Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?
by Jack Wald | January 23rd, 2011

Romans 14:1-15:7

Picture Paul writing his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. He poured his head and heart into the first eight chapters, writing down the theology of the church. Then he paused and asked himself, “What about my fellow Jews?” Many Gentiles were coming to faith in Jesus but fewer and fewer Jews so Paul expressed his concern for these lost ones. In chapters 12 and 13 he settled into making practical applications of all he had written. Then I imagine Paul stopped dictating and reviewed all he had written and I would imagine he was impressed. This was a good letter. I imagine he recognized the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in what he had written. But then I imagine he began thinking about the churches he had planted and thinking about the community of believers in Rome. He had received reports and so knew a bit of what was going on there. As he thought about all these communities he came up with example after example of tensions in the churches. Despite all Christ had done and despite all of Paul’s preaching and teaching, believers were still bickering. They should be united but they were not and so he came to chapter 14 and for all of that chapter and the first part of chapter 15 Paul asks, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

1,936 years later Rodney King asked the same question. Rodney King was pulled over by the Los Angeles police and beaten. A bystander took a video of this beating and the police were put on trial. At the end of the trial when the police were acquitted, rioting broke out. By the time the police, the U.S. Army, the Marines and the National Guard restored order, the casualties included 53 deaths, 2,383 injuries, more than 7,000 fires, damages to 3,100 businesses, and nearly $1 billion in financial losses. Smaller riots occurred in other cities such as Las Vegas in neighboring Nevada and as far east as Atlanta, Georgia. On May 1, 1992, the third day of the L.A. riots, King appeared in public before television news cameras to appeal for peace, asking:
“People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids?…It’s just not right. It’s not right. It’s not, it’s not going to change anything.”

So what do you think? Can we all get along?

The leaders of this world are not very good at getting along and they never have been. There has not been a year in the past two thousand years when there was not at least one war somewhere on the planet. People and families are not very good at getting along and they never have been. Divorces, infidelity, abuse, have been all to common. There are not many families in this church who can say that everyone in their family gets along together. Most of us have siblings and cousins and sometimes parents or children who are estranged from one another.

And church communities have never been very good at getting along together and they never will, at least not until Jesus comes back and calls an end to time.

We have had our own experience with the church not being able to get along this past year. Churches split. Churches refuse to associate with each other. Churches deny that those who differ with them are really Christians.

This is not a modern phenomenon. Paul had the same issues as he planted churches. He preached and taught with passion and intelligence. He discipled new leaders and then to his dismay these new churches developed factions pitting one against the other. This is where I think Paul’s thoughts went as he finished writing Romans 13. So how did Paul address this frustrating disunity as he wrote the end of his letter?

If you were here last week you heard me preach from the end of Romans 13 and Paul saying that we are to love one another because we carry a debt of love. This is, I think, why Paul spent so much time talking about the need of followers of Jesus to get along. When Paul, then called Saul, set out to Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus, he met Jesus in a powerful vision who asked him, (Acts 9:4–6)
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” 5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

The power of that experience and Paul’s awareness of how much he had been forgiven, set the course for Paul’s life. When he saw followers of Jesus fighting among themselves, it cut him to the heart. How could people who have been forgiven so much be so unforgiving and intolerant with each other?

So as he concluded his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome, he poured out his heart, urging them to get along with each other.

What were the concerns that were separating the followers of Jesus in Rome? From what Paul wrote, it seems that he was trying to bring unity between the Jewish followers of Jesus and the Gentile followers of Jesus.

Remember that the two major emphases of the Jewish law concerned dietary restrictions and Sabbath restrictions. And now listen to Paul’s opening comments about the differences that needed to be dealt with.
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 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, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.

Do you see these two areas of concern? Don’t quarrel over what to eat and don’t quarrel over what days people think are especially important.

We live for Christ, Paul reminds us, and when we die every knee will bow in worship of Christ. So why do we make such a big deal about these petty differences that separate us?

Let me share three lessons about unity among believers that come out of this passage.

The first lesson is that we are to focus on Christ, on the core of what we believe. This raises the question: What is the core? Let me read a few Scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 15:1–4 Paul summed up the gospel he preached.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, … 3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,

In Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi he quoted an early hymn of the church that was sung in worship services. (Philippians 2:5–11)
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

These are early summaries of the core of our Christian faith. What do we believe?

God created the world and he created us. God desires to be in an intimate relationship with him but in giving us freedom to choose, we chose to serve first and foremost ourselves. Our sinful nature put us at a distance from God and so God sent his Son to become human. Jesus lived among us. Jesus was the tangible expression of who God is. Jesus had three years of public ministry and then willingly went to the cross to die in our place. On the third day he broke the bonds of death and rose to new life. After appearing to the disciples and teaching them, he ascended to heaven promising two things. He promised he would send the Holy Spirit and he promised he would return at the end of time. We are saved when we put our faith and trust in Christ and we are continually being saved as we cooperate with the Holy Spirit who is at work in us to make us holy.

This is the core of our faith, expressed in just 168 words and yet those words are packed with the enormity of all that God has done for us and that puts us in the position of a debtor. We carry a debt of love and because of this we are to love one another.

Most Christians would agree we need to focus on the core of Christian faith, the problem is that we all sneak into the core our own favorite doctrines – which leads to the second lesson: Do not be distracted by issues outside the core.

Paul identified two peripheral issues in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome. The followers of Jesus from a Jewish background who still held to their Jewish understanding put an emphasis on dietary restrictions and on respecting the Sabbath. This meant they did not eat pork or shellfish. They did not work on the Sabbath. It is not clear how rigid they were about these laws but they had an emphasis on obedience to them. Gentile followers of Jesus did not have this background and felt no obligation to refrain from eating pork or shellfish or anything else. They felt no obligation to treat the Sabbath as rigidly as did the Jewish followers of Jesus.

Paul’s point is that these issues lie outside the core of Christian faith, so why make such a big deal out of them?

Some modern day peripheral issues are clear to most of us. Should we use wine during communion or grape juice? Should we sing hymns or choruses during our worship services? Do we have communion every Sunday or once a month or some other frequency? Do we recite the Lord’s Prayer and Apostles Creed regularly or rarely? We have our preferences but we are not going to split the church because of these preferences. Given all that God has done for us through Jesus and is doing for us through the Holy Spirit, how can we separate from each other on such trivial matters?

But when we are brought up in a tradition, we do not think the things we believe lie outside the core of Christian faith. Pentecostal theology says we all need to be baptized in the Holy Spirit which is evidenced by speaking in tongues. Evangelicals might say this is not a core issue but Pentecostals would insist on it being in the core. Some Christians insist that the only valid form of baptism is baptism by immersion as adults (although the age of adulthood seems to get very young sometimes). Other Christians baptize infants as the standard form of baptism. Some Christians believe the universe was created just a few thousand years ago and others believe God created through an evolutionary process. Some Christians believe it is sinful to drink alcohol and others feel completely free to have an alcoholic drink. Some Christians observe Saturday as the Sabbath, following the Jewish tradition. Others think the Sabbath can be any day – it is the principle of a Sabbath day that is important.

I could go on and on with an ever expanding list of denominational distinctives. So again, the problem is that while we agree that other denominational distinctives are outside the core of Christian faith, we are confident our particular denominational distinctive is well within the core of Christian faith.

It gets rather complicated. We need to be careful what goes into the core of our faith and at the same time be ready to defend those who attack the core of our faith. There was a group in Morocco who called themselves “Jesus only Christians”. They baptized only in the name of Jesus, not in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We recognize that as being not only outside the core of Christian faith but heretical to Christian faith. So we need to defend the core and resist those who attack the truths at the core of our faith.

This puts us in a difficult position. We need to defend the core of our faith but at the same time be flexible with the peripheral issues. So how do we identify which is which?

Let me suggest three ways you can tell the difference. The first is a question of identity. When someone asks you what faith you follow, what do you say? Are you a Pentecostal Christian? Are you Baptist? Are you Presbyterian or Methodist or Quaker? If you identify yourself as any of these, then I would suggest you have moved away from the core of Christian faith.

I know many Presbyterians in my denomination that think of themselves first and foremost as Presbyterians. They are organizational men and women who serve the organization. The denomination is their identity and they are Presbyterians first and Christians second.

But we do not follow our denominations, we are followers of Jesus. If we have accepted God’s gift of salvation we have become God’s daughters and sons and we now follow his Son. In our following we have different influences and our faith reflects those influences. But when the church we were brought up in defines who we are, we have moved away from the core of Christian faith. We have added to the core of our faith our denominational differences and God wants us to be unified around a common core.

A second way of telling if you have brought external issues into the core of Christian faith is by seeing if you have allowed yourself to turn your preferences into a cause. What are the hot buttons in your Christian faith? Creationism vs evolution? Ordination of women? Infant baptism vs believer’s baptism? When you find yourself getting overly energized by these kind of issues, you are turning your own preference into a cause and chances are you are pulling into the core of Christian faith what does not belong there.

You may react against some of the examples I just used, certain that one or another of these is certainly a core issue. And if you did, then this leads into the third way of telling if you have brought external issues into the core of Christian faith.

Ask yourself how the wider body of Christ views that issue. If you prefer you can narrow down the body of Christ to the Evangelical/Pentecostal part of the Body of Christ when you ask this question. When some Christians insist on water baptism by believers and others practice infant baptism, it indicates this is a peripheral issue. The church is split about the issue of women’s ordination and about creationism vs intelligent design vs evolution. Strong Christians take opposing sides in these issues which indicates that they are peripheral issues and should not affect our unity as believers. Christians who have a strong, personal, living relationship with Christ can disagree and still find unity in worship of Jesus.

So the first lesson is that we need to put our focus on Christ and not be distracted by peripheral issues. The second lesson about unity among believers in this passage is that we are to be sensitive to the weaker brother.

Paul begins the discussion by writing:
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 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, for God has welcomed him.

And then he continues in verse 10
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.”
12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.

For the greater good, which is worship of Christ in unity, don’t put obstacles in the way of a weaker brother. If you have someone over for dinner and you know they don’t think Christians should eat meat, to use the example Paul used, have a vegetarian meal. Why let this difference stand in the way of unity? If someone thinks speaking in tongues is wrong, pray silently. If someone thinks it is unchristian to drink alcohol, don’t order a beer when you go out to a restaurant. Why seek to offend someone you will kneel beside when you come to heaven?

When you insist on your freedom to do any of these things, you are making your preference a cause and it is defining who you are as a Christian. When you find yourself irritated by the restrictions your weaker brother places on you, you are failing to love others as Jesus wants you to love. You carry a debt of love, never forget that. This is what drives all of our behavior to love one another. We sacrifice to love each other because Jesus sacrificed so much for us.

The third lesson about unity among believers is that we should work to be the stronger brother. We may begin as the weaker brother, offended by the behavior of other Christians who act in a way we thought was inappropriate. But we are not supposed to stay there. We are supposed to mature in our faith and reach the point where we can overlook these peripheral differences and celebrate together the core of our faith, all that God has done for us.

But sometimes Christians use this passage that we should not offend our weaker brother as a tool to bend others to their own preference. If I think it is wrong for Christians to drink alcohol and then tell others not to drink because it will offend me, I am declaring myself to be the weaker brother. Am I really the weaker brother or am I just using this argument as a tool to manipulate others, to coerce others to behave as I behave?

The goal for me, as a mature Christian, as the stronger brother, is to seek unity in the body of Christ by accommodating to others, not forcing others to accommodate to me. I need to bend my preferences in order not to offend others, not coerce them to bend their preferences to match mine. We need to work to be the stronger brother and then, Paul wrote as he continued the discussion in chapter 15:
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”

We follow the example of Christ who did not please himself but sacrificed himself for others. Our goal is not to insist on our preferences and manipulate others to fall in line with our preferences, our goal is to build up our neighbor. All our efforts to build a business or a career are going to fall away but our efforts to build up our neighbor will have eternal significance. This is work well worth the effort.

As an international, multi-denominational church, we have a huge advantage. We bump into lots of different views about how the church should look, how it should function. We come from churches where most people have a similar view of Christian faith. Our churches are not multi-denominational. Most are not multi-national, certainly not to the extent our church is multi-national. We slide along with the style of worship, the view of sacraments, the view of spiritual gifts of our church denomination. Certainly we have differences and we argue among ourselves, but our assumptions about how the church operates go largely unchallenged.

But then we come to RIC and meet people who act so differently. One friend came from a Pentecostal denomination and on his first Sunday when he observed a bulletin with a printed order of service, he said to himself, “Well, so much for the Holy Spirit. How can the Spirit work when everything is already programed?” Over time he discovered how the Holy Spirit worked through the order of service we planned the week before the service.

Christians from a dispensational background who believe that the gifts of the Spirit like tongues and healing ceased with the apostles. But then they befriend Christians from a charismatic or Pentecostal background and discover that these gifts have not ceased. As we come together our theologies collide and we arrive at the core of our faith far more easily than in the homogenous churches we came from. We come together in unity, despite our differences and that is a pleasure for us and, I believe, a pleasure to God.

When you see something in our church that is different than what you have been used to, don’t be afraid to talk about it. Talk to someone who has a different denominational perspective than you do. Challenge them about their assumptions and allow them to challenge you about your assumptions. Move together to the core of our faith and find the unity that we are meant to have. You can help people who are new to our church. When people first come they compare what they see to what they have experienced in the past and they may be disturbed. Help them to see the benefit of being flexible with peripheral issues and celebrating together the core of our faith.

5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Swift to love

Life is short,
and we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who
make the journey with us.
So be swift to love,
and make haste to be kind.
And the blessing of God,
who made us,
who loves us,
and who travels with us
be with you now and forever.
Amen.

(based on the words of Henri Frederic Amiel)