November 26, 1995

ACCEPTING ONE ANOTHER

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. Romans 15:7

Very few things are more damaging than when Christian people bicker and argue and get nasty with each other and even refuse to associate with each other.  It dishonors God;  it hurts the people who are involved in the fighting;  it turns off the children and young people of the church to see the adults at each other’s throats;  and if you’re not a follower of Christ or you don’t yet belong to a church, you may look at a church full of factions and fighting and say to yourself, “If that’s what Christianity is about, who needs it?”

I’m not telling you anything new if I tell you that when churchgoers fight, they can get pretty fierce.  Anytime a bunch of imperfect people get together, you can expect differences of opinion and personality conflicts, but the clashes can be even hotter in the church.  And in a way, that’s understandable.  Religious convictions run deep, and there often seems to be so much at stake.  If you think God’s truth and the eternal destiny of souls hangs in the balance, it’s hard not to get upset.  In fact, if nobody in the church ever gets upset about anything, it’s probably a sign that something is wrong.

The only thing worse than a church that fights over everything is a church that won’t fight for anything.  In some churches there are leaders who deny the virgin birth of Jesus, they deny his resurrection, they deny that he’s equal to God–and yet their churches allow them to remain in office and to go right on contradicting the Christian faith that they’re supposed to be proclaiming.  Rather than remove them from their positions, there are appeals to unity and Christian love.

That’s a little like appealing to patriotism and national unity as reasons for letting spies and traitors and terrorists hold government positions.  Churches which tolerate leaders who deny Christ aren’t showing love and unity.  They’re showing they don’t care about Jesus or about the Bible or about the people these leaders hinder from coming to Jesus.

The inspired prophets and apostles of the Bible could be devastating in their attacks on false teachers who denied that Jesus is the one way of salvation and who started saying that sins condemned in Scripture weren’t really wrong.  St. Peter wrote, “Of them the proverbs are true:  ‘A dog returns to its vomit,’ and, ‘A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud'” (2 Peter 2:22).  St. John called such people deceivers and antichrists (2 John 7).  And St. Paul said, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Galatians 1:8).  Anyone in the church who denies Christ, especially any leader who denies him, must be opposed, even if that means strong words and painful argument.

Having said all that, however, the fact remains that many of the nastiest fights and divisions among Christians have little to do with a denial of Christ or of any central belief of the Christian faith.  All too often, Christians argue lesser matters with just as much vehemence as they would if they were arguing against a false teacher who denies the deity of Christ.

Take alcohol, for example.  Some Christians think it’s always wrong to drink alcoholic beverages.  They see the damage done by alcohol and drugs, they see the warnings in the Bible against drunkenness, and they conclude that alcohol is sinful.  Other Christians note that even though the Bible condemns getting drunk, it says that wine is a blessing from God, and so alcohol must be okay, as long as you don’t abuse it or get drunk.

Still other Christians are so strongly in favor of alcohol that they say the Lord’s Supper isn’t really the Lord’s Supper unless real, fermented wine is used.  Grape juice that isn’t fermented can’t possible represent the blood of Christ, in their opinion.  There’s got to be some alcohol, and if there isn’t, they’ll stay completely away from the very Holy Communion that is supposed to express Christian unity.

Over thirty years ago, Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote, “I have taken communion in many parts of the world, with many different elements.  There is neither wine nor grape juice available in the heart of Africa or South America, so I have taken communion with coffee instead of wine, with coconut milk tinted pink with berry juice, and even with cola drinks.  Now we can see,” wrote Dr. Barnhouse, “that it is the height of nonsense for Christians to fight over the symbols of the very death of Christ which was meant to unite them.”

Nevertheless, some Christians still fight over wine at the Lord’s Supper, and others have even managed to pick a fight over the bread.  Dr. Barnhouse tells of one group of Christians who got into a big argument over whether the bread of communion should be unleavened bread or whether it was okay to have bread that had been made with yeast in it. Finally, the group that insisted on yeast-free bread left the others and formed a new church.  In other words, they fought so hard over what sort of bread should signify the body of Christ that they ripped apart the spiritual body of Christ, the church.

Must the fruit of the vine be fermented or not?  Must the bread of communion be fermented with yeast or not?  Whatever you think the answer is, when Christians fight and judge each other over such matters, one thing is fermenting for sure:  trouble.

Christians disagree and sometimes get very disagreeable over a whole host of matters.  For some, speaking in non-rational tongues is a mark that distinguishes Spirit-filled Christians from second-rate Christians.  For others, a particular view of God’s exact method and timing in creating the world, or the precise order of events that will unfold near the end of the world are litmus tests for true faith.  For many, the style of music used in their church is a matter of life and death.

And there’s more.  What day should Christians observe as the day of rest and worship:  Sunday, or Saturday–or is it okay to treat every day alike?  And what about birth control?  And what about the role of women in the church?  The list goes on and on.

Not all of the things we fight about are worth fighting over.  Then again, some of them are.  Some disagreements are just plain trivial and stupid, but many of them are important–and even those that are trivial don’t seem that way to people deeply involved in the argument.  It’s hard to disagree without being disagreeable.  And even if we do manage to be kind and respectful toward those who disagree, there are still many cases where it’s hard to know whether we should just agree to disagree or whether the matter is too important to allow disagreement or compromise.

I don’t have a quick answer that’s going to solve all our differences or make the difficulties vanish.  But I do want to look with you at the Bible for some basic guidance in dealing with disagreement.  Our aim as Christians is to live according to what the Bible says in Romans 15:5-7:

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring glory to God.

Jesus didn’t accept you because you live a perfect life or because you’re 100% correct in all your opinions.  He accepted you freely out of his grace and love.  And so you need to accept others whom Christ accepts, in order to bring glory to God.

Easier said than done, isn’t it? How can people with differences still be one in heart?  How can we disagree without being disagreeable?  The first and most basic thing is to affirm our unity in Christ.  Anyone who believes that God created the universe, that Jesus is God made flesh, that he died to pay for our sins, that he rose triumphant over death, that he calls us to love him and obey his commandments in the Bible, that he is coming again to judge the world and make all things new, and that his Holy Spirit changes our hearts to receive the undeserved gift of new life–anyone who has this precious faith and hope and love in Christ is my brother or sister in the Lord, regardless of what our differences might be or what church or denomination we happen to belong to.     “Accept one another, just as Christ accepted you.”

Shortly before Paul wrote those words, he wrote, “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputed matters…  Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?  To his own master, he stands or falls.  And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:1,4).

Many of us love to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”  God accepts me in spite of my sinful past, in spite of the fact that I still have many sins and many opinions that are confused or wrong.  God accepts me just because of his grace in Christ.

So then, how about other other Christians?  When I see someone who trusts in Christ and seeks to obey him but who does something I don’t think he should do, or has an opinion I don’t think he should have, how should I respond?  Before I do anything else, I need to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like him!”  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like her!”  That’s got to be the starting point:  the Lord Jesus Christ and his amazing grace for me and for all others who trust him.  If we don’t start there, then our differences will lead to judgment instead of acceptance, to strife instead of love, to division instead of unity.

St. James writes in the Bible,  “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:12-13).  Amazing grace triumphs over distressing disagreements.

This doesn’t mean we have to pretend sins and errors don’t matter as long as we all put our faith in Jesus.  It does mean that no matter how much the sins and errors matter, the reality of Jesus and his amazing grace matters even more.

The Old Testament part of the Bible tells about the kings of Israel and Judah.  The Lord characterizes some of these kings as basically good and others as entirely wicked.  But I find intriguing the way the Bible summarizes two of the kings of Judah, Asa and Jehoshaphat.  Both of these kings had a very serious failure:  they didn’t get rid of hilltop shrines where people worshipped in ways that weren’t in keeping with God’s law.  The Lord doesn’t gloss this over or pretend it didn’t matter.  It was wrong, and it had serious consequences on the spiritual life of the nation.  And yet, despite being wrong in such a serious matter, these two kings were still right with God.

The Bible says of Asa,  “Although he did not remove the high places from Israel, Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life” (2 Chronicles 15:17).  And of Jehoshaphat God says, “He walked in the ways of his father Asa and did not stray from them;  he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord.  The high places, however, were not removed, and the people still had not set their hearts on the God of their fathers” (2 Chronicles 20:32-33).  There you have it:  father and son kings who were both guilty of the same serious fault, a fault which even perpetuated spiritual problems in their nation, and yet both of these kings loved the Lord God with all their heart.

It’s one thing to say that a person’s action is wrong.  It’s quite another to say that the wrongness of the action is proof that the person has no relationship with God.  It’s a mistake to say that a sin doesn’t really matter, but it’s also a mistake to judge people’s relationship to God by their worst errors.  Errors matter enormously, and can have disastrous consequences.  But still, there are people, there are churches and denominations, who commit serious errors and yet whose hearts are devoted to God and who are eager to follow God’s Word.

The Bible says, “Accept one another, as Christ accepted you,” and Scripture reminds us not to pass final judgment on a servant of God when God is able to make him stand.  Like the two kings we’ve just talked about, there are people who may do something that is deeply offensive to God and yet, paradoxically, have hearts that are faithful to the Lord.  Judgmentalism sees a person’s worst mistake as the mark that they’re not right with God.  But amazing grace sees the sin in a fellow Christian and still recognizes a person who loves God and is accepted by him.

As I said earlier in the program, there are some beliefs and practices which openly deny Christ and defy the authority of Scripture, and these things must be driven out of the church.  But there are also people and churches who, despite true faith in Christ and commitment to Scripture, don’t understand or follow the Bible’s teaching as they should.  In fact, that’s true of us all, to one degree or another.  In such cases, we must not let our differences outweigh our unity or obscure the fact that God has accepted us through faith in Christ.

We need to recognize that serious error isn’t always the same thing as abandoning the faith.  We also need to recognize, in some cases, that we may not be able to settle conclusively who’s right and who’s wrong, or even agree on whether a certain matter is of major or minor importance.  Some of us would like to think that we could appeal to the Bible in order to settle every disagreement between Christians.  But sometimes the Bible doesn’t address the matter in a very direct way, and sometimes what the Bible does say on a certain matter is understood differently by different people.

It is a terrible thing to twist the Scriptures to suit our own purposes, but at the same time we have to recognize cases in which sincere Christians, equally eager to submit to God’s Word,

can’t agree on how to understand or apply a particular passage.  John Calvin wrote that it is “presumptuous and almost blasphemous to turn the meaning of scripture around without due care, as though it were some game that we were playing.  And yet many scholars have done this at one time.”  But, said Calvin, not every disagreement results from wicked teachers who play games with Scripture.  Calvin wrote, “There is by no means universal agreement even among those who have no lack of zeal for godliness, or piety and moderation in discussing the mysteries of God.  God has never so blessed his servants that they each possessed full and perfect knowledge of every part of their subject.  It is clear that His purpose in so limiting our knowledge was first that we should be kept humble, and also that we should continue to have dealings with our fellow [Christians].  Even though it were otherwise highly desirable, we are not to look in the present life for lasting agreement among us on the exposition of passages of scripture.”

In other words, God doesn’t give any one of us a complete, error-free understanding of every Bible passage.  As the Bible itself says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror;  [in heaven] we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part;  then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  God isn’t going to make us perfect in knowledge until he first makes us perfect in love.  If God gave me full and perfect knowledge right now, I’d be even more arrogant and judgmental than I already am.  I don’t know it all, and neither do you.

That should humble us, and at the same time it should keep us listening to other Christians, so that we can learn from each other what we understand Scripture to be saying.  This includes not only listening to Christians we happen to know personally or who happen to be part of our particular church but also listening to Christians from different denominations and different parts of the world and from different ages in history.

The aim of the Back to God Hour is to proclaim the historic Christian faith.  By the historic Christian faith, we mean the way God’s people all through the ages have understood the Word of God as written in the Bible and made flesh in Jesus.  A focus on the historic Christian faith can help us not to major in minors, and at the same time it can give us courage to declare even those elements of the historic, biblical faith that some people–even some fellow Christians–might not happen to like nowadays.

You and I mustn’t turn every disagreement into a crisis, and at the same time, we shouldn’t be so nice and so polite that we can’t risk disagreement with others, especially on matters that involve historic consensus on a biblical principle.  Churches shouldn’t be so desperate to avoid controversy that they just let everybody do as they please.  We shouldn’t turn matters of local custom or personal preference into universal requirements, but we should be wary of abandoning anything that’s been part of the consensus of worldwide, historic Christian faith.

For example, the style of music in church varies widely from culture to culture and from age to age.  And so even though music stirs very strong feelings in most of us, we shouldn’t insist that our particular kind of music is the only one God approves.  The practice of ordaining only men as the governing officers of the church, on the other hand, has biblical warrant and has been the practice of the entire church throughout history until very recently.  And so it’s a far weightier matter than musical tastes or customs in fermentation of wine or bread, though still not nearly as weighty as faith in Jesus’ blood and resurrection.

If a certain teaching or practice has been understood around the world and throughout the centuries to be in accordance with God’s Word in the Bible, then it’s much more likely to be a matter of abiding biblical principle than of personal preference, and it’s a serious matter to abandon it.  If we really depend on other Christians and want to learn from their understanding of the Bible, then we should be very careful about accepting any understanding of biblical teaching that contradicts the understanding God’s people throughout the ages have had.

Now, I realize that just the few examples I’ve mentioned will have some of you up in arms already.  These are touchy topics, to say the least.  But let me remind you one last time of what I’ve been saying all along:  if you and I both trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and seek to submit to Scripture, then even if our differences are important, we must keep listening to each other, and we must keep listening to God when he tells us:  “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”  Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound that saved wretches like you and me, who get so many things wrong and yet are right with God through faith in Jesus Christ!

PRAYER

Father in heaven, forgive us when our anger and arguing dishonor you and hurt each other and turn off those who aren’t yet a part of your church.  Give us enough perspective not to fight over trivial matters, enough grace to accept those who commit errors and yet belong to Christ by faith, enough courage to oppose false teachers who deny the gospel, and enough discernment to know the difference.  Give us humility, Lord, to know our own faults and limits, and fill us with a love for you, a love for your truth, and a love for each other, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.