A Plea for Unity – Romans 15:1-7
The church needs to be unified in order to be effective and edified. In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle begins by calling the saints to unity but then goes on to unpack the implications of that unity in terms of the growth of the church (cf. Eph. 4:1-16). We are to “attain to the unity of the faith” (Eph. 4:13) and we grow as we are “joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped” (ver. 16). A church that is divided will not grow either in faith and love or in number.
The devil knows this. He clearly has used the strategy of dividing the church through the years as a way of waging war against it. How much more effective would the Lutheran and Reformed churches in 16th century Europe have been if they had not divided over the Lord’s Supper? And how many individual churches have fallen apart because they have split over nonessential issues? I have personally been in more than one church that has been through a split, and in every case looking back I think they could and should have been avoided.
And yet, unity is not the end-all. One of the problems that the British preacher and pastor Lloyd-Jones saw in his day was an overemphasis on what has come to be called the ecumenical movement. People were advocating for churches to come together even though they believed radically different things on key doctrines. Doctrine became unimportant, and even seen as a stumbling-block, to achieving unity. But unity on this level is only a superficial unity and rises no higher than the organizational unity of denominations. Such a unity cannot achieve what our Lord intends for the church. Doctrine is not unimportant, as a look at Eph. 4 shows us. We don’t just grow by external unity, but through unity in the truth: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way in him who is the head, into Christ” (ver. 15).
This is because the key mission of the church is to be the pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15). The church functions as God intended it when it is founded on the truth of God’s word and when it holds that truth up for all to see. That means that doctrine is not only important for the mission and identity of the church, it is actually essential. Without it, the church is not the church. Without it, the church becomes just another social institution that mirrors the character of the culture.
We want to be careful that we don’t downgrade the importance of doctrine. To do so is to be faithless to our Lord who gave us his word to believe and obey. Nevertheless, there is this other problem. It was the problem at the church at Rome. The believers there were divided between the strong and the weak. The strong were those whose grasp of the gospel allowed them to have liberty to partake in certain things than were forbidden in the Mosaic Law. On the other hand, the weak were those whose conscience would not allow them such liberty. The division was not over something so important that your position on it determined whether or not you were a true follower of Christ. As we’ve already noted, Paul considered both the strong and the weak to be followers of Christ, and even though the weak were wrong on the issue, Paul still calls them God’s work (14:20) and the one for whom Christ died (14:15). This was a difference between brethren, not between the world and the church.
And yet even over issues that are not primary in importance, division can cause serious problems. We saw that last time, that the strong were abusing their liberty and were causing the weak to stumble. And even though the strong were right on the issue, their attitude towards those with whom they disagreed was wrong. Not only was it wrong, it was wicked because they were destroying the work of God. When we are divided, we stop seeing the one with whom we disagree as our brethren and we stop loving them as we should (cf. 14:15). And when we stop loving them, we inevitably start sinning against them – even if we don’t realize that that is what we are doing. Unity is therefore so very important; it is a safeguard to the love that we are to give to our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is the only environment in which the church and truly grow and flourish.
It is therefore unity to which the apostle calls the church at Rome in these verses. And it is important for us to hear this plea for unity. For there is never a time in which any church is completely safe from the perils of division. And if our church or any church is to have a future, it must be unified. So, if you are concerned about the future of this church, you need to continually strive for unity. Now I’m sure that everyone here who is concerned about its future has an idea of what should be done – or not done – but I wonder how many of us agree on what should be done in order to achieve and retain the unity to which Christ calls us? It is therefore important for us to hear what the apostle has to say in these verses.
Before we look at what the apostle does say, however, I think it is important that we consider what he does not say. He does not encourage anyone to think about leaving the church. Nowhere in his epistles does he ever even give his readers the slightest hint that leaving and starting another church is an option or that the believers should split up. I think this is incredible, especially when you consider just how bad things had become, for example, at Corinth. You don’t arrive at unity by just hanging out with people you like. You strive for unity even with people you don’t like and with whom you might not agree on secondary issues. One of the dangers is always to think the grass is greener on the other side. “If only our church were filled with this or that sort of person, I would be much happier here.” Banish thoughts like that; they are foolish and unhelpful. Love what is near. One of the department heads in the math department here at the university would tell disgruntled professors to teach the students they had, not the students they wished they had. The same advice could go for church goers. Love the brothers and sisters you have in the fellowship you are a part of; not the ones you wish you had. To nourish the opposite attitude will only kill love in the fellowship and stir up in our hearts a spirit of discontentment that is inimical to true Biblical unity.
There are three things I want to consider from this text, which is a call to unity. The call is underlined in verse 7: “Therefore welcome [or receive, KJV] one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” From this verse and the previous ones, we learn first, the place of unity, second, the pattern of unity, and third, the pattern of unity.
The Place of Unity
Where are we to be unified? In what things are we to be united? Clearly, the Bible does not command the believers to be robotic copies of each other. Unity doesn’t mean sameness. The same apostle that emphasizes the need for unity also underlines the importance of diversity as well. One of the features of cults is that they force their followers to be carbon copies of some great teacher. That is not what Christianity does. It does create unity, but it is a unity in diversity. But that makes it all the more important to know where unity is to lie.
The first place we are to be unified is in heart. I see this in places like verses 1-3, where the apostle talks about not pleasing ourselves but laboring to please others, especially by bearing with their failings. You note that he gives Christ as our example here. It is certain that the unity that our Lord sought with his people was a unity that reflected his heart for them. In fact, in some ways his whole redemptive mission could be framed in terms of his mission to bring unity to the people of God, a unity that was defined in terms of their participation in the love of the Trinity (cf. John 17). Our Lord didn’t do what he did because he had to but because he wanted to. It was his love for his people that motivated his mission to bring salvific unity to them. In the same way, we are to motivate by a heart of love for God’s people, our brothers and sisters in Christ. The unity that is to describe us is not supposed to be a unity that merely external. Such a unity would be hypocritical and, in the end, will neither last nor bring the edification and growth to the church that true unity brings.
And then in verse 5, where the apostle says, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus.” The KJV puts it, “to be like-minded.” The verb is the same verb the apostle used in chapter 8 when he talked about the mind of the Spirit and the mind of the flesh. The “mind” is more than just the intellect; it involves the whole inner person – the mind and will and affections. This is what the Bible elsewhere means when it talks about the heart. So we are to unify in heart. And truly when you are unified in heart, there will be harmony, as the ESV puts it.
And then in verse 6, the apostle says that, “together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father or our Lord Jesus Christ.” The word for “together” there is homothumadon – it is a word meaning “with one accord” (cf. Acts 15:25). This again is more than mere formal and external unity – it is a unity that emanates from the heart. It is a unity that derives from our love to God and to his children. When we love each other the way we ought, we will want to be like-minded and in one accord. We will bear with each other, forbear with each other’s faults, and be slow to anger and slow to speak. We will not be out to please ourselves, but others. We won’t end up destroying the work of God, because we will be laboring for the opposite – to build each other up. Even, perhaps especially, those we clash with on these lesser issues.
Let us therefore welcome and receive each other from the heart. Let it be real. Let us not ignore or ostracize others in the fellowship but embrace each other as fellow pilgrims along the way to heaven.
The second place we are to be unified is in doctrine, especially in things essential. What do we believe are essential to faith and practice? This is partly what we mean by being like-minded. And it is especially important in our day because doctrine is so often seen as less important or not important at all. But again, as we pointed out earlier, one of the key purposes of the church is to safeguard the truth. But it is also important because we simply cannot grow spiritually apart from doctrine. Moreover, if we don’t know true doctrine, it will put us at the mercy of our lost culture, and we will more easily believe its lies.
I know that it is possible to be a theologian and be spiritually dead. I’ve pointed out many times that the devil is a great theologian, but he hates God. But just because knowing correct doctrine does not imply that you are spiritually healthy doesn’t mean that you can be spiritually healthy without knowing truth about God which cannot happen apart from knowing doctrine. The very essence of eternal life is knowing God (Jn 17:3) and the apostle says that we go from one degree of glory to the next when we behold the face of Christ in the gospel (2 Cor. 3:18). Christ gave us apostles and pastors precisely for the purpose of teaching truth – true doctrine. It is what the apostle commands Timothy: “Preach the word: be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching [doctrine!]. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:2-4).
So when we consider what it means to be unified, it is important that we consider what truths we consider to be most important. This church is founded on the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. And although we don’t consider it to be on the level with the word of God, and we certainly don’t require everyone to embrace everything in the Confession, yet we think it’s important that folks who join this church recognize that we consider the Confession to overall be a faithful representation of truths that we consider to be important. To not be unified on these truths makes real unity almost impossible and hinders and paralyzes the church.
The third place we are to be unified is in purpose. As a church, we need to know what we are about. Why do we exist? The mission statement on our website puts it like this: “The mission of Shiloh Church is to love God with all our hearts and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves through gospel-centered worship, life, and outreach.” Paul had a purpose (2 Tim. 3:10) and so should we. Is this what we are about? If not, then what are we about? Unity is simply impossible when everyone is pulling in different directions. Again, if we are going to be “in one accord” we need to be all pulling in the same direction and no one should be in the dark as to where the church is headed.
Unity in all these things is possible as well as desirable, when people are genuinely born again. What prevents unity is not the Holy Spirit but sin (Eph. 4:1-6). It is not a question of if we can attain unity, but how hard are we willing to work to try to get there?
The Pattern of Unity
How are we to seek unity? Paul makes it clear: “as Christ has welcomed you” (7). As we noted before, in verses 3-5 the apostle puts the example of the Lord before us as the example for the way we are to receive and welcome each other. Unity that does not find its strength in the teachings and example of the Lord Jesus is not Christian unity.
What are we then to do when we are unified? Like Jesus, we will serve each other and build each other up. Our Lord said to his disciples who were elbowing each other for the first place, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served to be serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:26-28; cf. Phil. 2:2-8). Those who are like Christ are not out to please themselves, but are to put their regard for their brother’s welfare first.
This will mean that we will be in each other’s lives. A church is not a gathering place once a week – not a program you run through on Sunday. A church is rather a body of people who need each other and who recognize this (cf. 1 Cor. 12). Specifically, we should be praying for each other, watching over each other, and if need be, to reprove each other in love, to meet together, and to help each other in spiritual and material ways. In other words, we are to be looking for ways to love each other in a way that reflects Christ’s love for us. And that also means that at the same time we should avoid things like individualism, pride, backbiting, and seeking preeminence, all things we are prone to but which are inimical to true Christian unity.
All this means that we are going to be willing to sacrifice for the good of others. The specific instance of our Lord’s example to which the apostle points is his sacrificial life and death for us: “But as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me’” (3). How can we not bear with the weak when we have this example? How can we insist upon only being around people we like or who don’t rub us the wrong way when Christ took our reproaches upon himself? When we have the mind of Christ, when we are like this, how can we not be unified?
One more thing before moving on to our next point: unity does not countenance sin (cf. 1 Cor. 5; Rev. 2). This is the wrong type of unity, though it is another type of unity that the modern church is pursuing. Christ did not die so that we could continue in our sins but so that we would die to sin and live to righteousness. The church should reflect that reality. And that means, though we are long-suffering with each other, we will lovingly help each other move toward and not away from holiness and Christlikeness.
The Purpose of Unity
There are many good fruits that come from true Christian unity. The health of the church, the growth of the church, all depend upon it. But none of these things are the main reason we are to seek unity. Why should we seek it? Paul tells us: “for the glory of God.”
There is a question as to how this purpose clause relates to the rest of the sentence. Is the clause “for the glory of God” related to us receiving each other or to Christ’s receiving us? In my opinion, it is most likely the former: to us receiving each other – we are to receive each other so that God is glorified. I take it to mean this because of verses 5-6. In those verses, especially verse 6, the apostle calls us to live in harmony “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are to welcome each other as Christ received us, because this welcoming and receiving each other after the pattern of Christ redounds to the glory of God.
How does this glorify God? Remember what the glory of God is: it is the public display of the attributes of God. When the church is glorified, it is putting on public display the saving mission of our Lord. Our Lord came to live and die and rise again so that those who believe in him might participate in the unity that comes from salvation – a unity, as we said before, which is a unity that involves us in the participation of the love of the Trinity. When we are unified, we are showing the world that the salvation of Christ is real. In that, God is glorified because his saving work is being put on public display.
On the other hand, disunity gives occasion for non-Christians to mock Christianity. It is said that in the early centuries of the Christian mission, pagans would often remark how Christians loved each other. But what happens when we are at each other’s throats? We make a mockery of the faith. We don’t draw others to the faith but repel them from it. We won’t invite people to ask us a reason for the hope; we will push them away from us because they will see us to be the hypocritical pretenders that we are.
May the Lord grant us this unity so that we grow and so that God is glorified.