This post is part of a series on Mayfair’s Core Values preached in the summer of 2016.
We aspire to be an accepting people. All people are created in the image of God and therefore the church must be a place that loves and values others just as God does.
Beneath the surface, we are all looking for acceptance. Every human being is created in the image of God and therefore has a desire to be known in community, because the Triune God exists in community. Acceptance in community fosters unity, compassion, and patience. In the NT, we find instruction to accept one another just as Christ Jesus has accepted us.
Romans 15:7, Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
This might make for a nice soundbite, but the context of Romans reveals that this teaching emerges out of some real life struggles within the early church.
Romans 14:1-4, Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 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. 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.
The church in Rome is divided over a matter of judgment. One group of Christians (perhaps Jewish Christians, although they aren’t specifically identified as such) objects to eating meat. If these were indeed Jewish Christians, then we have an entry point for understanding; since kosher fare would’ve been difficult to find, a reasonable solution would be to avoid eating meat altogether. Another faction, quite possibly Gentile Christians, do not live with this level of restriction. Faith allows them to eat anything without violating their conscience.
Paul refers to these two groups as those who are weak in the faith and those who are strong. Faith here does not refer to one’s belief in general. Rather, it points to the convictions about what one’s faith allows him or her to do. We’re talking about the application of faith. This is an important point to make. The weak in faith here are not lesser Christians. They are simply those who do not think their faith allows them to do certain things that the strong feel free to do.
Differences of opinion have been a part of the church since the beginning. In this particular case, both groups have freedom to follow their conscience, but neither has the right to disparage the other. And that seems to be the real issue. It appears that the weak in faith are at fault for condemning the strong. “That bunch of crazy liberals! I can’t believe what they’re over there doing. They ought to be ashamed.” And likewise, the strong are at fault for looking down upon the weak. “Boy, they sure do have a backwards way of thinking. I guess they’re just not as enlightened as we are.” Both groups are crossing their arms and judging the other side.
This poses many problems but the greatest is this: when we judge one another, we put our authority above the authority of God.
In response to all of this, Paul says, “Stop it. Accept one another just as Christ has accepted you.”
We live in a time when tolerance is held up as our cardinal virtue. Our proclivity for tolerance can potentially color our understanding of acceptance. We are led to believe that true acceptance is unquestioned consent of that person’s behavior and lifestyle. To question any portion of someone’s behavior and lifestyle is to be labeled as intolerant and, therefore, unaccepting.
But that’s not the biblical teaching. Paul’s response to this controversy in the early church wasn’t to simply tell the believers to “tolerate one another.” In truth, tolerance doesn’t go far enough. The word simply won’t hold up for what Paul has in mind. Writing to the community that has been profoundly shaped by the love of God, Paul tells the believers to accept one another; in some English Bibles, the word is also translated welcome one another. This is not what tolerance requires; this is what love requires.
The biblical teaching acknowledges that there will be significant differences of opinion within the body of Christ. But because we have been shaped by the love of God, it’s not enough for us to simply tolerate each other, to “put up with one another.” The church is to be the place of mutual acceptance, a place of welcome, a place where we are received in spite of our differences. According to the word of God, there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus. If we’re inseparable from His love, that means we’re inseparable from one another, too.
The word Paul uses means to welcome someone as if you’re bringing her/him into your home. It’s seeing the new kid sitting by herself at lunch and going over to sit with her in an age-old expression of acceptance. We model this kind of acceptance and welcome because this is the way Jesus Christ has received us.
But what if someone, even someone in the church, doesn’t see things exactly the way I see things? We have all these silly labels to identify ourselves and disparage each other: conservative, liberal, traditional, progressive. We’ll wear these labels like badges of honor and we’ll use the contrasting label to smear a fellow brother or sister. These words have sewn as much division within the body of Christ as any others.
When we embrace labels, what happens is the conservatives eventually insulate themselves deeper among fellow conservatives; likewise with liberals. And eventually, they split off and form their own group or they just stay cloistered together so tightly that they might as well have formed their own group.
But this isn’t the way God intends for it to be in the church. We are to be a fellowship marked by mutual acceptance. The only label that counts in the church is Jesus Christ. We’re not called to wear the badge of “traditional” or “progressive”; we’re called to be clothed in Christ. We’re not called to disparage a brother or sister with language like “conservative” or “liberal”; we’re called to accept one another just as Christ accepted us. Beneath the surface, we are all looking for acceptance.
There’s a sense in which we should be attuned to the way that we welcome others into our churches. For over 1,500 years, the Benedictines have emphasized the importance of receiving the stranger in their midst. Centuries ago, the monastery functioned as a safe haven for the sojourner. So it would be common for travelers to seek shelter at the monastery. In the Benedictine tradition, one of the most important tasks falls to the porter in charge of answering the door. He is to sleep near the entrance to the monastery so he can hear and respond in a timely way when someone knocks at any hour, day or night. The porter is instructed to offer a welcome “with all the gentleness that comes from reverence of God,” and “with the warmth of love.” Upon hearing the knock on the door, the porter is to reply through the door, “Thanks be to God! A blessing!” He is to say this before he even knows who is on the other side of the door. And the porter is to welcome the stranger by offering food, drink, and shelter as an expression of the acceptance of the Lord.
For the Benedictines, the way they answer the door is the way they deal with the world.
Beneath the surface, we are all looking for acceptance.