How Embracing Others with Differences of Conscience Protects Church Unity
The New Testament prescribes many principles aimed at the need to excel in preserving unity in the church (Eph. 4:1-3). One very important such command involves embracing in love those who differ with us in the so-called “gray areas” of the Christian life.
I first introduced this issue in post #1.
In post #2, I treated the gist of welcoming–Paul’s antidote for unity-destroying judging in the body.
In post #3, I covered the two-fold ground of welcoming: the gospel of God and the judgment of God.
In this final post, I want to conclude with the goal of welcoming–the glory of God.
Remember the climatic verse in Rom. 15:7?
Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you.
This connects back to the benediction Paul inserts in Rom. 15:5-6.
 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,  that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Notice the therefore in v. 7.
In light of Paul’s prayer for them for God’s gift of endurance to live in harmony that they may with one voice glorify–magnify, make to look great–the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore welcome one another.
As one writer put it, the neighbors are watching. A welcoming, receiving, taking to one another, embracing spirit toward especially those who differ with us on some of these thorny issues speaks volumes in credit to the praise and glory of God before a watching world.
Paul does not nearly concern himself as much with who’s right or wrong. That’s not the point. It’s how we treat one another. His preeminent concern is that we guard the peace, unity and harmony of the community.
At the Promise Keepers Pastor’s Conference in the Georgia Dome some years ago, I actually heard Max Lucado share this piece he wrote:
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 on others like us. But as we’ve wandered these decks, we’ve encountered curious converts with curious appearances. Some wear uniforms we’ve never 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. “What do we do?” we’d like to ask the captain. “How can there be harmony on the ship?” We don’t have to go far to find the answer.
On the last night of his life Jesus prayed a prayer that stands as a citadel for all Christians:
I pray for these followers, but I am also praying for all those who will believe in me because of their teaching. Father, I pray that they can be one. As you are in me and I am in you, I pray that they can also be one in us. Then the world will believe that you sent me. (John 17:20)
How precious are these words. Jesus, knowing the end is near, prays one final time for his followers. Striking, isn’t it, that he prayed not for their success, their safety, or their happiness. He prayed for their unity. He prayed that they would love each other. As he prayed for them, he also prayed for “those who will believe because of their teaching.” That means us! In his last prayer Jesus prayed that you and I be one.
Say no to clustering. Say yes to welcoming.