Many scholars today would argue that the book of Romans – perhaps the apostle Paul’s most weighty and important epistle – was written principally to address the vital issue of mutual acceptance.
That is certainly where Paul ‘arrives’ in the last chapters of the book. Consider, for example, some words from those final sections, in chapter 15:7: ‘Therefore accept one another as Christ accepted us.’ Why was this such an important issue to Paul? Let’s look at the historical setting.
Would they mix?
There was a very real danger at the time that the church in Rome could fail to worship God with one voice. Present in the church were both Jews and Gentiles – each with their own very different backgrounds.
The Jews believed that they knew how to please God: it was through the various laws and ritual regulations that they had observed for centuries. The glory of one united church, in this most important geo-political centre, could so easily have been lost as the Gentiles saw no reason to conform to this. So, Paul writes to explain how we relate to God through faith in Christ – but at the same time constantly switches his ‘target audience’ throughout the letter, from Jews to Gentiles and back. Read through Romans chapter 14 to see how he does this so skilfully, encouraging all his readers to refrain from passing judgement on one another.
Majoring on minors
Paul’s great concern was to address a people who were in danger of not accepting one another, who were ‘majoring on minors’ in terms of their distinctives and who would not marry deeply into one another and form a united people. They held that their distinctives were more important than what united them. Paul fought this battle for much of his life, in this and other settings, and it was obviously a key issue in the development of the early church.
So rejection and problems of acceptance are not simply modern phenomena. Rejection was an ancient problem – it’s also a modern one. We live in a society where it’s deeply rooted and the challenge to the church is to build an alternative society in the midst of a broken community – a city set on a hill that cannot be hid. God’s people living in profound depth of heart unity.
If we are going to arrive at that point, we too must look to the things that divide us. Our distinctives may not be between Jew and Gentile, but they are real, and can stop us becoming the deeply integrated company of people that we must become for the world to be provoked. The world will be challenged as they see the love we have for one another.
We want the people around us to see a lifestyle of acceptance against a backdrop of a society where rejection is the norm. Unwanted children, unwanted elderly people, divorce, class and racial hatred – we live in a fractured society. If we are going to provide that alternative, I believe we have to rid ourselves of some of the things that characterised us before we were Christians.
All of us were exposed to the mutual rejection in society before we were saved and people are added to our churches carrying that same mindset with them. We can transfer the same worldview, apply it to such issues as relationships with other churches – and believe that it’s OK! It’s not OK at all.
How about within our small group structures? How do we view the other members? We need to apply Paul’s words in this situation also. ‘Accept one another as Christ accepted you …’ We have to come to the point where our awareness of acceptance by Christ is enough to overflow to others. The miracle of being able to accept others in the body is not founded upon having a ‘good club’ with good rules.
No, it is based upon the profound healing work that Christ has done within us, setting us free from our own inner rejections. We will never build together until each of us knows that we, individually, are thoroughly acceptable to God. God has dealt with all of my rejection – and how did He do that? He didn’t wait for me to be more like Him.
Before any of us had done anything, ‘Christ died for the ungodly.’ He took the initiative and came to be like us. He endured total and complete rejection so we do not have to. As believers we have it in common that we are totally accepted in Christ.
When we are selective about who we think we can or cannot meet with, what we are actually saying is that we don’t have enough in common with that other person – who has been saved by the blood of Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, who is going to heaven, with all their sins forgiven, is a member of the body of Christ, flooded with God’s presence, enjoying Him, living for Him – we haven’t got enough in common with him because he doesn’t like soccer as we do, or dresses differently, or is of a different age group!
When we do that we are behaving as very secular people, making more of our differences than of our glorious common ground. This is precisely the problem that the apostle Paul faced. Jews and Gentiles alike needed to be aware that their common acceptance in God was the biggest thing in their lives.
New world view
The more deeply we are immersed in the realities of all that we are in Christ, the more our other superficial differences will fade into insignificance. The more our lives are shaped in a secular society and our values are learned in that society, the more difficult we shall find it to cross these temporary barriers in our small groups. Sadly we demonstrate that we are essentially secular people.
I remember years ago hearing a pastor in a rural setting saying how difficult it was for him to mix the various social strata in his congregation. He was trying to employ all kinds of superficial means to get them to become friendly and cordial as though it was the local conservative club that he was running. He appeared to totally ignore the breathtaking reality that they were all children of God, filled with the same Spirit, partakers of the same hope and rejoicing in the same salvation. Turning his back on these wonderful truths he wondered how he could ever unite so disparate a group. If we cannot do it through Christ and our common experience of the Holy Spirit we might as well pack up and go home!
Slaves and masters were brothers
I believe with all my heart that we need to see what Paul was saying to a society of slaves and free people, Jews and Gentiles, whose cultures were miles apart and whose experiences in life were totally different. We aren’t called to be one in Christ just for an hour or two on a Sunday morning, when we close our eyes tight and sing our songs. The fact of our acceptance in God is the thing that should flood our lives and our very being. As it does, we will have more and more in common with each other. Age, style, hobbies – are all incidental. In the process of integration we need to start with ‘Accept one another’ – and our small groups provide an excellent context where we can test out the reality of that.
We want the world to see a people who love one another. Small groups that create impact through their acceptance of one another and evident affection that overflows all social stratas can start to be a shining light for God.