After World War II the United Nations was brought into existence to promote world peace. But since its inception in 1945, there has not been a single day of global peace on the earth. The goal to have a world where men and women get along has proven to be quite elusive.
The Bible opens with peace in the Garden of Eden and ends with peace in Heaven. But in between that beautiful beginning and blissful ending the scriptural record tells the story of God’s people “biting and devouring” one another. Since its earliest days, the Church has been plagued with disunity. Paul’s letters reveal that almost every local church mentioned in the NT had divisions. The Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, and Philippians all had issues that created serious tensions among them. Both Ephesus and Colossae had to be reminded of the importance of unity.
As the gospel spread its way across the known world, converts from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds filled the church. The Jewish converts came from a religion that had branded their lives with rules and regulations controlling their diet, their days, their dress — their whole way of experiencing and expressing their faith. It was almost impossible for them to break free from traditions that had been so deeply ingrained in them, yet these traditions were, in reality, nonessential to their new faith. The Gentile believers were converted from paganism and eagerly accepted a simple gospel with no such encumbrances. When the Jewish converts brought their traditions and scruples into the church as requirements for all believers, the Gentile converts would have none of it. Disagreement and disunity soon followed.
Paul dealt with this problem in 1 Cor. 8-10 as well as in Romans 14 and 15. He divided the opposing sides into groups referring to one as the strong and the other as the weak. These designations had to do with their level of understanding of the Biblical knowledge of Christian liberty and grace. The strong tended to despise the weak for their over conscientiousness and the weak tended to judge and condemn the strong for their liberty. Paul knew that it would take time to erase the differences so he laid down some very important principles to teach believers how to disagree on nonessentials and still maintain unity in the church.
Today’s church is not dealing with these identical issues but we are always faced with certain “gray areas.” Some things are wrong because the Bible condemns them. Some things are right because the Bible commands them. But there are numerous “gray areas” that are not right or wrong for every person. It is generally in these areas that believers become divided. One has to exercise one’s own conscience in such cases and not every conscience is enlightened by Biblical knowledge. So how do we handle the disagreement that follows? We need to follow the same principles that Paul gave these early converts.
Keep the welcome mat out!
Paul opens and closes with the strong imperative, “receive one another.” Never cut your brother off! Never erect barriers between the two of you! Keep reaching out in love and acceptance! You don’t have to see eye to eye on everything to exercise love and acceptance. Disunity can begin with the subtle decision to just stop saying hello or shaking hands. Don’t go there – keep the welcome mat out!
Be patient — a man’s heart cannot rejoice in what his head rejects.
You must understand that just because something is clear to you doesn’t mean that it is clear to your brother. Nor should you expect your brother to act upon something he cannot understand. In 1 Cor. 8:4-7 Paul says that we know that an idol is nothing and eating the meat offered to it is nothing, but not everyone has this knowledge. Paul understood that every man has to be “fully convinced in his own mind” before he can move beyond certain practices that he has viewed as wrong even if in reality they are not. For that man to act against his present knowledge is to offend his conscience and to commit sin (Rom. 14:23). Paul did not expect the weaker brother to remain weak forever, but he did expect the stronger brother to be patient and let the weaker brother’s mind expand in understanding so that his heart can rejoice in a clear conscience.
Exercise love — it will help you see the big picture.
Love weights the issues in the light of eternity. It understands that the Kingdom of God is “not meat and drink.” It is willing to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to help someone else along. Paul devotes 1 Corinthians 9 totally to explaining this principle. He says, “To the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some.” Paul chooses to deny himself many of life’s externals because he knew that it was the eternals that really mattered. This can only be done as you live life through the power of Calvary love.
Remember it’s not about you.
Authentic Christianity is others-oriented. It motivates one to seek another’s well being as much as one would seek his own. The Christian should not guide his conduct by merely what he is free to do, but by what will edify and build up one another. “Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well being” (1 Cor. 9:24).
Disunity and disagreement do not glorify God; they rob Him of glory. Abraham’s words to Lot are applicable today: “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee . . . for we be brethren” (Gen. 13:8).