should relate to one another in gentleness as fellow sinners saved by grace. We seek to exhort, encourage, admonish, and correct each other. But we must also recognise that people must act according to their conscience, as to how to honour the Lord according to his word (Romans 14:5-8). This inevitably means that there will be some circumstances where we disagree in areas of Christian freedom, but nevertheless still pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding. As Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s gospel-partner wrote, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity”. That means that in gospel matters we seek to be united. In non-essentials we allow freedom for people to act according to their conscience, so long as they are doing it in love for people and for the glory of God.

3. Gospel Unity is Sustained by Hope (Romans 15:4-5)

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus.”

~ Romans 15:4-5

Finally, Paul encourages us to bear with the failings of the weak and do what is good for our neighbour (15:1-2). After all, this was the way of Christ, who came not to be served but to serve. Christ left his heavenly throne and emptied himself, born as a man that he might die a shameful death pm the cross (Philippians 2:5-8). Christ knew that we were weak, ungodly sinners. Even so, while we were weak, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8). He did this so that we may have peace with God and be built up in love with the hope of eternity (Romans 5:1, 5). This is the gospel message that has been revealed to us through the Holy Scriptures.

It is because of these truths of God’s word that we have the endurance and the encouragement which ultimately gives us hope (Romans 15:4) This endurance and encouragement comes from God himself, who will grant us the ability to live in harmony and unity with one another (Romans 15:5).

Because of this gospel hope, in response to what Christ has done for us, we can now do the same for others. We can love the weaker brethren. We can make space for different opinions and show deference. We can consider others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). We can pursue what makes for peace (Romans 14:19). We can show genuine love for one another with deep brotherly affection and outdo one another in showing honour (Romans 12:9-10).

If our hope is anchored in the Kingdom of God (Romans 14:17) and the assurance of God’s love for us to eternity, then many things become trivial and insignificant: The colour of the carpet, spending money on drums or electric guitar, who should be lead pastor, whether the church should be online or onsite, or whatever else our churches fight about. Many such issues are insignificant in the light of the gospel, eternity, and the Kingdom. As we navigate such issues, we should work hard to maintain our unity in Christ.

This is the kind of unity that God has given to us in Christ Jesus, and we have been told to make every effort to keep it. Gospel unity is driven by love, pursues peace and is sustained by hope.

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Rev. Yee Siew Meng, or Meng as he is fondly known, serves as the Senior Pastor CDPC. Siew Meng holds a degree in Finance and Human Resource and worked a number of years as a Business Consultant before running his own international business for 15 years. In his spare time, he serves the community in various areas and is passionate about social justice. In 2012, Siew Meng pursued an MDiv from Seminari Theologi Malaysia, and now serves the church in Subang Jaya.

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