If church historian Oscar Cullmann and others are right, some of the early Christian martyrs (including Peter and Paul) were killed because of a lack of unity resulting in jealous strife among members of the church in Rome! According to history, the rivalry was so bitter that some of the brethren turned in the names of their Christian opponents, alleging they were traitors against the empire. If this is true, differences over doubtful things or petty preferences fostered the feeding of saints to the lions in the Coliseum and the burning of Christians in Nero’s gardens!
If we do not take God’s Word to heart in this matter of unity, we will cause irreparable damage in our day also. If these historians were correct, then Paul exercised prophetic foresight in these closing chapters of Romans as he states the importance of unity. If you are the kind of person who demands your rights and must have your way, then you will not like today’s text. Paul deals with a basic problem – selfishness. Christian love is not selfish; rather it seeks to share with others and develop them spiritually.
Here in Romans 15:1-6, we see that we must seek the welfare of others over our own pleasure (1-2). The command is not just to tolerate or put up with the weak, but to lovingly uphold them, to seek their edification and strengthening. This concept is found throughout scripture. Philippians 2:3 says, Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Paul is not saying we can never enjoy life’s pleasures, but our pleasures cannot be at the expense of another brother. That is, other’s spiritual welfare is more important than our participation in some liberty. If you think you are making a sacrifice by giving up food, drink or some other liberty or preference, then compare your sacrifice to Christ’s! Whatever you have given up is no match for Calvary.
Spiritual maturity is often seen in discernment: recognizing what is rightfully yours but willingly relinquishing it that others may be edified and unified.
Next, we must study the Scriptures to develop patience and hope (4-5). The Bible not only guides us in our relationship with God but with others by our use of liberty. It encourages us to patiently endure with people. Jesus was patient with Peter when he blundered and lied; he was patient with James and John when they got angry and wanted to call down fire on Samaria; he was patient with Thomas when he doubted; he was patient with Judas even when the betrayal money jingled in his pocket! Sometimes people can be very frustrating, especially in these areas of doubtful things. Sometimes we jokingly say, “We love the ministry it’s the people that drive us crazy!” But ministry is about people! Sometimes we want to say to people: Get over it! Grow up! Put your preferences aside! Look at life from someone else’s perspective! In light of eternity, what difference will it make? Are we majoring on the majors or the minors? Quit fighting over preferences — the world is going to Hell! Some need a heart-transplant from the God of Patience for that to happen.
Finally, we must strive together, pursuing unity that glorifies God (6). If we are going to experience unity amidst diversity, we must understand and submit to the doctrine of doubtful things and give liberty in doubtful areas. We can hold different views on non-doctrinal matters without being divided, but if we allow ourselves or others to elevate doubtful matters to the level of doctrine, resulting in separation, we will never have unity. When there is biblical unity, God is exalted, and when there is division over doubtful things, God is grieved. Psalm 133:1 states, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.” Ephesians 4:3 instructs, “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” When people who are different come together in mutual submission to Christ, they glorify God.
There will always be people here, as there were in the church at Rome, who seek to elevate their opinions and in turn divide the body of Christ. Those opinions could be things such as political parties, education choice, family size, borrowing money and indebtedness, church musical styles, entertainment choices, or Bible translations. Are any of these doctrinal matters? No! They are preferences–opinions or wisdom matters. Do we all hold opinions about each one? Yes! However, when individuals are harming the unity of the body by arguing over those doubtful things, it is the church’s leadership that must take responsibility to make them cease!
In conclusion, think about 10 pianos all tuned to the same tuning fork–they are automatically tuned to each other! They are in one accord by being tuned not to each other but to another standard to which each must individually adjust. One hundred worshipers meeting together, each one looking to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be if they were seeking unity and fellowship on their own. (A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God)