How Embracing Others with Differences of Conscience Protects Church Unity

In my last post, I introduced this subject of dealing redemptively with so-called gray areas in the church.

Business handshake and business people

In this post I want to continue the discussion by unpacking the gist of the gospel grace of welcoming that helps preserve unity in this challenging area of church life.

The gist of welcoming is an ongoing determination to embrace others in spite of differences over morally neutral matters. Paul speaks in Romans of two different categories of believers.

In 14:1 he refers to those weak in faith. In Rom. 15:1 he talks of we who are strong. Notice he counts himself among the strong by using the 1st person plural we.  What does he mean?

He gets very concrete in 14:2 – One person believes he may eat anything (the strong), while the weak person eats only vegetables. Over the issue of food, these believers fought, probably not from a nutritional perspective but from a religious one.

The vegetarians probably worried that eating meat might make them guilty of idolatry, if that meat came from offerings to idols (see 1 Cor. 8 for similar concerns in that fellowship).

The meat eaters lost no sleep over that so-called problem at all.

In verses 5ff Paul introduces another area of controversy plaguing the church – One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.

In both matters of eating and day keeping, he categorizes the opposing positions in terms of strong and weak. By strong, including himself, he means the spiritually mature, fully able to enjoy their Christian liberty, completely emancipated from un-Christian inhibitions and taboos.

By weak, he means the spiritually immature, not yet fully liberated by the gospel and its call to freedom (Gal. 5:13), but rather constrained in their conscience not to do certain things for fear of displeasing God.

Jim Boice used this example of strong vs. weak:

Charles Spurgeon was the greatest preacher of his age, but he was frequently criticized for being funny. When one woman objected to the humor he inserted into his sermons Spurgeon told her, “Madam, you would think a great deal better of me if you knew the funny things I kept out.” A young man asked what he should do about a box of cigars he had been given. Spurgeon solved his problem. “Give them to me,” he said, “and I will smoke them to the glory of God.” On another occasion Spurgeon was criticized for traveling to meetings in a first class railway carriage. His antagonist said, “Mr. Spurgeon, what are you doing up here? I am riding back there in the third class carriage taking care of the Lord’s money.” Spurgeon replied, “And I am up here in the first class carriage taking care of the Lord’s servant.”

Both sides, strong and weak, judged one another. Consider Rom. 14:3. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats.

The Greek word for despise is a strong word. It means to consider as nothing, to treat with contempt. The strong who ate judged the weak who didn’t as legalists; the weak who abstained judged the strong who didn’t as libertines.

That built walls between them in the community. That created chasms in their fellowship. And to that Paul strongly objected giving this command: welcome one another.

The word is proslambano – literally, take to oneself. It means accept or receive. I like the word embrace. Perhaps one of the best concrete biblical examples we have of the spirit behind the word comes from Acts 28:2 – The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold.

To welcome is to draw someone into your fellowship and companionship, to treat them gently and kindly, irrespective of their views on morally neutral issues – and not, by the way, for the purpose of disputing about those things according to v. 1 – welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.

Forget that! Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (Rom. 14:5). Mine is not to change my brother’s mind; mine is to embrace my brother, strong or weak, eating or not, drinking or not, smoking or not, movie and theater going or not, and a host of other doubtful things, principles of conscience, for which the Scripture colors no black and white.

So the gist of welcoming as a grace of gospel-shaped community is an ongoing determination to embrace others in spite of differences over morally neutral matters.


By the Grace of God I Am What I Am

One of the great liberating texts of Scripture in my life comes from 1 Corinthians 15:10.

By the grace of God I am what I am.

In spite of Paul’s horrific resume as a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent (1 Tim. 1:13), he counted himself among those who witnessed the resurrected Christ first-hand and became the hardest working apostle of all. And he attributed it all to grace and nothing but grace.

John Bunyan, author of the classic Pilgrim’s Progress, offered this response on an occasion of hearing this verse of divine writ:

I am not what I ought to be. Ah, how imperfect and deficient!

I am not what I wish to be. I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good!

I am not what I hope to be. Soon, soon shall I put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection.

Yet, though I am not what I ought to be,
nor what I wish to be,
nor what I hope to be,
I can truly say, I am not what I once was;
a slave to sin and Satan;
and I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge,
‘By the grace of God I am what I am.’

Though none of us is what we ought, wish, or hope to be, and won’t be until we reach glory, truth is we aren’t what we once were.

May we heartily join with the apostle and declare, By the grace of God I am what I am.

Nothing for Which Jesus Cares So Much (Part 3)

Today’s message from John 14:15-24 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

Here’s how I brought the message home:

If you believe you do possess this priceless gift, then understand that the acid test of ownership comes with “owning” His commandments and keeping/obeying His words. Jesus put it this way in an exchange with the crowd on the Via Dolorosa in Luke 11:27-28 –

As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”

Are you hearing the word of God and keeping it? Where must you repent today? Understand this. If you are blatantly and wantonly disregarding some command of Jesus that you know He requires of your in your ethics of life, you have no reason to be assured of a saving knowledge of Him. What idolatry or disobedience must you bring to the cross for pardon and plead to Jesus for gospel power based on your true identity as a beloved son or daughter of God. Don’t delay. Do business with God now. That is evidence of true saving faith for sure, no matter how many times you must do so.

For more information about human trafficking click here.

For more information on the movie Amazing Grace about William Wilberforce click here.

For more information on John Piper’s book The Roots of Endurance click here.