Love in the Church when People Are Different.
The Situation in the Romans Church.
In very simplistic terms, there were two main groups in the first century church in Rome: those from a Jewish background, and those from a Gentile background.
While both the Jewish background and Gentile background believers agreed that justification was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, they disagreed about how to live the Christian life. The Jewish background believers were committed to observing special diets and days prescribed by the Old Covenant laws, but the Gentile background believers considered themselves liberated from such ceremonial laws.
The result was a division in the church. The apostle called the Jewish background believers "weak' in faith because they had not applied the full implications of Christ's finished work to their lives. On the other hand, he cautioned the so called strong faith Gentiles against despising their brothers and sisters in Christ
The Strategic Principle for all Churches.
Paul dealt with the conflict by proposing a universal principle, which can be applied by all churches in all places in all times. The principle is this: INCLUSION NOT EXCLUSION.
This principle is stated in verse one and illustrated and applied in the rest of the chapter and into chapter 15. The key word is "welcome." It means to accept or to embrace. The point is that churches should welcome believers of all backgrounds into the fellowship of the church. In the same way individual believers should welcome brothers and sisters who are "different" into their friendship circles. The Lord designed the church to be diverse, inclusive of believers of every conceivable variety.
The principle is stated in theological terms in Ephesians 2:
“He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us’. - Ephesians 2:14b
Christ and his cross dismantled the barriers of ethnicity and religious background. The result is a church for everyone; everyone who is in Christ by faith.
There are ways to put the barriers back up and these are outlines in verses one and three: being argumentative, being disrespectful, and being critical. These attitudes should be avoided in order to preserve unity in the church.
The Sample Applications for our Church
What follows are four situations in which the potential for division will be present. In each example, there is a clear application of our principle of inclusion of brothers and sisters in Christ - even when they are "different."
When believers with a DIFFERENT social or economic status come to church:
James 2:1-4 1 “My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?” (NLT)
When new believers with a DIFFERENT past come to our church:
Acts 9:26-27: “When Saul arrived in Jerusalem, he tried to meet with the believers, but they were all afraid of him. They did not believe he had truly become a believer! Then Barnabas brought him to the apostles and told them how Saul had seen the Lord on the way to Damascus and how the Lord had spoken to Saul. He also told them that Saul had preached boldly in the name of Jesus in Damascus.”
When believers of DIFFERENT ethnicities or cultures come to our church.
When Greeks, Italians and Turks, etc - the nations started coming to faith, the Jews had a meeting in Jerusalem: Acts 15:19 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should NOT make it DIFFICULT for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
When believers with DIFFERENT gifts or callings come to our church:
James, Peter, and John, who were known as pillars of the church, recognized the gift God had given me, and they accepted Barnabas and me as their co-workers (literally, gave us the right hand of fellowship - ESV). They encouraged us to keep preaching to the Gentiles, while they continued their work with the Jews. - Galatians 2:9 (NLT)
In an explanatory note on the idea of partnership in the church's mission, pastor John MacArthur wrote: “The right hand of fellowship (partnership in Christ and his mission) is a public affirmation of our unity in Christ, our care for each other, and our shared desire to grow together in the love and knowledge of God’s Word.”
“That’s why the modern trend of believers floating freely between congregations and never firmly planting in one place is a foreign concept to Scripture. What we have today is a model built on a consumer mentality—people go to church wherever their felt needs are addressed, and unplug and move on when those needs change or are better met somewhere else. That pattern is completely contrary to the one we find in God’s Word.” (in a blog post at: www.gty.org/blog/B130117/membership-is-fellowship
A Concluding Word
The unity of the church is not the only, nor is it the most important thing at stake in the principle of inclusion. The glory of God is at stake. The point is clearly made in Romans 15:
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. 7 Therefore "welcome" one another as Christ has "welcomed" you, for the glory of God. - Romans 15:5-7
The bottom line is this: if you're in Christ, you're welcome in my fellowship. Our visible unity brings glory to God.
A Note on the Necessity to Separate in some Circumstances
Although the default approach is inclusion, there are good reasons to separate from some who call themselves brother believers. Briefly, we should separate from those who promote doctrines contrary to the Gospel (Galatians 1:9; 1 Corinthians 11:18-19), and from those are in an unrepentant, ungodly lifestyle (Matthew 18:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11).