In John 17, Jesus prays a prayer for the future church, a prayer that is aimed at us. In his prayer, Jesus prays for something very specific. It is not for beautiful buildings or healthy budgets. Jesus prays that the church would be one as the Father and Son are one. Jesus prays for our unity. We complain when our prayers are not answered the way we want, how is Jesus’ prayer working out for him? I hear many complaints from both Christians and non-Christians about how divided the church is. If Christians cannot get along with one another, why should we believe in Christ? I have heard it said that the existence of the thousands of denominations is devastating to the truth of Christianity. One source says that there are 41,000 different Christian denominations. What do we do with that? Last week, we had a combined Remembrance Day service with the other churches of Meaford. If we had taken time to go through our beliefs, we would have found differences in belief about baptism, predestination, sanctification, spiritual gifts, music, church structure and many other things. My question to you is: Was that service a sign of our unity or our disunity? Before we go there, let us take it to the next level. Not only is there disagreement between denominations, there is disagreement within churches. Survey any local congregation and you will get disagreements about how to interpret the Bible, how to pray and worship styles. You will get disagreements on acceptable forms of entertainment, dress, social drinking, playing the lottery and so on. Do we just raise our hands and give up that this unity for the church is an impossible goal? I would suggest that what Jesus had in mind in John 17 was not about uniformity, that is that we would all be exactly the same. There is no evidence in the Bible that people were expected to do things in the same way and be copies of each other. The goal is rather that we would be united in our faith in God and our desire to follow Jesus and our mission to love people. There is plenty of room for disagreement within those areas. So, the different denominations do not necessarily contradict the plan for unity within the church. It may be about different organizational structures, different styles and different interpretations. However, it all too often is about a lack of unity. Not because we have differences but because of how we deal with our differences. In this chapter of Romans, Paul provides some very practical advice on how to deal with differences.
What was the situation that Paul was addressing? The church was too new for there to be multiple denominations. In fact, the way it was in the early church was that there was one church in a city. There was the church at Rome or the church at Ephesus. They did not necessarily meet all together as there were no church buildings but even in their different gatherings, they were considered one church. But do not think that in the early days of the church that everything was pure and innocent. There were plenty of disagreements and conflicts. What was going on with the church at Rome? One of the things that was happening was that there was a mixed church of Jews and Gentiles. Each group had strong feelings about the way things are done. Just because a Jew became a Christian, it did not mean that they easily gave up concepts of food laws, Sabbath and so on. Not only would many of them want to keep those practices, it would bother them to see the Gentile Christians working on the Sabbath and then going home for a nice ham supper. The Gentiles on the other hand would feel very strongly about their ways. There was no reason for the Jews to be so legalistic and it would bother them that they were bound up by seemingly external rules. And so there would be conflict back and forth. I do not want to make this all about Jews versus Gentiles. There would have been plenty of disagreements among the Jewish Christians and plenty of disagreements among the Gentile Christians. The problem is not that they have disagreements. The problem is how they deal with those disagreements. The moment that Christians begins to condemn each other over minor issues, the church has lost its vision and is straying from its purpose.
It would be really nice if the problem of disagreements and conflicts died with the apostles. The truth is that as society has become more complex, our disagreements have only multiplied. Unfortunately, we have not grown in maturity when it comes to dealing with the conflicts. As a result, it is even more important for us to take seriously what Paul tells us in this chapter. So what do we learn from Paul? The first thing we learn is that there are differences of opinion and that is okay. Paul speaks of differences of what foods are allowed and the roles of certain days. This is a likely a reference to the differences between Jews and Gentiles. Paul does not come down on one side or the other. They are acceptable differences within Christianity. That does not mean everything is okay. Paul would have said something if the differences were between believing in one God or twelve gods or between committed marriages and sexual promiscuity. But within reason, there is room for disagreement. The next thing Paul says is that it is not our role to push our convictions on others or to condemn those who are different from us. This is difficult for some people. Sometimes we feel like God is pushing us in a certain direction and it is hard for us to imagine how God could be doing something different with someone else. I was talking with someone who felt as if God was leading him to give up all forms of entertainment, including television, movies and sports. That is fine. The problem was that he condemned all other Christians who continued to enjoy such entertainment because he understood his own convictions on the matter to be God’s general condemnation on this activity for everyone. It does not work that way. If the Bible is silent on something and you still have a conviction, do what you feel is right but leave others alone. We are also to see the reasons behind the different behaviors. Why is the person abstaining from meat or enjoying meat? If they are doing either out of a desire to glorify God, then their actions should be respected even if we disagree. We are all on a journey to serve God the best we can, and we might be surprised at how much we have in common despite the external differences. Paul also tells us that we must hold true to our convictions. Take for example that person who considered sports to be a worldly sin. If they truly believed that and yet they saw people who seemed godly enjoying sports without a twinge of guilt, that person should still abstain from sports. Sports by itself is not a sin. But if a person believes it is a sin and engages in the behavior, it becomes a sin. Finally, there is an important role in showing love toward others by our actions. We can be fully convinced that something is acceptable to God and that we intend to do it for God’s glory. But there may be times that we should abstain if those actions will cause another to stumble. For example, I might feel that a heavy metal style of worship music is acceptable to God. That is fine. But how would that affect you in this church if I introduced it here? Just because it is technically allowed and in fact may be appropriate in other contexts does not mean that it is good here. There are times that we need to limit our own freedoms for the sake of others.
What is the future of the church? It probably is not going to be about everyone completely agreeing on every subject and acting exactly the same. What we need to learn is not how to agree on everything but rather how to disagree in a healthy and godly way. Paul gives us some very helpful advice here. First accept that we are going to disagree and understand that is okay. It is good to hold convictions, but do not push those convictions on others. Understand that things may be done that you disagree with that are done for the glory of God. We must hold true to our convictions. Do not change every time you meet a different opinion. Keep your convictions unless you are genuinely convinced that something has changed. Finally, keep love at the centre of it. You may have freedom to do many things but that freedom does not give you the right to make others stumble. If we follow these guidelines, we can still be that church that enjoys unity without having to be bound by an artificial uniformity.