Many people make the mistake of romanticizing past ages in the history of the Church. They think that Christianity of yesteryear was pristine and seamless, fluid and unchunked with the sediment that causes the church to sometimes gasp for fresh spiritual air today. Because of this poorly constructed thinking, many people have abandoned the concept of belonging to a church, and have taken the presumed high road of only needing to belong to the Church, as they walk away from local assemblies. Just this week, in a conversation with a believer who was about thirty years old, I heard him declare with no hesitation that it was not the will of God for him to ever be connected to a group of Christians anywhere. While I could not disagree more with his bold separation from the local body of believers, maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on people who think this way because, after all, saints should act like saints and not like sinners, right? Except that saints are sinners and will act accordingly until they are graced to sin no more, as they enter the fullness of their inheritance in Heaven. Our position through the grace of God through Jesus Christ is that of perfected saints of God – hallelujah! While rejoicing in our position we also need to remain honest enough to admit that our practice is still occasionally that of a sinner. We live in this tension until the final and fullest deliverance finds us.
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” – Romans 14:17
Even in the first century Church there existed frequent (and often sizable) conflicts among the followers of Christ. Paul’s writings leave us with undeniable evidence that there was not a single season among the corporate body of believers to whom he ministered when differences of perspective were not a frustrating issue. He regularly wrote to correct attitudes and behaviors among Christians that were inconsistent with their standing in the Lord. Peter and James and John also wrote towards this end – exposing, rebuking, pleading, correcting and counseling toward unity, as Christians strove to worship, to serve and to get along with each other. Hypocrisy was admitted as a reality and dealt with head on, but never was there any indication that believers were allowed to abandon one another when some imaginary line was crossed. As a matter of fact, Christians are commanded not to forsake gathering with one another (Heb. 10:25). Those who did were suspected as never having been a part of the true spiritual family in the first place (1 John 2:19). I love the simplicity of Romans 14:17 above – that entire 14th chapter is written to Christians who were struggling to joyfully, peacefully coexist with each other. Paul didn’t tell them to splinter off and form 2-4 brand new groups that could more easily live among one another. He never told one sect to just take their ball and go home, presuming that their getting along would just prove to be too difficult to achieve. The Apostle told the dueling parties what the truth was, and then he placed emphasis on each group dying to their own selfishness so that they could better serve the other. Their particular conflict revolved around what they should eat and drink (sounds silly, doesn’t it?), and Paul bluntly told them that these peripheral issues were not at all crucial to the Kingdom of God. He focused on each individual heart and queried, “What about your righteousness? How are you diligently working toward peace with your brothers and sisters? You promote yourself as the more spiritual… but what has happened to your peace and your joy?”
I hear crickets out there.
Yes, Christians are seemingly skilled at regularly making decisive moves to place walls between us and other flawed people. We have PhD’s in ecclesiastical division. We celebrate our prowess at articulating why we have a right to no longer gather with such flawed people down there at the old church-house. We seem to work extra hard at playing a solo trumpet in a concert of celebration of our beliefs, our traditions, our personal preferences and, in the end, ourselves. When we put our horns back in our cases and feel like we have gotten our point across again, we notice that the audience of One did not applaud. He did not get anything out of our performance. The Lord Jesus looks at us with an expression similar to the one He showed Peter on the night of His betrayal. In that one look from the King we are made aware that He did all that He did in life, death, resurrection and ascension so that we would live in oneness with those who share our eternal destiny. King Jesus teaches multiplication. Satan handles all the division. The look on the face of God’s Son does not signify any less love for us but, rather, disapproval that we so easily wander from His clear intention and command to strive to remain unified in His atoning work on our behalf. Were King Jesus not omniscient, He would likely wonder in perplexity how we so often get it so very wrong about one another, and give ourselves permission to separate from what He died to bring together.
There is a group of flawed believers out there that needs you. I have said before that it has been far too long that you have convinced yourself that you don’t need them. Even if that were true (which it absolutely is not), it would be an incredibly selfish statement – “I don’t need them!”
Did they hurt you? That happens in relationships from time to time.
Do they believe differently than you do on certain aspects of Christianity? They are allowed to do so – so are you.
Yet do they agree with you about the One who made both you and them to belong to Him? Please consider that you must work hard at living in unity with them, even when you both know that you will not be living in uniformity with each other.
My exhortation to you today is to stop focusing on all their flaws, and genuinely commit to love them in the midst of their ongoing imperfections. They are willing to put up with your blindspots – why not return the courtesy? What is the reason why I speak so adamantly about this? Because you have received from Jesus Christ this exact same type of commitment to you. He sees all your flaws that you are aware of, and numerous others about yourself to which you are blind. We might think that He would be repulsed and separate Himself from us because of the things lacking in us. But He doesn’t ever do that. He pursues us. He leads us. He helps us. He draws near to us repeatedly. He selflessly loves us. I’m only asking us to be willing to do for others what He is doing eternally for us: extending constant grace to a people who don’t measure up. Time is short. If you find yourself consistently finding fault, moving away from those who are flawed, retreating in ecclesiastical separation at the slightest scent of variance in preferences…then I offer you the possibility that you are the one who most needs what I’ve jotted down here today. And, infinitely more importantly, you might need what God has preserved in Romans chapter 14 about what He expects His kids to consider when they do life together in the Kingdom.
Now come with me, and let’s learn together what this means.
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