Community Group Study Guide — Striving for Unity
The message of unity in the church because of common faith in Jesus is a deep theme of the book of Romans. In Romans, Paul writes to a church that is made up of Jewish and Gentile believers who are now a new family of faith that would gather to worship Christ together, but they come from very different backgrounds and as you read through Romans you get a sense that there was some hostility and division in the church. Paul address things like:
- Common sin problem. For the Gentiles their sin was wrapped up in worshipping created things as gods (idols). For the Jews they had God’s revelation in the Hebrew Scriptures but they became proud, and they struggled to live it out and yet judged others anyways.
- Common salvation in Christ who justified them by faith and not because of their works, ethnicity or anything else that they could measure outwardly.
- Common life in the Holy Spirit who helped them walk in victory from sin and testified to their adoption as sons and daughters of God.
- Common call to live in the family of faith and to use their gifts and service to build up one another in love.
It is true that Paul takes a small detour in Romans to answer the question, “doesGod still have a plan for Israel?” which you can read more about in Romans 9-11. However, the main problem being addressed in the book is division and how the people of God are united in Christ.
Romans 14 is an important part of the letter because Paul addresses these divisions directly and he does not address simple matters or insignificant details in how they lived. Rather, he addressed two issues that would have been really important to a Jewish believer’s upbringing before coming to know Christ – the dietary restrictions found in the Law of Moses and keeping the Sabbath. Both of which Paul calls “matters of opinion” but we know that they are not small or insignificant things (Romans 14:1).
In our culture today it seems like many things related to our understanding of scripture, practices of worship and how both may intersect with our way of life have been elevated to a level of “first importance”. Paul talks about things being “of first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 where he discusses the gospel, namely the events of the cross and the resurrection. So, we do need to recognize that there are things that if you remove them from the Christian faith then you no longer have the gospel. Some examples would be things like being justified by faith, the deity of Jesus, God being the creator and sustainer of the world, the resurrection, etc. This means there are things that are essential to believe, but also that not everything is of “first importance” and in a round about way if you treat everything as being a “gospel level issue” that devalues things that really are of “first importance”.
The goal here is to not be a “conviction-less” Christians or to be wishy washy about what the bible teaches Rather, the goal is to not overly divide on things that are “matters of opinion”, to use the words of Paul.
Let’s notice three things that help us understand how this works in Romans 14:
First, one’s natural tendency is typically towards division from other followers of Jesus. Notice the word choice Paul uses in Romans 14; he uses words like quarrel, despise, pass judgment, destroy one another (Romans 14:1, 2, 4, 10, 13, 15). It is part of our “natural” self to want to be around people who are most similar to ourselves and to judge those who come to different conclusions than us. Paul sets forth that a mark of spiritual maturity is being able to have fellowship with people who hold different opinions around what we may say are things of secondary or tertiary (third level) importance. Sabbath keeping and the dietary laws would be an important part of someone’s culture if they grew up in a Jewish background and came to faith in Jesus in Rome. They may want to hold onto those practices and Paul would say that it is not sin for them to do so even though Jesus has declared all food clean and even if the Sabbath was kept in a less stringent way among followers of Jesus than among groups like the Pharisees who were known for having an overly restrictive and burdensome view of the Sabbath (Mark 7:19, Acts 10:15). Neither of those things are gospel level issues, yet they led to division in the Roman church. Paul indicates that there is freedom here to eat or drink, but also the tendency to despise the person for whom it is a stumbling block or for the person who abstains to pass judgment on the one exercising their freedom (Romans 14:3).
Second, Paul reminds us to have our convictions rooted in honoring the Lord. Paul reminds us that we are not to live for ourselves and that all of our life can be worship to God. Look at Romans 14:6-12; both individuals on the various sides of the issue are acting out of a desire to give thanks to God and to honor him. An important step towards unity is to recognize and affirm this especially around secondary and third level issues in the Christian life. It is much harder to despise or judge someone when you recognize that the person is acting out of personal conviction and striving to honor God. There are issues where the other person may be misguided or misinterpreting the scripture, however in this particular passage Paul seems to be indicating that these specific issues around dietary laws and Sabbath keeping are matters of “opinion” and true believers can come to different conclusions and practices on it. Paul does gives us his personal understanding around this issue, which means he does take a side; he tells us that nothing is unclean in itself but it only becomes unclean when your conscience is pricked (Romans 14:14, 20). Notice though he also says that the loving thing to do is to not hold onto your preference or “opinion” it if it would cause a fellow believer to be “destroyed” (Romans 14:15). In the context of Paul’s world it would mean something like if you’re a Gentile Christian inviting over a Jewish Christian for dinner and you know they are still practicing the food restrictions in the law of Moses then you should not serve them pulled pork for dinner, you have the right to eat it but it would not be loving. Conversely if you are a Jewish believer inviting over a Gentile believer for dinner you shouldn’t go down to the marketplace and buy meat that was previously sacrificed to an idol and resold even though idols are “nothing” (a common practice in the ancient world; see 1 Corinthians 8). In our modern world this can get applied to things like alcohol, political convictions around how biblical teaching informs voting, or we can certainly talk for a while about face coverings because for many they saw it as either an issue of freedom on one side or love of neighbor on the other. The loving thing, according to Paul is not to quarrel over these things but to recognize that unity requires us to be sacrificial give up some things we have that are “freedoms” if we know they cause other believers to stumble. With all that said, certainly there are things that are non-negotiable and are of “first importance”, but if you make everything of “first importance” then nothing is really of “first importance”.
Finally, followers of Jesus would benefit from actively pursue unity and peace in the body of Christ. Romans 14:19 tells us to “pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding.” Unity around Christ is essential, but the default pattern of the human heart will be to look for division, which means we have to be purposeful and active in pursuing unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Paul gives us some really helpful applications here like:
- Do not quarrel, despise or pass judgment (Romans 14:1-4). Meaning that the tendency will be to fight, hate or look down on one another and this is sin. If you find yourself quarreling with another believer you should stop and check your heart attitude.
- Remember you will give an account of yourself to God (Romans 14:12). Matthew 7:4-5 implores us to examine our own lives before trying to help our brother/sister.
- Do not knowingly cause another believer to stumble (Romans 14:20).
Some other helpful practices would be to learn what is of “first importance” in scripture, meaning “what are the gospel issues that make someone a member of God’s family?” A helpful resource might be a book that gives you an overview of Christian theology, or Gavin Ortlund’s book “Finding the Right Hills to Die On” or Albert Mohler’s article “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity.” Another helpful practice would be to develop the habit of listening before acting on the need to speak and be heard (James 1:19). It is common in my own life to want to justify my own views before listening to where someone else is coming from. Finally, the church is meant to be intergenerational and diverse in terms of ethnicity, culture and socio-economic background. How often do you interact with other Christians in the church who may be older or younger than you, in different life circumstances or from a different background? It may be good to examine who you’re naturally drawn to talk to on a Sunday morning or whom you’d invite over for dinner and expand that circle.
To be in real community with other believers means there will be times where one will disagree or hold a different opinion about biblical teaching or practices of godliness. We should strive to know what is essential and what is a matter of opinion and be willing to lovingly set aside things that are opinions yet may be stumbling blocks so we can build one another up in the faith.
Paul addresses a quarreling church that was divided over their stances on significant theological issues. In doing so Paul reminds them to not quarrel over opinions, remember that they are to live in a way that honors God and to strive for unity in the church.
At your community group:
Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.
How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?
Read Romans 14:1-12
The passage and study guide point out a lot of hostility words in the passage describing how believers are acting towards one another like judge, destroy one another, quarrel, etc. Do you think the natural tendency is to find dividing lines with others or do you think unity comes more naturally for Christian brothers and sisters? Do you have any examples?
Why does Paul point us back to the idea that both parties “give thanks to God” in what they do and that we too will give an account of ourselves to God? (Romans 14:6, 12).
Read Romans 14:13-23
In what ways can we grieve each other unintentionally or set up stumbling blocks? Have there been any unique issues over this last year that have amplified that?
Paul tells us to fight for unity and peace with one another. What are some ways you can put into practice Romans 14:19? How can we grow as a community group or as a church in doing this?