Summary: A look at the purpose of the church

The Church

September 15, 2013

Every sailor could agree on one fact. Had it not been for the captain, they never would have survived. The storm came suddenly, and in a matter of moments hulls were broken, decks were awash, and sailors were floundering. But as quickly as the storm arose, so came the captain, maneuvering his large vessel between the waves and rescuing one sailor after another. Before they knew it, they were deposited safely on an island, listening to the instructions of the captain, who said, "There are more still at sea. You stay here until I return. Build a tall fire using the trees of the island to keep yourselves warm and to send a beacon for those who need safety." The sailors were happy and quick to oblige, and they built the large fire. Then they waited and waited and waited.

The longer they waited the more their gratitude passed. Their thankfulness turned into restlessness, and appreciation for the captain changed into aggravation with one another. No one could remember when the arguments started, but it had something to do with the captain's instructions. Did he say to use only trees for the fire or mostly trees for the fire? As they began to discuss it, they couldn't agree.

Some said, "Surely he meant trees only. He said build a fire made out of trees." Others said, "A little brush and some grass and leaves won't hurt. He'll understand. Mostly trees won't hurt." Conversation led to opinion, and opinion led to discussion. Discussion led to dispute, and dispute led to debate. Soon debate led to division, and there were two fires on the island. There was the trees-only fire and the trees-mostly fire.

Peace returned to the island for a short time, until a dispute broke out in the trees-only camp. One day, someone said, "I'm sure he wants us to use cypress trees only in the fire, because, he gestured to some cypress trees as he spoke." Another one said, "But he was standing closer to an elm tree." Still another said, "The predominant tree on the island is oak. They should be oak trees in our fire." Conversation led to opinion, and opinion led to discussion. Discussion led to dispute, and dispute led to division. Soon the trees-only camp splintered into three other camps: elm-only, cypress-only, and oak-only.

Things didn't go much better on the southern end of the island where the trees mostly camp was. They didn't have trouble with the contents of the fire, but they had conversation and conflict over the height of the fire. The captain had left instructions to build a tall fire. How tall is tall? One person's definition of tall and another's might not be the same, so new fires were started, each of differing heights. Soon, the island was filled with small fires rather than one large fire. The captain, who had been watching this from the ocean, shook his head in despair.

Were it not so true, the story would be bizarre. We don’t need to spend too much time in any organization, including the church, to realize we’ve got lots of fires on the island, too. Some of these fires are necessary and good, because to reach the world you have to go into the world.

Sending sailors to start new fires in areas where there are none is right and good. But some of the fires we see are there as a result of division. This isn’t a new problem. Even before the crucifixion of Christ, disciples were arguing about who was in and who was out.

Our tendency to cluster and our inclination to divide can be costly. Disunity distracts the believer and discourages the seeker. Our job description is simple: to build a fire so high that anyone lost can see it, so warm that anyone cold can be warmed by it. But when we argue about the nature and the contents and the height of the fire, we become distracted.

Disunity is distracting! Who wants to come out of the storm at sea to step into the storm on the island? Not to mention that our disunity discredits Jesus, because unity is His idea. On the night before His death, He prayed, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.

22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,

23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

Our disunity takes away from Jesus’ credibility. Picture a salesman selling vitamins, he has posters all around portraying what you would look like if you took his vitamins and followed his diet. You’d have a great chiseled body. But, when you looked at the salesman, he looked the opposite of his posters. So, you walk away either believing the vitamins don’t work, or he didn’t believe in them to take them. Either way, you’re not encouraged to buy the vitamins.

On the same token, if we are called to be the dispensers of love and grace, then how many people will be encouraged to try out what we have? Or will they look at us, and believe that we don’t resemble the product we are trying to sell? Which is a relationship with Jesus.

This is really a huge issue. For that reason the apostle Paul urges us to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. He uses a Greek tense, difficult to replicate in English. Literally, he is saying ~ "make every effort, keep on making every effort, never stop making efforts." Unity must be worked on and cultivated constantly. You don't make unity and then walk away from it. You're constantly making every effort.

Paul's prescription for disunity in Romans 15:7 is to accept one another: Therefore, welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The context of this verse is important. This is Paul’s concluding argument for the preceding 33 verses in which Paul appealed for unity. He began this appeal in 14:1., when he wrote ~ As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, bot not to quarrel over opinions.

Some arguing was going on in the Roman church. They weren’t arguing about the deity of Christ. Instead, this is what Paul said the cause of division was about ~ One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. And ~ one person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.” Romans 14:2, 5. They were arguing about diets and days. Instead of having trees-only people or trees-mostly people, they had days-only and diets-only people.

The Roman church was comprised of two different cultures: the Gentiles and the Jews. The Jewish Christians brought with them 2,000 years of heritage, and along with that were their traditions, food and festivals. There were certain foods they could eat, and others they couldn't. There were lots of special festivals that were to be observed on certain days. To the Gentiles, those sorts of special days were unnecessary and foolish. You can see this was going to create problems.

Imagine planning a potluck. The committee consisted of Jews and Gentiles. The Gentile, Antiochus, said, "The end of the month looks like a great day for our special celebration."

Abraham, the Jewish Christian, said, "Are you kidding? That's Passover weekend. We don't do anything like that on Passover weekend."

Antiochus replies, "That's the old law. We're under the new law now."

Abraham says, "My conscience won't let me do it."

Antiochus says, "All right. You pick the date. I'll be in charge of the food. Let’s have a pig roast."

Abraham screams, "No, no, no!" And opinion becomes discussion, and discussion becomes dispute, and dispute — unless something happens — becomes division.

Rome will now have two churches, two fires. An essential in this powerful epistle to Rome is Paul's solution for this problem. He never solves the problem. He never says, "you're right and you're wrong." He says: Don’t pass judgment on one another.

Not only do we have a powerful statement — do not argue — but we have the realization that in the Lord's church there are opinions. That's an important recognition for any church to maintain unity. There are matters of doctrine. There are matters of opinion. There are matters of truth. There are matters of preference.

Issues at the core of the gospel revolve around the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. On those issues there are no opinions. There is only truth. But outside of that is a plethora of opinions.

For example, the color of seats or how long we keep the air conditioner on is not that important. Those are matters of opinion. Other matters in the category of opinion are things like the literal nature of the millennium, the existence or absence of certain spiritual gifts, length of terms for church positions, a dress code in the church, do you need to be a member to serve. These are issues that start out as opinions that can become discussions that can become dispute and division.

Paul's solution is simple. When these issues surface between people who respect the Scriptures and love the Savior, simply accept one another. That usually comes by ceasing the stubbornness in your heart and being tolerant of the opinion of someone else.

Paul said ~ 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.

19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Romans 14

1 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. Romans 15

And it all started in Romans 14:1, Paul said ~ 1 As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.

We must welcome one another as Christ accepts us. Paul’s reminding us that none of us are perfect. We are called to welcome one another. This is more than just saying hello to someone. Literally this means to “take someone by the hand and lead them — or to receive someone into your home.”

It's the same verb used in Philemon 17, when Paul urges Philemon to welcome Onesimus, the slave, as if he were welcoming Paul himself. It's the same verb used in Acts 28 when Luke describes how the citizens of Malta received those who were shipwrecked.

Regardless of your heritage or what the sign out front may say or what your opinions may be on certain disputable matters, if you call Christ your Savior and God, Father, you and I are in the same family.

Paul exhorted the people ~~ Don't argue. We can have conversations. We can have discussions. We can admonish each other. We can share ideas. But once you feel your neck getting hot and your voice getting high, you are called to stop. We don’t argue about opinions. It's better to lose an argument than to lose a friend.

In 14:13, Paul said 13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer. We are not called to judge one another. We can hold one another accountable, but to judge means we can see into the other person’s heart, and I don’t know anyone, other than God who can. So, don’t judge. Judging is when you dealing with the issue and start meddling with the person. It's unnecessary and inappropriate. It displeases God and is not allowed. We can discuss and we can do so without judging and questioning someone's character.

Our attitudes should be like that of Alexander Campbell, a great church leader in the early 1800s. Few people had deeper convictions than this scholar, but few people offered more grace than he did. In 1831, he wrote a letter to a minister with whom he had serious disagreements on important doctrinal issues. At the end of the letter he wrote, "If you and I should never approximate higher to each other in our views [in other words, if you and I never work this out], I would nevertheless still love and esteem you as a Christian, as a citizen of heaven."

Peter says: Above all things have fervent love among yourselves, for love shall cover a multitude of sins. If love covers a multitude of sins, can it not cover a multitude of opinions? Therefore, accept one another. Accept one another as Christ has accepted you. And, thereby, bring glory to God.

Let's remember we're the sailors who were floundering, one swallow away from an ocean full of salt water. But at the right time Christ extended His hand, pulled us into His boat, and placed us into this community. Not one of us selected the other to come here. It was all His idea. He defines who comes, and He defines the way we stay. Accept one another as Christ has accepted you. Our task is to build a big fire so that those who are still searching can find a safe place, and those who are here can stay warm.