Welcome one another
Rom.15:7 "Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God."
The church is made up of people who belong to Jesus Christ, people who have put their trust in Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. They did that because they came to see:
that they were sinners and sinners cannot hope to stand unscathed in the presence of God.
that Jesus came into the world specifically to deal with this sin problem by his death on the cross
Now God could have chosen to leave such people to live out their Christian faith in private but that wasn't and isn't his plan. Instead he chose to put these Christians, who were now spiritually part of his family, into local churches. It’s not that going to church makes a person a Christian but the local church does occupy a prominent place in God's plan. It is the natural and ideal place where the Christian can grow in his faith and to serve alongside others.
Sadly, some people's experience of local church life is not always the happy one it ought to be. And some will react to a less than perfect experience by withdrawing altogether from church life. That is not the way because it goes against what the Bible teaches and it is neither safe nor wise to do that.
This evening we are going to think about what our responsibilities are in making and keeping our local church life spiritually healthy and positive.
Why is this necessary?
Paul wrote at some length about how different Christians within a church setting are to relate to each other and we need to hear what he said. Even though Paul knew only too well from personal experience that local churches encountered many and varied problems he never encouraged Christians to give up on the church instead he taught them how they were to behave in it!
It will help us understand the importance of his teaching if we begin by reminding ourselves of some of the reasons why there are problems in the church anyway.
God's people who make up the church are still sinners! The person who has placed his trust in Jesus Christ has had his sins forgiven and the Holy Spirit now is at work in him/her but none of us are yet the finished article. We are a people on the move - the processes of change have been set in motion but they are far from complete in all of us.
We have our rough edges and our sharp corners which need to be rubbed down. The Spirit of God has started on us and he will continue his work until he has fully accomplished it, but it is not the work of an instant. And God uses the church family in this process! How foolish then to run away from the very place where God wants to pursue his work of making us all more like the Lord Jesus! But because the church is made up of such imperfect people we will never be very far away from problems and we should not expect church life to always be trouble-free. Consequently we should not be traumatised when problems surface but we should be prepared to work to minimise them and their impact.
God's people come in all shapes and sizes too and we each bring with us into the church varying degrees of baggage. The great divide in the society of Paul’s day was between Jew and Gentile. When both Jews and Gentiles came to faith in Jesus Christ they had to work out how to live alongside each other in the local church. Tensions and frictions occurred at times, church life wasn't always easy.
While Christians are united on the essentials of the faith which God has clearly revealed the same is not true when it comes to secondary matters. Christians could and do disagree with each other concerning other things where God has not given such categorical instruction. In such circumstances church congregations could easily form into separate groups – the strong or the weak in faith are the names Paul ascribes to them.
All these different groupings belonged in the church and had to work out just how to live together – Paul will tell them about how to go about it – but none was encouraged to go it alone.
If the unfinished nature of God's disparate people mean that internally the church contains many potential flash points we need to be aware that the church has external forces ranged against it too.
God's enemies have an interest in seeing the church fail. On a human level a properly functioning church will be a challenge and a rebuke to the godless way of life of the man in the street and, unless the Spirit of God is at work, he will not like it.
The major enemy of the church is not however the people outside the church but the evil spiritual forces which are at work in the world. The devil is a reality. He knows a good deal about God's purposes for the church and he doesn't like what he knows:
Satan knows God uses the church to prepare Christians for holy, and ultimately for heavenly, living and he wants to frustrate this if he can.
He knows that the church is designed to make God’s truth known. This truth is what sets men free from their spiritual bondage – and Satan doesn't want to lose any of his captives.
He knows too that the church is the place par excellence where God's glory is most celebrated on earth and he hates it.
For these reasons Satan does all he can to spoil the church, to muffle her voice and to ruin her witness. Christians play into his hands when they behave badly causing problems in the church. Abandoning the church because problems exist is not the solution either!
Sometimes Christians have to get involved in disputes. If others are altering the terms of the gospel message then we really should be prepared to "dispute" with them. Listen to the way Paul wrote to the Galatians:
Gal.1:6-7, 9 "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ… As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed."
But not all disputes arise over such fundamental issues. In Rom.14 Paul told Christians how they were to relate to each other when they found themselves disagreeing with each other on matters of secondary importance. We can say that they are of secondary importance not because they are unimportant but because God has not seen fit to give us a definitive word on the subject. Consequently different Christians weighing things up as best they can in their desire to serve and honour the Lord may arrive at different conclusions as to how they are to conduct themselves. Over such matters we are not to get involved in quarrels or disputes – that is we are not to make of these lesser matters a touchstone of orthodoxy.
If we do not heed Paul’s instructions our disagreements quickly become divisive as we focus on our differences and forget about everything that we have in common.
Christians are meant to be separated from the unbelieving world – light can have no fellowship with darkness after all – but we are not meant to be split up into warring camps within our individual churches.
As Paul writes he asserts a great deal concerning what Christians have in common their differences are actually carefully limited to a specific sphere.
In Romans 14 where Paul refers to the weak and to the strong we must remember that he sees them are brother nonetheless. The "weak" brother to whom Paul refers isn’t characterised by weakness in every area of his life and he is certainly not accused of moral weakness or of cowardice in standing up for the Lord Jesus in his discipleship. The only area in which Paul speaks of weakness is in the area of his faith and what he means by this is that he has an over-sensitive conscience that hampers his ability to fully enjoy the freedom Christ has secured for him.
With this in mind we will not be quick to write off the weaker brother. For this weaker brother is nevertheless a very blessed and committed person.
As Paul looks at the various members of the congregation at Rome while they may differ as to their lifestyle choices as determined by their understanding of the Word their spiritual experience is the same:
Both are welcomed by God – the very reason that Christ died and rose again
Both belong to the same Lord and Master
Both will be upheld and made to stand by their Lord
Both do what they do to honour the Lord
Both give thanks to God
Both have lives focused on him – they live and die to the Lord
Both will stand on the same side of the judgment bar of God
Both will have to give an account of themselves there
What a privilege it is to be a Christian! How careful we should be not to overlook all of this and focus our attention on areas of disagreement over "disputable matters"!
What are we to do about church life?
God takes an interest in the quality of our church life and has given instruction as to how we are to conduct ourselves with regards to church matters. If it matters to God, it should matter to us too if we are followers of Jesus Christ.
The instruction that God has given us through the apostle Paul shows us that he has high expectations of us.
Look for example at the first two verses of ch.15:
15:1-2 "We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbour for his good, to build him up."
Paul doesn't say that Christians are merely to put up with each other, to tolerate each other or to be patient with each other – and let's recognise that that would have been quite demanding if he had. But no, Paul has something far more demanding to say.
Christians are not to live to please themselves (even when they are in the right!) but they are consistently to put the interests of others ahead of their own. The strong is not told to restrain himself but to use his strength in the service of others. The strong is not called upon to be patient with the weak but to use his strength in a self-sacrificial manner to help him!
The Christian church is to be marked and characterised by the strong foregoing their rights in order to secure the spiritual advantage of his neighbour and in particular his weaker neighbour.
Paul is not saying that it is wrong for an individual to want to advance in his own walk with the Lord nor is it wrong for him to want to enjoy to the fullest possible extent the benefits of the salvation that have been secured for him by Jesus Christ. What Paul is saying that it is wrong for the Christian to pursue these interests without paying any attention to just how such a pursuit might negatively impact upon someone else.
And yet Paul has not finished. He knows that the ultimate goal of the church is not in becoming some sort of mutual help society. The church can never be properly described, far less defined, without reference to God. The ultimate goal of the church is for the united service of bringing glory to God as Paul writes:
v.6 "that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Paul spreads out a great vision of a harmonious, loving church where the members regularly and systematically consider others and their interests as more important than their own.
It's a wonderful vision but is it realistic? Where does it come from? How on earth is something like this to be attempted?
Well, Paul's vision of the church is consistently founded upon the example of Jesus Christ himself. And that is why should we take Paul's vision of the church seriously.
Rom.15:3 "For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.""
Surely if anyone had the right to please himself it was Jesus who stooped so low in even coming into our world but he didn’t did he? He kept on putting his own immediate interests to one side as he aimed to please God and to serve others. Surely it is sufficient for the disciple to be like his Master!
Rom.15:7 "Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God."
The welcome that Christ extended to me when I became a Christian was a generous one. Yes, he insisted I repent of my sins – I had to face up to reality and stop playing make-believe – but his welcome was so, so warm. Even this insistence that I face reality was, and is, for my good though perhaps uncomfortable at the time. His welcome wasn’t made conditional upon immediate perfection either – how many subsequent failures and slips he has been prepared put up with too.
And this is the way I as a Christian believer am to behave to my fellow believer. Paul tells me that he must be welcomed. This is a lovely warm and strong word. Society at large calls for toleration and acceptance but the Christian is called to do much more than merely tolerate his fellow Christian:
1a) to take as one’s companion 1b) to take or receive into one’s home, with the collateral idea of kindness 1c) to receive into friendship i.e. grant one access to one’s heart
And just why should such a person be welcomed in this way? Because God has already done so! (cf. Rom.14:3)
How am I to relate to a Christian with whom I disagree? With acceptance and with a warm welcome. It is not my task to constantly criticise and judge him, it is not my task to presume I can read the motivation of his heart and despise him for not doing things the way I do. I am not to make it my mission in life to make him change! And I must certainly not encourage him to act against his conscience.
Such a welcome leaves no place for me to look down on him in a patronising way either. If my brother following his conscience sincerely believes his is the best way for him to honour God I dare not despise him for his attitude.
If the strong is tempted to look down on the weak for his overly scrupulous conscience the weak will be tempted to be critical of what he sees as a lack of serious commitment to living the Christian life as he thinks it ought to be lived. Both the strong and the weak need to take care not to cause division by giving way to their respective temptations.
Let us be careful that on matters where the Scriptures are silent we do not impose our own set of rules and regulations that effectively set the bar of Christian discipleship higher than our Lord does! And let us recognise that there is a very real and precious thing which is called Christian liberty!
In the past there have been so many rules and restrictions that serious-minded Christians have added to the requirements of the gospel: matters indifferent would include: alcohol, cards, cinema or theatre-going, the wearing or not wearing of make-up, the wearing of Sunday best. Etc. etc.
Paul constructs a series of carefully reasoned arguments using again and again that little word "for" as he explains the kind of behaviour the Christian to adopt.
We have mentioned them before but let us close by revisiting them briefly:
God welcomes – who are we to refuse to do so?
Christ has died and risen in order to be Lord – theirs and ours! He will enable us to stand!
We are family – the other person we're talking about is not just anybody, he's my brother!
God is judge – he will judge both me and the other. My brother and I are in the same position so what right do I have to try to set myself up in judgment over him now?
Let me ask you about your relationship with this local church? Are you a functioning member of this local church seeking to follow Jesus in the ways I've just been describing? I do hope so. May God help us to truly welcome and accept one another and not be those who love to find fault and are constantly criticising and judging others.