Unity

Tonight we are looking at Romans 14:1 through to 15:13. It is probably the most sustained discussion in the whole of the Bible about the eating of vegetables. Now, I am admittedly very fond of vegetables, particular if we've grown them. (This year's crop is coming on nicely by the way, if you're wondering.) But that is not the reason we're considering this passage. It's because Paul uses the topic of vegetables as a launching pad for wonderful teaching about the unity of the church and how to maintain it. And that is our subject this evening: The Church and Unity. The key verse from which everything else flows is verse 1:

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgement on disputable matters.

As you will see from the sermon outline, my first point before we dig among the vegetables is this: GOD UNITES US THROUGH THE GOSPEL It is a real struggle for churches to stay together, serve together and grow together. That is the reality, and there is nothing new about it. From the very earliest times the church has been riven with tensions and potential or actual splits of one sort or another. Don't fall into the trap of imagining that if you had been a Christian in that first generation you would have experienced a depth of unity and fellowship that no church that you've belonged to has ever come near. A Godly realism is vital when we are thinking about the unity of the church. Take off the rose tinted spectacles when you read the New Testament and you will see that the apostles were continually battling to ensure two things: first, that the Christians would stick to the truth; and secondly, that they would stick together. When you put two sinners - even redeemed sinners - close together in a marriage, the blessings are great, but the sparks fly. And they've chosen each other. Put 20 or 200 or 2000 sinners (some redeemed, some not) together in a church, and the scope for quite a firework display, never mind sparks flying, hardly bears thinking about. Put local churches together from all around the world and the potential for conflagration is awesome. Christians don't choose each other. We choose Jesus. And even that is only because he's first chosen us. When I committed my life to Christ about 25 years ago, I had no idea that I would have to live with you lot. Whether it would have swayed me one way or another I can't imagine. Christians no more choose one another than a sister chooses her brothers. But God brings us together just as surely as sisters and brothers are inextricably bound together in one family. Paul spent the first 8 chapters of this letter spelling out how by grace we, the enemies of God, are reconciled to him. " you received the Spirit of sonship", Paul says in 8:15, "And by him we cry, 'Abba, Father.'" Because of Jesus you are co-heirs with your fellow believers of all the riches of God and you will be spending eternity with them. The good news is (and here's a miracle if ever there was) you will enjoy their company. But we havn't got to glory yet. We're on our way. And in the mean time, as if putting up with the present bunch wasn't hard enough, God is in the process of bringing in more and more. When a new child enters an established family by adoption, the blessings are great, but the strains can be considerable. As believers we are ourselves adopted, and we have a continual flow of new siblings being brought into the family by adoption. Compatibility is not the criterion that our heavenly Father uses in choosing new members of the family. He always goes for undeserving sinners. If they ask, they're in. If they trust his only unadopted Son, Jesus, they're in. All the rest gets sorted out within the family, after the adoption. What is more, this side of the Day of Judgement, there will always be a pile of people who jump on the bandwagon and join the church under the misapprehension that they have been adopted into the family when in fact they havn't been - not yet, at least. America thinks it is a melting pot. But the US hasn't got anything on the Church. God unites believers as brothers and sisters through the gospel. That doesn't mean we are incapable of fighting, any more than it is impossible for blood brothers to fall out. Add a good sprinkling of unbelievers who think they are believers into the stew pot, and it shouldn't be any surprise that maintaining the unity that has been given us by God through the gospel of Christ is a struggle. Now, if we want to know how to maintain unity, we first need to understand the process of fragmentation. Let's think about that. So my second heading is this: HOW UNITY IS DESTROYED Unity within the church is destroyed in two ways. First, unity is destroyed by disagreement over an issue of primary importance. We will get into all sorts of confusion and trouble if we're not careful to make this distinction between issues that are of primary importance, and issues that are of secondary importance. Another way of saying it would be to speak of matters that are essential, and those that are inessential. It is this distinction that lies behind that key principle in 14:1 :

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgement on disputable matters.

When Paul speaks of 'disputable matters', that is what I mean by secondary or inessential issues. It is obviously very important to know how to distinguish the primary from the secondary, and the way to go about it is this. We have to ask ourselves the question: Is the gospel at stake in this issue? In other words, does our clear proclamation of the good news of Jesus as it is taught in the Bible depend on getting this issue right? And because the gospel is inextricably linked with the authority of the Bible as God's Word, which reveals the gospel to us, we can also ask ourselves this question: Is the supreme authority of the Bible as God's word at stake in this issue? If the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ is at stake, or if the supreme authority of the Scriptures is at stake, then, for the sake of our gospel witness, this is an issue over which we should be prepared to break unity. If we compromise on these primary, gospel, issues, then we will end up losing the gospel. And the same will happen, even if we don't change our views, if we closely ally ourselves to those whose teaching denies things that are fundamental to the gospel. Breaking unity within the church is a serious step to take. The unity of the church is very important. But it is the gospel which is supremely important. The gospel must come first. After all, as we have seen, it is the gospel that unites believers in the first place. If we lose the gospel, then we may still be united in a way, but we will be united with one another and not with Christ. The only unity believers should want is unity in the cause of Christ. Unity without the gospel is worse than a waste of time. It is unwitting collaboration with Satan. His greatest desire is to have the whole world united in opposition to the biblical gospel message, which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. So gospel and Bible first; unity second. It is true that there can be disagreements over where to draw the dividing line which separates primary from secondary issues. It is also the case that there can be different levels of co-operation, without breaking fellowship, where there are areas of disagreement that make working together difficult. But this grey area is not our major problem. When we have learned to act decisively where the issues are black and white, then we can begin to think through the grey areas. In the terms of Romans 14:1 : where matters are not disputable - where the Bible is clear about what is the truth - then it is vital that a dividing line is drawn so that the gospel can still be clearly heard. It needs to be said that this is the great danger that we face within the life of the denomination to which this local church is affiliated - the Church of England. The danger is not only that the biblical gospel will not be taught in many parts of the church. It is also that those who do seek faithfully to teach that gospel will not dissociate themselves publicly from those who in some way deny the gospel and the Bible. Let me give you an example. Listen to these views:

The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God and must be dismissed.

Resurrection is an action of God. Jesus was raised into the meaning of God. It therefore cannot be a physical resuscitation occurring inside human history.

There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in Scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behaviour for all time.

This, you might think, is a flat denial of the bible and the gospel. You would be right. These are the words of John Spong, who is a bishop in the Anglican church in America. He, along with his views, has been tolerated for many years within the Anglican church not only as a member but as a leader. He was invited to the recent gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world at Lambeth. Many leaders within Anglicanism agree with at least some aspects of his denials of the biblical gospel. Many others who disagree with him will not break unity with him or those who think like him. Unity is given a higher priority than the bible and the gospel. If that were to continue, it would be the death of the Anglican church as far as any usefulness in the cause of Christ is concerned. Some kind of religious institution would persist, no doubt. But the gospel, fatally compromised, would fade from view to be replaced with another message, full of deceptive talk of God and Jesus and the Spirit and resurrection. John Spong is, in his own terms, a fervent believer in Jesus and resurrection. He is, by all accounts, a nice and charming man. Heresy usually has a friendly face. It is vital that if we wish to be faithful gospel witnesses, we make a public and persistent break with such teaching. The only unity worth having is unity through the gospel. It is for essentially the same reason that, as you are probably aware, we took the serious step some time ago of saying that we cannot accept the spiritual oversight of the Bishop of Newcastle. He has expressed the view, without retraction, that in certain circumstances homosexual sex is acceptable to God. This is a subject that I wish we weren't obliged to talk about. But, as someone has said, if you don't defend at the point where the attack is directed, you are not defending at all. The moral issue here is a deadly serious one. But even more serious than the moral issue is what is at stake for the gospel. Because it is clear that the bible teaches that homosexual sex is a sin. Deny that, and you deny the supreme authority of the bible as God's word. If we did that, we would have no word from God to speak to people who are without hope, like lost sheep, harrassed and helpless. For the sake of the gospel we must distance ourselves decisively from such views, whatever the cost, and whatever the consequence for unity within the denominational institution. There is no need for such a stance to be rude, ungracious or unloving. I hope and pray that we are not. All our behaviour should always be loving, putting the interests of others before our own. After all, the Lord Jesus said we should love even our enemies. We simply have to be firm. So, unity is destroyed firstly by disagreement over issues of primary importance, where the gospel is at stake. Secondly, unity is destroyed by the wrong handling of an issue of secondary importance, where the gospel is not at stake. Romans 14:1 again:

Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgement on disputable matters.

That's the principle. Paul then uses two examples. The first is to do with diet, and the eating of meat. Nothing to do with GMO's or factory farming conditions. It is possible that there was dispute among the Christians in Rome because much of the meat sold in markets would have been previously sacrificed to pagan idols. Could Christians then use it? More likely, this was a disagreement along Jewish - Gentile lines, with the Jewish and Jewish-influenced Christians thinking that they should still be careful only to eat kosher meat, and since you couldn't be sure what you were getting down at Tesco's, the only safe option was to turn veggie. So, verse 2:

One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.

Paul's own position in the debate is clear enough: all food comes from God and the Christian is free to eat anything, with gratitude to God. Those who do not see that are weak in faith, in the sense that their faith needs to mature; their understanding of the implications of the gospel needs to develop further. The second example that Paul uses is the keeping of certain days as particularly sacred. Probably this, too related to the Jewish - Gentile fault-line: some of the Christians may have thought it right to continue keeping the Jewish festivals, others that in Christ this was now neither necessary nor beneficial. But the particular rights and wrongs of these debates are not the main point here. The point is that in this context these were not fundamental gospel issues, and mishandling them would seriously undermine the unity of the church, and damage their gospel witness. The process of mishandling has three stages: first, the disagreement; secondly, wrong attitudes; and thirdly, wrong actions. Verse 3:

The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does

The great danger when have these secondary disagreements with other Christians is that we will despise them (looking down our noses at them, regarding them as inferior to ourselves and somewhat contemptible) and that we will condemn them (that is, declare them not to be true Christians, not our brothers or sisters in Christ). Then these wrong attitudes will lead to wrong actions. We will break the God-given unity of God's family, cutting ourselves off from them or getting tangled up in long and unfruitful wrangles, argument and bitterness. How, then, can we avoid these wrong attitudes? We come now to my third and final heading, which is this: HOW TO MAINTAIN THE UNITY OF THE SPIRIT A simple way of answering this would be to say: we need to take to heart the message of Romans 14 and 15. Paul's discussion of vegetables leads him give us a profound charter for sticking together despite our inessential differences. As always, Paul relates the topic under discussion to the gospel. He is always asking himself: What are the gospel principles that apply to this situation? What impact should the gospel have on our attitudes to one another? Keeping the gospel in view is what helps us to separate the wood from the trees in all the tangle of our disagreements and different perspectives. Let me give you a framework for digesting these chapters on your own by summing up what Paul has to say. Keep united, first, by thinking about Jesus; secondly, by thinking about others; and thirdly, by thinking about the issue. In other words, think before you act. First, think about Jesus. 14:7-10 :

For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we all stand before God's judgement seat.

Remember that we are all subject to the Lordship of Jesus. He is your Lord, and you will have to give account to him for your views and how you have treated others. Those with whom you disagree will have to do the same. They are not accountable to you, but to Christ. 14:15 :

Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.

15:7 :

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you

Whatever our disagreements, none of us deserves any place within God's family. We are all at his mercy and dependent on his grace, shown to us in Jesus. Knowing that should keep us humble and draw the sting from our disputes. 15:7 again :

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God's truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy

In handling areas of disagreement, our guiding light should always be the glory of God. That is Christ's purpose and it should be ours. God forbid that we should drag his name through the mud by our ungodly attitudes to others. Think about Christ. Secondly, think about others. Verse 19:

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification

15:2 :

Each of us should please his neighbour for his good, to build him up.

Make it your aim not to tear others down, but to build them up. We need to be asking ourselves: what is going to help this person to grower stronger in Christ? What is going to encourage and strengthen them? 14:13 :

make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way.

Verse 15:

If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.

And verse 21 :

It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to stumble.

Don't cause unnecessary offence, even if you are acting within your rights and your view on the issue in question is the correct one. Don't stand on your rights. Be ready to give way. If we all act like that towards each other, that is a recipe for harmony - even where there are sharply differing views on a wide range of areas. We must not fall into the trap of being wrong in our attitudes and actions whilst being right in our views. Unity must be worked at. It matters. Christ died to unite us. Think about Jesus. Think about others. Then thirdly, think about the issue. Having a right attitude to secondary matters does not mean we should be indifferent or complacent. That is the route to a lazy and shallow unity. That is the kind of climate in which primary issues are not recognised, and the gospel is compromised. 14:5 :

One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.

Think it through. Know why you believe what you believe. And if you come to the conclusion that this is something on which you cannot in all conscience compromise, then have the courage of your convictions. 14:22 :

The man who has doubts is condemned [that is to say, sinning] if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

Submit your thinking rigorously to the Bible's teaching. Then if you honestly come to the conclusion that you must follow a certain line, you should follow it, even if in the end you turn out to be on the wrong track. Think about the issue. But first think about Jesus, and about the good of the others, with whom you may disagree, but for whom Christ died, and with whom you will spend eternity. The truth is that we are all so different that our life together is a potential mine field. It may be vegetarianism, or sacred days, or baptism, or the kind of music we play, or whether to use set prayers, or whether it is appropriate for Christians to drink alcohol, or how to organise the church's life, or spiritual gifts, or the ministry of women within the church or any number of ethnic and cultural differences of perspective. The unity that we share is a miracle of God's grace, through the gospel. We must not compromise that gospel, which has brought us together and reconciled us to God. If we lose it, we may as well all pack up and go home. And we must not mishandle issues of secondary significance in such a way that we destroy the unity that God has created. "Those whom God hath joined together let not man put asunder."

Back to top