We have watched for years the battle between the Israelites and the Palestinians. The six-day war secured the Gaza strip for Israel and ever since that time the Palestinians have wanted it back. As Israel vacated the area some Israelis were forcefully removed from their homes. As I watched these sad accounts of the Israeli army removing some of their citizens from the Gaza strip I couldn’t help but wonder, “Why can’t they just live together? Why must there be such hostility and division?”
It is easy to sit in my recliner and ask such questions. Perhaps it would be a better exercise to consider some items in my own “backyard”. Do you ever wonder how many people drive down Main street in La Harpe and wonder, “Why are there so many Protestant Churches?” “Why can’t they just work together in serving the Lord?”
Ouch! The problem of division and conflict in the church is easy to see. Author Max Lucado has created a wonderful picture of what happens in the church,
God has enlisted us in his navy and placed us on his ship. The boat has one purpose—to carry us safely to the other shore.
This is no cruise ship; it’s a battleship. We aren’t called to a life of leisure; we are called to a life of service. Each of us has a different task. Some, concerned with those who are drowning, are snatching people from the water. Others are occupied with the enemy, so they man the cannons of prayer and worship. Still others devote themselves to the crew, feeding and training the crew members.
Though different, we are the same. Each can tell of a personal encounter with the captain, for each has received a personal call. He found us among the shanties of the seaport and invited us to follow him. Our faith was born at the sight of his fondness, and so we went.
We each followed him across the gangplank of his grace onto the same boat. There is one captain and one destination. Though the battle is fierce, the boat is safe, for our captain is God. The ship will not sink. For that, there is no concern.
There is concern, however, regarding the disharmony of the crew. When we first boarded we assumed the crew was made up of others like us. But as we’ve wandered these decks, we’ve encountered curious converts with curious appearances. Some wear uniforms whenever seen, sporting styles we’ve never witnessed. “Why do you look the way you do?” we ask them.
“Funny,” they reply. “We were about to ask the same of you.”
The variety of dress is not nearly as disturbing as the plethora of opinions. There is a group, for example, who clusters every morning for serious study. They promote rigid discipline and somber expressions. “Serving the captain is serious business,” they explain. It’s no coincidence that they tend to congregate around the stern.
There is another regiment deeply devoted to prayer. Not only do they believe in prayer, they believe in prayer by kneeling. For that reason you always know where to locate them; they are at the bow of the ship.
And then there are a few who staunchly believe real wine should be used in the Lord’s Supper. You’ll find them on the port side.
Still another group has positioned themselves near the engine. They spend hours examining the nuts and bolts of the boat. They’ve been known to go below deck and not come up for days. They are occasionally criticized by those who linger on the top deck, feeling the wind in their hair and the sun on their face. “It’s not what you learn,” those topside argue. “It’s what you feel that matters.”
And, oh, how we tend to cluster.
Some think once you’re on the boat, you can’t get off. Others say you’d be foolish to go overboard, but the choice is yours.
Some believe you volunteer for service; others believe you were destined for the service before the ship was even built.
Some predict a storm of great tribulation will strike before we dock; others say it won’t hit until we are safely ashore.
There are those who speak to the captain in a personal language. There are those who think such languages are extinct.
There are those who think the officers should wear robes, there are those who think there should be no officers at all, and there are those who think we are all officers and should all wear robes.
And, oh, how we tend to cluster.
And then there is the issue of the weekly meeting at which the captain is thanked and his words are read. All agree on its importance, but few agree on its nature. Some want it loud, others quiet. Some want ritual, others spontaneity. Some want to celebrate so they can meditate; others meditate so they can celebrate. Some want a meeting for those who’ve gone overboard. Others want to reach those overboard but without going overboard and neglecting those on board.
And, oh, how we tend to cluster.
The consequence is a rocky boat. There is trouble on deck. Fights have broken out. Sailors have refused to speak to each other. There have even been times when one group refused to acknowledge the presence of others on the ship. Most tragically, some adrift at sea have chosen not to board the boat because of the quarreling of the sailors.
The picture is accurate and I suspect it causes the heart of the Father to ache. This morning we return to the theme of unity in the body of Christ. We have touched on this several times already in Paul’s letter and that fact alone shows us how important an issue it is. In Romans 15:5-9 we read,
5 May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, 6 so that with one heart and mouth 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. 8 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 9 so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy
In this passage I want you to see several points.
Unity Is Produced By God (v. 5a)
Paul tells us that it is God who gives us endurance, encouragement, and a spirit of unity. We cannot produce unity by our own means. For some reason it seems unnatural. We can produce uniformity (where we all look and talk alike.) We could probably even develop unanimity (the state of everyone agreeing with each other.) To do so we would insist that only those who believe as we do are true believers and others would be asked to leave.
Unity however, is something that must come from God’s Spirit. This harmony is something that is developed as God helps us to see each other through God’s eyes. It begins when we realize that we all are sinners by nature. It is followed by coming to understand that we are all people in transition . . . no one has “arrived yet”. Unity demands that we recognize that God is only Judge. He chooses who is accepted, not us. Unity comes when we adopt a position of humility and let God be God.
Unity is Desired by God (v. 5b)
Over these months of study in Romans 12-15 we have seen many calls to unity. In John 17 Jesus prayed that His disciples would be one, just as He and the Father were one. Scripture calls the church a family and says we are all parts of Christ’s body. The metaphors of body and family are meant to convey the idea of harmony in the midst of diversity.
So, why are there so many different churches? Why is unity so illusive? I think the problem is that we view every issue as a contest we have to win. For example we feel there must be a right answer to the chorus/hymn debate. There must be a right understanding of the end times (I’m betting the right understanding has nothing to do with our current systems). There can only be one way of baptism, one approach to communion, and only one correct way to recite the Lord’s Prayer (is it debts, trespasses or sins?). Either we are wrong or “they” are wrong. We don’t want to be wrong, so we fight, we divide, and we cluster.
What has happened is that we have failed to see the possibility that our differences could be meant to point us beyond our systems to a God who is greater than our systems. We want to be able to define God because when we can define or explain something we have power over that which we can define. We want easy answers, God offers us a relationship with One who says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” [ Isa. 55:8,9]
Contrary to popular belief, God is not a Conservative Republican. He is also not a Liberal Democrat. God does not love Americans and hate Arabs. God does not favor whites over blacks. God is not Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic or Jewish. God is God. He has given us His Word not so we can define Him but so we can know Him. He wants us to pursue holiness and to uphold His standards but He also wants us to live out that holiness in the way we care for the poor, the weak, and the hurting. He wants us to understand the reality of Judgment but He also wants us to be ambassadors of grace. He wants us to be fiscally responsible but also wildly generous.
Think about it like this: how did you come to love that special person in your life? Did you go to the library and read about him or her? Did you read books about them? Did you work hard to come up with a description of them? No. You walked with them, you talked to them, you developed a relationship with them, and each day you grew to love them and know them more.
Harmony in the midst of diversity requires a sense of wide-eyed wonder at the greatness of God. It comes when we are willing to let God be bigger than our minds can categorize. It develops when we realize our faith is not about the “scope” of our knowledge but the tenacious humility of our trust.
Unity Brings Praise and Glory to God (v. 6)
Paul tells us that we should be unified, “so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Do you see this? God is glorified when we live in harmony with each other. Jesus said, “by this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another.”
A unified church that is made up of diverse people from different races, genders, political affiliations and socio-economic classes is like a magnet to those who watch from the outside. They recognize that what is happening is something unique and “other-worldly”. They recognize that a work of God is taking place.
On the contrary, when we squabble and fight we turn people away from the Lord. They are repelled from us because we embody the very thing they are trying to escape.
We Should Pursue Unity (v.7)
Paul goes on to show us the example of Jesus (v. 8-13). The various quotes in Romans 15:8-13 are all from the Old Testament and designed to show that God always intended for Jesus to bring people together, starting with the Jews and the Gentiles.
If we take Scripture seriously we must put down our rocks and start celebrating the core elements of faith. We must gather together to celebrate the fact that God is in control, that He has loved us and sent Christ to bring us to Himself and that all who trust in Him will live forever.
Paul prays that the Romans would be filled with joy and peace and be filled with hope. When Joy and peace reign . . . petty quarrels are non-existent. Joy and peace can’t reign until our focus becomes His will, not ours.
Practical Suggestions. Let me try to be concrete here. Let’s try to find some practical tips for cultivating unity in the midst of our diversity.
1. We must confront our own prejudices. Our book, DIFFICULT PEOPLE has a simple premise: the first step to dealing with the difficult people in your life is to look in a mirror. We must accept and deal with our role in any conflict situation. We must consider the fact that our narrow-mindedness may be the problem. We may be the one who is wrong.
2. Be willing to learn from those who are different from you. We need a different attitude. Suppose someone came up to me from the hospital and told me something about Maggie that I didn’t know. Would I rebuke them and tell them that they were wrong about their understanding? If someone from her childhood came to me and told me a story about her past would I turn and walk away? If one of her family members talked about her greatest dreams growing up would I say, “No, you’re wrong, that’s not the way she is . . . I know her, I live with her, she’s not like that?” No, I wouldn’t say these things. I would listen, I would ask questions and I would be thrilled to know more about her, to see another dimension of her life, and to appreciate her more fully. In the same way we should welcome what others can teach us about our Savior. Rather than push them away we should invite them to share so we can learn, grow, and love the Lord more fully.
3. We need to remember our own need for mercy. Like the story of the Prodigal Son we must remember that just as it was wrong for the younger son to spend his father’s inheritance recklessly, it was also wrong for the older son to take what he had been given as a right he was owed. We must never forget where we have come from. Those who have received mercy should be willing to extend mercy.
4. We must be willing to try God’s approach of love, understanding and forgiveness rather than resort to the “power tactics” of force, intimidation and ultimatums. The world tells us that it is the powerful and aggressive who win in the world. The Lord tells us that it is the meek that inherit the earth. If we want to be what He made us to be, we have to try it His way.
5. We must be ever mindful of the cost of conflict. When Christians fight, God’s glory is diminished. When we throw rocks at each other it is God’s house that is damaged. When we pick at each other we hamper His Spirit rather than cooperate with God’s Spirit.
If we have gained anything from Romans 12-15 we should have come to see that God wants us to work together. Whether we are talking about a building program, innovations in worship, or how best to respond to a lost world, He wants us to act as one body . . . . His body. When we do so we honor Him. When we don’t, we dishonor Him.
Will we ever see a time when all the churches of our community come together and become one congregation? Probably not. Maybe having different congregations encourages diversity and maybe that is good. And just because we may not all attend the same church doesn’t mean we aren’t all on the same side. Maybe we are like different branches of the military. We have different histories and different specialties but we are fighting the same war. If we want to win this war, we must work together. And if we ever get this part correct . . . look out! The power of God will be unleashed and who knows what could happen?