As mentioned last time we are looking at the command to “Accept One Another.” One of many commands that can only be fulfilled in the believers life if they are connected to and in fellowship with others in a local church.
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7).
I grew up in a church where “acceptance” by others depended primarily on what you did or did not do And, as you might guess, the list of “do’s and don’ts” certainly did not comprise a biblical list. Rather, it consisted of extra-scriptural activities, most of which were cultural.
What I’m describing, of course, is 20th-century legalism. And nothing shatters true unity among Christians more thoroughly than extra-biblical rules and regulations which are used to evaluate a person’s relationship with Jesus Christ.
When acceptance or rejection of others is based on a legalistic mind-set, it leads rapidly to judgmental behavior and pseudo-spirituality. It also creates false guilt, destroys personal freedom to really be what God wants a Christian to be, and often leads to a violation of the true biblical standards for Christian behavior.
A lot of wonderful people attended the church in which I grew up, and there was a certain loyalty within the group, yet little spiritual unity or in-depth spirituality was exhibited. Those who became part of the group were accepted only as they fulfilled a predetermined set of behavioral expectations. This legalism caused a great deal of false guilt, a problem I personally faced for years, till I understood what true spirituality is.
This is a sad commentary on what Christianity has come to be in many situations. The Bible does lay down behavioral expectations for Christians, but it also condemns acceptance or rejection based on external patterns that go beyond specific scriptural statements.
Paul deals with this subject clearly in his letter to the Romans. In fact, he presents acceptance of fellow Christians as a basic key to unity. Note the context of this injunction: “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” (Romans 15:5-7).
In at least two areas Christians have historically violated the injunction “accept one another” by judging one another (legalism) and in showing partiality (prejudice). Interestingly, these problems go all the way back to New Testament churches. And the Bible speaks forcefully to both issues, condemning each as sin.
Judging One Another
To sit in false judgment on other Christians is a violation of Paul’s exhortation to accept one another. Interestingly, he uses the two concepts concurrently to make his point in his Roman letter. Thus he wrote: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Romans 14:1).
In this particular New Testament church (and others like it) some Christians had personal problems even while engaging in certain legitimate activities. These problems arose out of previous sinful associations with those activities. Others, however, were free from this very real, but false guilt. In both the Roman and Corinthian churches, one of these activities involved eating meat that had been offered to idols.
Paul, in his inimitable way, brought the problem into clear focus, particularly in his Corinthian letter: “So then, about eating meat sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world, that there is no God but one. . . . But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such meat, they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Corinthians 8:4, 7-8; see also Romans 14:14).
How did Paul deal with this problem? First, he spoke to both the weak and the strong: “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him” (Romans 14:3). In other words, we are not to judge each other in areas that are not specified as sin. “Each one,” said Paul, “should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14:5).
Second, Paul directed his comments primarily to the strong in faith-to those who could eat meat offered to idols without sinning: “All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. . . . We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Romans 14:20-21; 15:1).
After exhorting both the immature and mature Christians not to judge one another, Paul then laid a heavy burden on mature Christians. If we are truly mature, we will be sensitive toward our brothers and sisters in Christ who are not strong as we are. We will be careful to do nothing that would cause them to stumble and fall into sin. If these two attitudes are working concurrently in a local body of believers, unity will inevitably emerge. Those who are weak will soon become strong, and those who are strong will become even more mature.
Paul introduced this barrier to unity in his Roman letter even before dealing with legalism. “Live in harmony with one another,” he wrote. “Don’t be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Don’t be conceited” (Romans 12:16).
James, of all the New Testament writers, dealt with this problem most extensively. And like Paul, -he allowed no room for misinterpretation about the sin of prejudice. “My brothers,” he wrote, “as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism” (James 2:1).
In the churches to which James was writing, Christians had difficulty accepting everyone in the same way. Their particular problem involved the rich and the poor. When a man came into their assembly well dressed and obviously rich, they immediately gave him the best seat. But when a poor man came in, dressed in shabby clothes, they ushered him to a seat less prominent. When you do this, queried James, “have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges of evil thoughts?” (James 2:4). To make sure they really got his point, James spelled out the answer to his own questions in unequivocal terms: “If you show favoritism, you sin” (James 2:9).
Prejudice, favoritism, and discrimination in the body of Christ violate the law of God. Furthermore, they violate the very nature of the functioning body of Christ. We are all one. Every member is important -rich or poor, young or old, black or white, weak or strong! If we show favoritism, we also destroy the unity, harmony, and oneness in the body of Christ which Christ and Paul both prayed for and commanded.
It is startling how some evangelical, Bible-believing churches over the years have justified prejudice. Of course, we can make the Bible teach anything we want-and this is exactly what we’re doing when we bar any sincere and practicing Christian from participating in a local church. We are sinning against both God and man when we do this.
Practical Steps to Help Christians in Your Church Accept One Another
It’s important, first of all, to make sure you (and other Christians in your church) really understand what Paul was teaching in Romans 14. This passage is woefully misinterpreted and misapplied. First, Paul was teaching that neither the weak nor the strong are to judge one another. This is a two-way responsibility. In many 20th-century churches, the strong are expected to bear full responsibility. This, of course, is a violation of Paul’s teaching.
Second, the strong Christian is to be careful not to cause a weaker brother or sister to fall into sin. Here is where many of today’s Christians terribly misunderstand and violate Paul’s teaching. “Offense” or “stumbling” is defined by some, especially immature Christians, as making them “feel bad” if another Christian does something they don’t like. This is not what Paul meant by causing “distress” or “grief” or making someone stumble. Rather, he made it clear that this is judging and should not be. What Paul meant by “causing someone to stumble” is to cause a fellow Christian to actually do something he cannot do with a clear conscience, thus causing him to sin against himself and the Lord. Just making him “feel bad” is not causing him to stumble. In fact, some immature Christians “feel bad” because of selfishness.
There is yet another misinterpretation and misapplication of Paul’s teaching in Romans 14. Ironically, some Christians set up extra-biblical standards for themselves and then require that all other Christians measure up to those same standards in order to be spiritual. This, of course, is also judging others
and is not accepting others as we should.
An example of this: A certain Bible-preaching pastor has always preached against long hair for men. His personal style is that of the World War II. This is his cultural standard for evaluating the length of “long” (see 1 Corinthians 11:14). While insisting that “long” hair is strictly a mark of rebellion against authority, he is making the generalization that an attitude present when the trend began is still present. “Long” hair has become, however, an acceptable hairstyle to most people, just as it was in the days of the Pilgrim Fathers. This pastor will not allow any long-haired men to sing in his choir . . . nor will he welcome any such men into church membership. Long-haired men must first visit a barber shop. Then they’ll be considered spiritual enough to participate.
Note: The Bible does teach that Christians are to break fellowship with other Christians who continually live in sin, but only after following a definite biblical procedure. Make sure, however, that the “sin” can be definitely defined in the Bible: immorality, lying, stealing, gossip, etc. In these cases, Christians are to take at least three steps to solve the problem.
First, we are to exhort in love the persons involved considering ourselves lest we also be tempted. Second, if they don’t respond to loving exhortation and continue sinning, then we are to ask them to discontinue fellowship with other Christians in the church for a period of time. Finally, if they still do not respond, we are to have nothing to do with them, actually treating them as if they were unbelievers.
My experience has been that when a proper biblical approach is taken to disciplining others in the church, you seldom have to go beyond the first step. Most people who know Jesus Christ personally respond to loving exhortation.1
Evaluate your own attitudes and actions. Are you “accepting” or “rejecting” people upon your own standards-standards you have set up or accepted because of your own weak conscience? If you are, you are “judging” your brother. This Paul forbids in Romans 14.
Note: I believe a Christian organization can set up certain “institutional” standards that are extra-biblical, and yet not violate the teaching of Scripture. But the moment we begin to evaluate other Christians’ spirituality on the basis of these standards, and begin to promote these standards as marks of Christian maturity, we violate the teachings of Scripture. We are using a false criterion for measuring spirituality.
Challenge: If we teach and practice the true biblical criteria for spirituality, we will usually find it unnecessary to set up standards in addition to Scripture. (For an interesting study of a profile of Christian maturity, see the qualifications listed by Paul in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.)
Evaluate your attitude toward other Christians concerning prejudice and favoritism. Can you truly accept all other believers as brothers and sisters in Christ? Is this actually happening in your church?
Follow this three-point plan for overcoming any problem in your life that reflects legalism and prejudice:
1. Acknowledge it as sin (1 John 1:9).
2. Pinpoint the areas of your life where you need to change. Ask God to help you overcome your sins. Pray specifically about specific problems.
3. Take an action step. For a starter, select another member of Christ’s body you have had difficulty accepting. Do something for that person that reflects true Christian love. For example, you might invite that person to your home for dinner.
Warning: Don’t wait until you “feel” like changing or doing something about your sin. If you do, the feelings may never come. Christian love acts on what is the right thing to do.
Suggestion: If your church is permeated with legalistic behavior and/or prejudice, ask your pastor or some other leader in your church to read this chapter and to give you his opinion as to whether or not it is scriptural. If his reactions are negative, then graciously ask him to give you biblical reasons for his conclusions.