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“May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:15-6, NLT).

In Romans 15, Paul calls the Roman church to harmony. What they were living was the opposite. Paul’s letter to the Romans deals with exactly the same problem that the American church is struggling with today: quarreling. Paul wrote to a church made up of culturally and ethnically different members, and their differences caused some strife. In Romans Paul calls them to two things: unity in the Gospel and honor in disputable matters. You see, a huge source of the bickering was that the believers in Rome were ignoring the difference between Gospel-centered and “disputable” issues. We make the same mistake today. 

Paul’s letter beautifully shows the way for the Romans – and us – to distinguish between indisputable and disputable matters. Indisputable matters are those that are essential to the Gospel. They define our very faith. If people disagree on essential doctrines, they do not share the same faith. In contrast, disputable matters are those that, while still perhaps important, are more centered on the practice of our faith rather than the essence of it. Christians who agree on essential matters can disagree on disputable matters but still share the same faith. We will still see one another in heaven.

In the latter part of Romans, Paul specifically addresses how to engage on disputable matters. I’m certain that as we walk through the last chapters of Romans, all three Grace pastors will give us practical applications for living out Paul’s instructions.  What I want to focus on is why we should prioritize this teaching and do the work to live it out – for the church and for the world around us.

Health for the Body

In Romans and elsewhere in the New Testament, Paul refers to the church as the Body of Christ. He uses the body analogy to illustrate the truth that in order to fulfill God’s work in the world, the body of Christ must have many different parts, each performing unique but equally honorable functions. I have a wonderful, vocal friend who once pointed out that while she can bless people with conversation, I give encouragement by sitting with them in silence. To use her words: “I am the mouth of Christ, and you are the butt!” The point is, we are all different parts of one body, and we need one another to thrive. If one part is damaged or diseased, the whole body suffers. 

I think of essential matters as the immune system in the body of Christ.  Just as the job of the immune system is to recognize foreign invaders and remove them, the job of essential doctrines is to keep pure that which defines Christianity. On essential matters we must have unity – oneness of mind. Recognizing and protecting unity in the essentials is vital to the health of the body of Christ.

Where we get into trouble, I fear, is falling into the trap of thinking that EVERY issue is an essential one. With this mindset, we’re prone to cry “INVADER!” about any issue we disagree over. I am convinced that Satan loves when we make the mistake of deeming every issue an essential matter because when we do, the body of Christ turns on itself.  I have dear friends who suffer from autoimmune diseases, and they can tell you the pain that comes when the body attacks its own members. It’s crippling. Therefore, we must live together in all our diversity in a way that builds others up and enriches the body of Christ instead of quarreling and tearing down.

Romans 14 offers the way: honor. We show honor when we are motivated by the spiritual health of others and the glory of God, rather than a desire to “win” a dispute. Treating one another with honor in disputable matters brings health to the body of Christ. Honor gives each member freedom to fulfill his or her unique purpose in the body. As each member flourishes, the whole body benefits. 

Beauty for a Hurting World

Learning to have unity in the essentials and honor in disputable matters makes something truly beautiful possible: harmony. Unity and honor are for the edification of the church, but harmony is for the world. 

I was a choir kid in high school. We were fortunate enough to have a director who had performed on Broadway and been in the Robert Shaw Chorale. (I know what you’re thinking: Who is Robert Shaw? Trust me, it was a big deal.) His vocal ability was considerable, but his true gift was leading. Somehow he managed to take a group of fairly average singers and produce musical performances that enthralled our audiences every time. It was just as thrilling for us as the choir. Most of us knew we were mediocre talents at best, so to produce the sounds we did as a group was mind-blowing. Our director, however, was not surprised at all. He knew that if you choose the right piece, and then help every member of the choir understand his or her own part and how the parts fit together as a whole, beauty will result. There was rarely a solo, but even the divas among us didn’t mind, because what we produced in harmony together made even the most spectacular solo seem bland. 

To produce beauty we had to be singing the same song. We had to be true to the song. But the song wasn’t the song without the blending of each individual part into a harmonic whole. The thing is, as thrilling as it was to produce such music, we didn’t perform merely for our own enjoyment. The purpose of what we did was to touch our audience with something glorious.

I am sure you can see where I’m headed with this. The same is true for the Church. The song is the Gospel – we must sing the same song and be true to it. However, God created the church as a community for a reason: the song isn’t the song without the blending of each believer’s part into a glorious harmony. And as wondrous as that harmony is for us who live it, the purpose of our harmony is that the audience – the broken and hurting world around us – would be moved by something glorious.

Oh, Church, my prayer is that our hearts would break for the pain and darkness in the world, and that our grief would move us to live together in ways that bring light and hope to the darkness.

Join us online or in-person to learn more about the book of Romans and take your next step toward Christ. 

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