Unity, Restoration and Romans 14
KFC used to say that they were the best because they did just one thing. If you concentrate on just one thing, then you can do that better than anyone else. So their slogan was, “We do chicken right.” But from the very beginning of our movement, we’ve tried to do TWO things.
Unity: The Restoration Movement began as a unity movement. The desire was to unite Christians of all denominations in one body that could work and worship together. Denominational divisions made that unity difficult, we needed to leave behind those loyalties and see unity as “our polar star.” (Barton W. Stone)
- Restoration: We saw the restoration of simple, congregational, non-denominational Christianity as the key to unity. If creeds and confessions separated believers, we would set them aside. We would go “Back to the Bible” and just be “Christians Only” who would “Speak where Bible speaks and be silent here it is silent.” The slogans were easy, but focusing on truth while maintaining unity wasn't so much!
It wasn't long before we found those issues as being in competition with one another. The more we found a certain view to be TRUTH, and harder it was to maintain any real UNITY with people who disagreed. So we eventually gave up the quest for the unity of all Christians and focused being right on the forms and formats of the faith. And our tribes divided and multiplied and got smaller.
In our reading today in Romans 14, Paul deals with how to deal with disagreements about how to do faith while maintaining unity. If there is a lesson that the church needs to learn today, it is this lesson of unity despite differences. The issues discussed in the church at Rome seem minor to us-- eating meats and observing special days. But these issues went to the very heart of the differences between Jewish and Roman Christians in a world divided. If we can’t find some more modern issues that fit Paul’s template here, then we just aren’t trying hard enough. Paul says four basic things about dealing with basic differences in the church--
- First, accept others without looking down on them (14:3). We don’t have to agree on all the issues—in fact, we can’t agree. Would Jewish and Roman Christians ever see all food issues exactly alike? Will high-church Presbyterians and happy-clappy Pentecostals ever view worship the same? We will never agree. Ever! But we must respect one another’s faith! Always! We will never really “accept one another” until we can learn to “respect one another.”
- Second, refuse to judge the motives of those who disagree with you (14:6). Even if we disagree on issues, we can share motivation to glorify God. We can fuss and feud about our preferred styles of church music… or we can thank God for our a mutual desire to praise Him! We must get much better job at looking past our issues to our motives. What we tend to do is impugn the motives of those who disagree with us. It’s too easy to dismiss someone with, “You would think that, you Bible-hating liberal!” Paul here assumes that our differences arise from a mutual love of God! We’ll get better at this church thing when we are grateful for the faith of people with whom we disagree on the details.
- Third, give up trying to CONTROL others (Rom 14:22). Why does Paul tell Timothy to stay away from “foolish and stupid arguments?” (2 Tim 2:23). It wasn’t that Timothy didn't enjoy a good tussle ever now-and-again; it was because he enjoyed it too much! That the "evil desires of youth" Paul warns against in 2:22! To constantly argue over issues only serves to drive wedges between us. There is a time to patiently study difficult issues and share our findings with others. We need to be better at that! There’s also time to treasure our beliefs and our liberty and keep them both to ourselves! Paul defends our right to private beliefs, but he wants them to stay that way!
- Fourth, we love each other MORE than we love getting our way! (14:15). The point of church is to help us get to heaven—not to make it harder! Paul says that his freedom to eat meat means that he is also free NOT to eat meat. Does that mean that UNITY more important than TRUTH? Well, maybe not… but it’s more important than me getting my way on what I see to be the truth on an issue that may or may not be all that important in the grand scheme of things. And frankly, those are the issues that have divided our churches.
Here’s the irony— this text is most often used as ammunition during the very church disputes Paul is trying to mitigate. Paul is pleading the church for unity despite there differences in perspective and background, and we tend to use it in an attempt to make the other side give in! One side may say, “Paul says that I’m not judged by your conscience and I have liberty in Christ, so you have to be quiet!” The other side replied, “Paul says that you can’t do anything that causes me to stumble, so you have to quit!”