Open your social media feed or turn on the news, and you will quickly recognize that we live in a fractured society, one that is deeply divided by competing worldviews and ideologies. In this fallen and broken world, it comes as no surprise when unbelievers devour and consume one another with hostility and bitterness. It should, however, shock and concern us when those who profess belief in Christ do the same.
Scripture repeatedly emphasizes God’s desire for unity and peace among God’s people. Jesus prayed for the church to be one on the night before he was crucified (John 17:20–23). Paul pled with the Corinthians “that there be no divisions among you, and that you be united with the same understanding and the same conviction” (1 Cor 1:10).1 Peter urged believers in a persecuted church “to be like-minded and sympathetic, love one another, and be compassionate and humble” (1 Pet 3:8).
How should believers pursue unity? When should they go their separate ways? Here we will note two flawed and unbiblical approaches to church unity that reap destructive consequences for the church. But our primary focus will be on a biblical plan for church unity modeled by the apostle Paul in the book of Romans.
2 flawed, unbiblical approaches to church unity
As I have detailed in my book, When Doctrine Divides the People of God, those who profess Christ will often make one of two mirroring errors when it comes to unity and conflict in the church. The first mistake is a “unity-above-all” approach to church conflict. This approach, embodied by many modern ecumenical movements, tends to downplay or reject biblical truth in the name of compromise and tolerance.
Though the desire to keep or make peace between brothers and sisters in Christ is close to God’s own heart (Matt 5:9), true unity can never be achieved by sacrificing the essentials of the Christian faith. When Jesus prayed for his followers to “be one,” he also prayed that God would “sanctify them by the truth” (John 17:17). Without the gospel or our biblical convictions, there is nothing to bring us together!
Other Christians make the opposite error by insisting that church unity cannot be established apart from uniformity of thought in doctrinal and practical matters. In this approach, every potential area for disagreement becomes a “gospel issue” with eternal stakes. They might insist that “other people who don’t agree with me about my view of x cannot possibly be true Christians,” even if their belief in x is not explicitly taught or even implied by Scripture. This approach makes unity and cooperation across diverse groups of Christians from different traditions and cultures difficult, if not impossible.
How Paul contended for unity in Romans
Scripture provides us with a better template for pursuing church unity. With his letter to the Romans, Paul crafted a pastoral response to the discord and conflict that was brewing in the house churches of Rome. The primary purpose of Romans was to foster church unity among Jewish and Gentile Christians.
So, what was all the fuss about? History provides a few important clues. AD 49, Emperor Claudius evicted all Jews from the city of Rome, likely because Jews and Jewish Christians clashed over the identity of the Messiah (see Acts 18:2). Five years later, after Claudius died, many Jewish Christians returned to the city and to their home churches. But there they made a startling discovery: the churches they left behind were now predominantly Gentile in their membership.
The Jewish Christians who returned were startled to discover that Gentile Christians didn’t follow all the rules of the law of Moses that were so familiar to them. These Gentiles didn’t keep the Sabbath. They ate off different menus—including some foods Jews deemed unclean. The Gentile men weren’t even circumcised! The culture shock these Jewish believers experienced must have been overwhelming.
How could Paul expect people from such seemingly different ways of life to be unified as brothers and sisters? Paul could have followed one of the two mistaken approaches to church unity we have already highlighted. He could have told the Jewish and Gentile Christians that it “doesn’t really matter what we believe if we can all just get along.” (Though such an approach would have denied us the treasure trove of theological truth that we have in Romans!) Paul also could have attempted a “my-way-or-the-highway” approach with Jewish or Gentile Christians, strong-arming one side of the conflict into submission to the other.
Thankfully, the apostle chose to honor doctrinal truth and to fight to preserve church unity. His case for church unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians was built on four pillars:
- Unity in the gospel
- Unity through humility and service
- Unity in worship
- Unity in mission
1. Unity in the gospel that results in our righteousness
For Paul, the good news of Jesus was the glue that held together the motley crew of Jewish and Gentile believers in the church at Rome. The gospel was “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16). This would have been a revolutionary idea for many first-century Jews—who assumed that Israel alone was God’s chosen people. As Paul contended in Romans 9–11, our sovereign God has a good purpose in counting both Jews and Gentiles as his people in Christ.
Paul believed that the gospel was either good news for everyone or good news for no one. “The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction” (Rom 3:22). Our righteous God has granted his righteousness to sinful people through faith in Christ, to Jew and Gentile alike. God doesn’t declare us right when we follow food laws or circumcision laws but when we trust Christ. God is not only the God of the Jews; he is also the God of Gentiles who believe in Christ (Rom 3:29–30). Whether Jew or Gentile, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13).
Gospel unity cannot be established without a common gospel. Elsewhere in Galatians, Paul admonishes those who “want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Gal 1:7). He even claims that those who preach “a gospel contrary to what we have preached” are under a “curse” (Gal 1:8)! This is why Paul walks through his gospel message so plainly and clearly across the first eight chapters of Romans. He knew from his earlier experiences with the Galatians that the only hope Jewish and Roman Christians in Rome had of true unity was in a shared understanding of the gospel.
2. Unity through humility and service
Those united by the gospel belong to the community of believers called the church. Throughout his letters, Paul used several metaphors to describe the church, including the bride of Christ (Eph 5:32), “God’s household” (Eph 2:19), “God’s field,” and “God’s building” (1 Cor 3:9). But the metaphor Paul employed most often was the “body of Christ.”
This bodily imagery does a lot of heavy lifting in Paul’s doctrine of the church. It conveys Paul’s belief that all believers are united under Christ as the head of the church (Eph 5:23, 30). It displays the solidarity we have with Christ in his sufferings (Col 1:24). It speaks of our corporate growth in Christ (Eph 4:12). Only members of the body of Christ have a share in the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:1–31).
Yet the body of Christ takes on another important dimension in Romans 12:3–8. Here, the body represents the unity that a diverse group of believers can have in service to one another and God’s kingdom. “Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another” (Rom 12:4). Even though God has equipped us for ministry in various ways, we share a dual common objective: to serve God and serve one another.
Paul cautions against the temptation of many in the church to think more highly of themselves than they should. In God’s church, we’re not a “big deal.” God alone gifts each member of his body for service, so we cannot take the glory that rightly belongs to him (Rom 12:3; cf. Phil 2:3). Those who stir up conflict and dissension are prideful people who “do not serve our Lord Christ but their own appetites” (Rom 16:18).
By contrast, peacemakers put the body of Christ before their own needs. They aren’t seeking a platform or fame; they are seeking to serve Christ at every turn. As Tony Merida notes, “The path to unity always comes through humility and service.”2 Instead of being proud, wise in their own eyes, Jewish and Roman Christians needed to learn how to “live in harmony with one another” (Rom 12:16). They needed to “love one another deeply as brothers and sisters,” honoring one another at every opportunity (Rom 12:10).
3. Unity in the praise and worship of our God
Paul’s plea for unity takes on concrete applications in Romans 14 and 15. Here the apostle distinguishes between those believers who are “weak in faith” (Rom 14:1) and those “who are strong” (Rom 15:1). Those whom Paul described as “weak” were likely the Jewish Christians who had reservations about abandoning dietary laws or customs related to the Sabbath. By contrast, those who were “strong” (and Paul counted himself in this number) no longer felt obliged to keep these laws in order to please God.
For much of his letter, Paul had been advocating for Jewish Christians to embrace Gentile Christians who were justified by their faith in Christ. Here, he encouraged Gentile Christians to show hospitality and grace to Jewish Christians who maintained their traditional customs: “Welcome anyone who is weak in faith” (Rom 14:1a). Paul lists several imperatives for how the “strong” should relate to the “weak” in the church.
First, he tells those who are “strong” not to “argue about disputed matters” (Rom 14:1b). Whether one only eats clean foods or observes certain religious days is a matter of personal conviction, not divinely revealed instruction (Rom 14:5). Christians have the liberty to disagree on non-essential matters like these. We may ascribe “non-essential” status to things not directly prescribed or even implied by New Testament instruction.
Second, Paul requires that those who are strong do not “look down on” or “judge” those weaker Christians who have these convictions (Rom 14:2, 13). We must leave final judgment in these matters to the Lord, before whom we must all stand and give an account (Rom 14:4, 10–12).
Third, Paul urges stronger believers not to needlessly provoke weaker believers who have different convictions. While he admits that he believes weaker believers are likely wrong about certain foods being unclean, he also wants to discourage stronger believers from flaunting their liberty before those who would be confused or provoked by such actions. Such provocations are not only unkind and unloving, but they can also be destructive to the faith of others—and of your Christian witness (Rom 14:15–16).
Finally, Paul commends stronger Christians to “pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another” (Rom 14:20). Neither our diets nor our words should cause our brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble. Instead, we must “bear the weaknesses of those without strength” (Rom 15:1) and pursue God-given “harmony with one another” (Rom 15:5).
The aim of these practical directions is simple: we should “welcome one another, just as Christ welcomed you, to the glory of God” (Rom 15:8). Jews and Gentiles, as well as Christians from every walk of life, can come together and have unity in the way they sing praises to God’s name (Rom 15:9–13).
We should seek to “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one mind and one voice” (Rom 15:6). As the context would suggest, having “one mind” does not entail uniformity of thought or complete agreement on every matter in the Christian life. What having “one mind and one voice” does entail is inward and outward harmony in the life and worship of the church. As Tom Schreiner explains, “God is not honored … if the believing community is fractured by divisions. He is honored when Jews and Gentiles, with all their diversity, stand shoulder to shoulder and lift their voices in praise to him.”3
4. Unity for the sake of the mission
When Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans sometime between AD 56–58, he had not seen Roman churches in person (Rom 1:1–15; 16:3–15), but he planned to spend time with them on his way to Spain (Rom 15:22–23). A few more years would pass before he had the chance to visit (see Acts 20:11–16).
Paul anticipated some financial assistance from Roman churches in his missionary travels (Rom 15:24). He may have hoped that some believers in Rome would accompany him on his journey. But most importantly, Paul asked them to strive together in prayer with him for the journeys ahead. He specifically requested prayer for protection from unbelievers and that his ministry would be pleasing to God’s people (Rom 15:31).
Though the apostle likely never made it to Spain, he desired to “preach the gospel where Christ has not been named” (Rom 15:20). Paul made the case for unity among Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome because he believed Christians there would be invaluable partners in his ministry to Spain.
Christian churches are made up of different people with different gifts who sometimes have different convictions. But the differences between us cannot derail us from our shared mission: to make Jesus known to those people who do not know him. The unfinished task before the church of making disciples of all nations requires unity and cooperation between fellow believers—not uniformity or complete agreement about methods and means.
God’s church is made up of people from “every nation, tribe, people, and language” (Rev 7:9). We come from different cultures and traditions. We have different gifts and callings. However, those who hold to the biblical gospel, who are gifted by the Holy Spirit, who worship the one true God, and who share in the Great Commission share more in common, though they come from different parts of the globe, than a Christian does with an unbelieving neighbor of the same culture, language, nationality, economic status, and race. We are stronger together in truth, humility, love, and cooperation than we are when divided. For this reason, gospel-preaching churches should strongly consider the apostolic charge to do whatever it takes to “pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another” (Rom 14:19).
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