As we’ve seen the last couple weeks, Paul is dealing with a conflict in the Roman church between a group who feel they have to keep the Old Testament law in order to please God—it’s a crutch to prop up their faith—and a group of those who understand that they don’t who are quarreling with the first group. The first group is mostly Jews—not all the Jews in the church, I’m sure, and there were likely a few Gentiles among them, but it’s essentially a Jewish group—and the second is no doubt mostly Gentiles, and so the strife between them has been causing and inflaming division more generally between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome. That’s a lot of why Paul wrote this letter.
In our passage this morning, Paul lays out the bottom line for everything he’s said in chapter 14: we aren’t in this to please ourselves, we aren’t in this to get what we want, and we have to understand that when we get into a conflict in the church. Yes, the strong are absolutely correct that they are free in Christ to eat non-kosher meat and ignore the Jewish feast days and festivals—but if they are doing so in a way that hurts others in the church, that’s a sin. If they’re living to please themselves and not taking thought to what is best for the weaker members of the church, that’s an abuse of their freedom in Christ. Christ hasn’t set us free to be selfish, he’s set us free from being selfish.
This does not mean, though, that we need to give others in the church whatever they want. Look at verse 2: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, that is, to build him up.” The problem with the “strong” in Rome is not that they were making the “weak” believers angry: their behavior was actually making the weak even weaker, tearing down their faith and making it harder for them to follow Christ. The point isn’t to keep everyone happy, but to build each other up in faith and help one another grow in spiritual maturity. Sometimes that means making someone unhappy, challenging them about an issue in their lives and telling them things they don’t want to hear. The key—note Paul’s use of the word “neighbor,” echoing Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves—is that everything we do should be done out of love, in a spirit of grace.
We should stop a moment to emphasize that this passage is about our responsibility to others in Christ, not about our expectations from others. I think I’ve noted before that we like to read the commands in the Bible as addressed to other people, and then try to use the Bible to make them do what we want; but you know, I can’t think of a single passage of Scripture that was written for that purpose. Like all the rest of this book, this was written for us to apply to ourselves, to learn what God wants us to do; what others are supposed to do for us is not for us to worry about. It’s between them and God.
In verse 5, Paul ties this back to what he said in chapter 12 and chapter 8. 8:5: “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” In 12:3 he uses this word to describe the mindset, the perspective, we’re supposed to have about ourselves and our lives; in 12:16 he says the same thing he says here: “think the same thing toward one another.” Not “have the same opinions,” not “agree on all the issues”; he’s just spent a chapter and more telling the quarreling factions to respect each other’s views, after all. He’s on about something deeper.
The point here is the same one he makes to a squabbling church in Philippians 2: “Let this mind be in you, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who didn’t insist on his rights and cling to his prerogatives, but opened his hands and let them all go to serve us, humbling himself in obedience, even to the point of death on a cross.” It’s a completely different basis for unity than anything the world knows. We unify around points of agreement—if you like hymns, you go to this church; if you like electric guitars, you go to that one. If you have this political view, you go here; if you have that political view, you go there. If you hold this set of opinions, you vote for the elephant; if you hold that set, you vote for the donkey. And in so doing, we divide ourselves into all these little groups, and we define ourselves against everyone who thinks different from us.
In Christ, we’re supposed to go deeper than that; our unity isn’t supposed to stop where our uniformity stops. If you’re unified with those who agree with you on everything you care about, who cares? Even the world does that. If we’re in Christ, if we love him and are truly seeking to follow him and to be obedient to his call in our lives, that’s what matters. We aren’t all going to agree on what that means for what we’re called to do and think; and indeed, we shouldn’t. Remember Paul’s body imagery—if we were all the same, there would be a lot of necessary parts missing.
We ought to be able to come together in all our differences and disagreements—rockers and classical musicians, hymn-singers and hip-hoppers, Baptists and Presbyterians, and, yes, even liberals and conservatives—and worship together as friends, as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, we disagree on many things, but we ought to recognize that we share one salvation in one Lord through one faith by one grace, and none of us has any claim to stand above anyone else. The more we appreciate our own desperate need for grace—and even the best of us stands in desperate need, make no mistake—the less we will be inclined to look down on others for their need; and the more we see one another as the beloved of Christ, for whom he died and rose again, the less free we will feel to beat one another up to get our own way. Which is a good thing, because Jesus does not take it kindly when we hurt someone he loves.
This doesn’t mean soft-pedaling our disagreements, pretending they don’t matter or don’t exist. We should take each other seriously enough, and trust one another enough, to be open and honest when we disagree, or when we have a problem with someone in the church, when they’ve hurt us, or even when we just don’t like them. Talking to other people instead of confronting those with whom we have an issue is just as unloving as attacking people and tearing them down. But even in our disagreements and our hurts, Paul calls us to receive one another—not merely tolerate one another, but receive one another, as Christ received us; not just as people we have to put up with until we can get rid of them, but as family, as people we love. He tells us to stand as Christ to one another, not just when it’s easy, but seeking to serve and bless one another even when our disagreements are severe—because that’s when we need it most. Let’s pray.