Lessons in Christian Community

Christian Community (Part 7) - Accept One Another

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Briefly review our subject (index of involvement in Christian community) and the base text (Jn. 13:34,35).  The apostles unpacked this in the "one another" imperatives, and Paul clearly echoes Jesus in Rom. 15:7 (read).

What is this acceptance?

At first glance, this may sound like a synonym for "forgive one another," which we studied last week.  In practice, they wind up related to each other, but they are different.

Forgiveness means to lay down the right to pay someone back when they sin against you.  The opposite of forgiveness is bitterness.

Acceptance means to welcome (proslambanw) someone who is different from you.  As you can see by the following context in Rom. 15:8,9, his challenge is for Jewish and Gentile Christians to welcome one another into loving fellowship in spite of their ethnic and cultural differences.  The opposite of acceptance is snobbery or bigotry.

Why is this so important?

Paul says this acceptance is important because it is "to the glory of God."  In other words, it manifests something about the greatness of God to a lost world that God loves--namely, that through Jesus Christ, God welcomes all people--regardless of their differences--into fellowship with himself.  What evidence does God give that this is true?  That followers of Jesus form communities in which they welcome each other into fellowship, regardless of their differences.

The first-century world was fractured into thousands of factions based on differences that alienated people from one another: especially race, gender, and socio-economic status.[1]

Into this world came the radical and revolutionary message about Jesus Christ--that as the Savior of the world, he forms a new humanity in which these differences, while they remain, are superseded by belonging to him (Gal. 3:28).

This was not just a pious platitude that was unconnected to the real world.  Wherever this message went, local Christian communities sprang up and brought people together who would never have been together otherwise.

See for example the Christian community in Syrian Antioch (Acts 13:1).  Their elders were people who would never have associated with one another: Barnabas (a Hellenistic Jew), Simeon (a Gentile, and probably a black), Lucius of Cyrene (probably a Greek), Manean (an aristocrat, maybe a half-Jew), and Paul (a Hebraic Jew).
Many people mocked the Christians' message of a crucified Messiah and sneered at their claim that Jesus is the truth rather than one of many valid religions.  But they could not deny that Christians from very different backgrounds loved one another in a way that no one else could.  The New Testament reveals that they struggled greatly in this area, and they weren't perfect--but they were a powerful demonstration of the reality of their Savior, just as Jesus said they would be (cf. Jn. 13:34,35).

Not much has changed in this area since then, has it?  Our society is more riddled than ever with social stratification and alienation over race, gender, socio-economic--plus generational, political, cultural, etc.

But the evangelical church, instead of displaying an arresting alternative to this, for the most part is a reflection of it.  Except for a few significant exceptions (e.g., PERKINS), we have black churches, white churches, Hispanic churches, white-collar churches, blue-collar churches, Baby Boomer churches, Gen X churches, right-wing churches, left-wing churches, etc.  Listen to what Francis Schaeffer says about this state of affairs:

"Every Christian church, every Christian school, every mission should be a community which the world may look upon as a pilot plant.  When a big company is going to invest several million dollars into building a plant, it first builds a pilot plant to show it can be done.  Every Christian community ought to be a pilot plant to show that we can have relationships with (each other in spite of all kinds of differences in Christ).  Unless people see (this); unless they see that the thing that (they) rightly want but cannot achieve on a (non-Christian) base . . . is  . . . practiced in our communities . . ., they will not listen and they should not listen."[2]

This is a real test for the maturity of our own church--and I think we need to do better in this area.  We have a white, white-collar, student origin--yet God is continually stretching us into a church in which people with very different backgrounds come together and really accept and love one another.  Add to this differences in personality and the irritating idiosyncrasies and sins that go with them--and you have a formidable obstacle to community.  It's a complicated issue--there are no easy answers--but we are committed to practicing Christian community in this way.

The theological basis for acceptance

If we're going to be able to practice this kind of acceptance, we need both a theological basis for it and some practical steps to develop it.  Let's talk about the theological basis first . . . 

You can't create a truly accepting community simply by passing non-discrimination laws and affirmative action quotas.  Although these things are necessary in a fallen society like ours, we have to go deeper than this if we want to display God's "pilot plant."  We have to go beyond regulating behavior and understand the root issue underlying it--identity.  I only have time to sketch the outline of this, but God can use it . . . 

Identity refers to the incurable need human beings have to define themselves in a way that validates their existence.  The question "Who am I?" haunts us, and demands an answer.  And we must take our identity from one of two sources.

Apart from God, we define ourselves horizontally--by the ways in which we are different from other humans.  Some of these differences are congenital; others are chosen.  "I am intelligent/average/below average, wealthy/middle-class/poor, politically liberal/conservative, Caucasian/African or Native-American/Asian, young/middle-aged/old, physically attractive/unattractive, married/divorced/single, jock/artsy/tech nerd; counter-cultural/mainstream, introverted/extroverted, etc."  None of these differences are right or wrong in itself; the issue is the identity importance we attach to them. 

When we define ourselves by any of these things (and there is no alternative apart from God), they will inevitably draw to those who are like us and alienate us from those who are different from us (EXAMPLES).  We may change which horizontal difference by which we define ourselves, we may become subtler in the way we express our snobbery and bigotry, but there is no way out of the root snobbery and bigotry without also losing our identity.

The only alternative to this is a vertical identity--the identity our Creator assigns to us and reveals to us.   This is exactly what we find in the Bible, and it is totally different than all horizontal identities.  While God acknowledges the reality of the above differences, they have nothing to do with our real identity.  Instead, he says we all have the same basic identity:

CREATION: We are all created by him in his image, so we all have dignity and value in his eyes.
FALL: We are all alienated from God because of our true moral guilt. 
REDEMPTION: We are all invited to become his children through faith in his Son Jesus Christ.  This is a conscious decision on your part to turn to God, acknowledge your alienation and guilt before him--and personally receive Christ as your Lord and Savior (read Jn. 1:12).
Once you take this step, the barrier between you and God is taken away by Jesus' cross, and you receive a new identity as God's child--an identity that includes complete forgiveness through Jesus' death, a deeply personal relationship with God through the indwelling of his Spirit, a common calling to God's purpose for this life (SALT & LIGHT), and a common destiny of eternal life in God's kingdom.

When you come to Christ and experience new life as God's child, God begins to make some radical changes in your perspective:

Because you now have a new identity as God's child, you don’t have the same need to validate yourself by these horizontal differences.  You see these differences (EXAMPLES: intelligence; personality; wealth), not at that which defines you, but as good gifts from God to be redeemed and used in his service.  You see your old identity (EXAMPLES: sensuality; machismo; materialistic lust; intellectual pride) as a sinful caricature of your true identity from which God wants to liberate you.

As you look at other people, God begins to give you a new set of eyes.  The horizontal differences become relatively unimportant, because the one real crucial difference is whether they know Christ (2 Cor. 5:16,17).

As you look at those who don't yet know Christ, God shows you that you are no better than they are.  The only real difference between you and them is that you have received God's mercy, while they have not yet done this.  Instead of judgment, God urges you to have compassion for why they clutch on to their differences for their identities--because you did the same thing before you met Christ.  And God's love begins to impel you to reach out to them the way Christ reached out to you through his people (contra CHURCH SHAME).
As you look at other Christians, you no longer have to view them on the basis of your horizontal differences, but on the basis of your common identity in Christ.  What we have in common in Christ far outweighs our differences.  We're all members of the same Body, being transformed to the same character of Christ (Col. 3:10,11).  You have a basis for appreciating and profiting from many of their differences (e.g., PERSONALITY & GIFTS) because God designed them for this purpose.  You also have a basis for being patient and forbearing toward their character weaknesses, because Christ is patient and forbearing toward you (Col. 3:13).

Practical steps toward acceptance

This is the theological basis for accepting one another, and we need to stay focused on it and remind one another of it often.  But unless we combine this with practical steps, it will be a dead letter instead of the life-changing reality that God wants it to be. 

If you have received Christ, I have a question to ask you about your involvement with other Christians.  Do you have some close Christian friends about whom you can honestly say, "I would never have even wanted to know these people if I hadn't come to Christ?"  Are you able to articulate how God has spiritually enriched your life through these friends who are different from you?  If you can't answer affirmatively, you're not involved enough and you're missing out on one of the greatest features of the Christian life!  If you want God to change you, here are a couple of practical steps you can take.

Commit yourself to get consistently and personally involved with some other Christians who stretch your "difference envelope."

Home groups are a great way to begin this.  You'll find more than enough differences to challenge you (MY HOME GROUP PROFILE), along with the support of more mature Christians to help you learn how to "accept one another."

Once you get established in a home group, consider serving in a ministry team that serves people who are different than you, and has you serve with people who are different than you (URBAN CONCENR; student work; OASIS).

As you encounter relational problems in this context, focus on the attitudes God wants to change in you rather than on the differences of your Christian friends.  Let him drive you more deeply into your new identity, and let expose and free you from racism, chauvinism, intellectual pride, generational/cultural snobbery, political dogmatism, and rigidity & impatience with people who have different personality flaws.

Next Week

What about the differences that arise between us after we become Christians--like doctrinal differences and differences in the way we worship, etc.?  We will address this as we conclude our study of Romans by looking at Rom. 14.

[1] For an excellent historical treatment of this problem, see Richard N. Longenecker, New Testament Social Ethics for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984).

[2] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 40.