“Therefore, let us no longer judge one another. Instead decide never to put a stumbling block or pitfall in the way of your brother of sister.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I used to wear rubber bands on my wrist. It was a phase in high school. I always had a least one and sometimes wore several. Whenever I found one sitting around somewhere I’d slip it on and wear it. The thing about rubber bands is that over time they begin to lose their elasticity when they are exposed to the rigors of life. It doesn’t happen all at once. But eventually, when you stretch them, you begin to notice that there are cracks in them. Once these start forming as long as you leave the rubber band alone, you can’t see them. If you stretch them, though, they show up. The further you stretch them, the more they show and the bigger they become. Stretch too far – and what counts as “too far” narrows over time – and eventually they snap. Our culture is like a rubber band right now. The church is too. Let’s talk this morning about how to avoid the snap.
The church I have the privilege to pastor started meeting for live services for the first time in the COVID era on July 5 of last year. By God’s grace and the wise safety protocols we put in place at the time and have held to pretty rigorously since, we have not had our live services interrupted even once since then. This is in spite of the fact that most of our neighbors either have had to make a shift back to their parking lot or go all virtual or even have still today not started meeting for live worship services.
Taking this approach, however, hasn’t been easy. We’re doing things in ways that don’t make everyone happy. There are aspects of corporate worship I miss dearly like singing congregationally. And everyone isn’t yet comfortable coming back to live services. We still have a healthy-sized group of active members who are joining us online each week via our Facebook page or YouTube channel. And when it comes to folks who are meeting in the building, not everyone agrees with everything we’re doing. That has added its own layers of challenge.
Not to toot my own horn, but this is all happening almost exactly like I said it would. On the last two Sundays of June, our last two fully virtual Sundays, I preached a two-part series called “Getting Back Together.” (You can find the first part here and the second part here.) The series was a walkthrough of Romans 14 where Paul confronts head-on an issue that was tearing apart the church in Rome. Their particular issue isn’t relevant to our current situation at all, but the wisdom Paul offered for how they should work through it together is fantastically relevant. They were dealing with an issue that was not one on which their salvation hung, but was one on which believers held opposing positions and held them fiercely and on grounds they believed were clearly marked out by Scripture.
In the second part of the series, I said the following about the very same verse I put at the top of this post:
Instead of judging someone else for the choices they have made, let us focus our attention on helping them not trip over something we may be doing that could prevent them from connecting as fully with their heavenly Father as they could be. Do you see how this changes things? Now, instead of being fixated on what we think they are doing wrong and critically poking them in the direction of God—a prodding to which exactly no one responds well—we are instead focusing on the log that might be in our own eye with the intention of removing roadblocks from their journey to Jesus.
The issue I was focused on at the time was mask-wearing and other safety protocols whose necessity was not a universally-held opinion. That hasn’t changed. Instead, we have had to learn how to live in this new reality. With the advent of the vaccine it may be that things are able to go back to some semblance of a pre-COVID normal in the near future, but that may also not be the case. There will be some aspects of what has become normal that aren’t going to change. Neither will the opinions about their necessity. This is also as I said it would be.
These issues we’ve been talking about are real and they aren’t going away just because we’re excited to see each other at first. And, the differences in how we worship together and what it looks like for us to be back together will make sure that we don’t just forget about them over time. It’s going to be a while before things are like they were before all of this started. Some changes may wind up being permanent. We’re learning as we go to be sure, but we’re going to be in a learning mode for a while. Differences of opinion stand a great chance of dividing us if we are not prepared to meet them head on with grace when they come. Differing approaches to living out our faith will regularly threaten to derail our Gospel-advancing efforts unless we learn to follow Paul’s call here to love one another. The fact is, the church always thrives when we love one another.
That last part hasn’t changed either. The church always thrives when we love one another.
Let’s be honest with each other this morning: This has been a rough season for the church. For many followers of Jesus this has been a crucible testing their commitment to the body of Christ. Just how deep does that commitment go? Does it persist when things aren’t the way they want? Does it go beyond sending some money the church’s way and showing up when its convenient? Are the relationships with fellow church members strong enough to withstand differences of opinions on the worthwhileness of wearing a mask and maintaining physical distancing? How long are you really willing to go to church when you can’t sing corporately? Are you willing to step up and serve in integral ways even in it’s inconvenient and possibly even risky? How willing are you to pursue studying the Scriptures as a body when previously normal patterns of fellowship aren’t a part of the package any longer?
Weathering these challenges is taking a toll. Churches are dividing and animosity is growing. This isn’t just happening within individual churches. Whole communities are setting themselves apart based on issues related to COVID. Often these larger splits are the result of pastors who have publicly taken a side on one issue or another. This is tempting to do, but as soon as a whole church takes a side on an issue on which the Scriptures are not explicitly clear, they have rendered themselves incapable of preaching the Gospel to unbelievers who find themselves on the other side of whatever line has been drawn.
There is perhaps a reason Paul added the instruction near the end of this chapter that “whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God.” Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t ever talk with conviction and civility about the multiple sides of difficult issues. It does mean, though, that we refuse to be dogmatic about our position, leaning instead with grace and tolerance in the direction of our brother or sister who believes differently on it for the sake of the relationship. It does mean that we don’t air our opinions about it on social media. Those posts convince exactly no one to believe like we do. A social media post and ensuing comment feed is not a substitute for a real conversation rooted in grace and truth. Instead, they serve as echo chambers where like-minded fellows give us attaboys and attagirls, while those who believe differently either snipe at us (and us back at them) or else feel empowered to go start their own echo chamber post, increasing the cynicism of one side toward the other and sharpening the divide between us.
That’s not how things are to work in the church. The church is supposed to be different. If we can’t fellowship and worship and serve and love brothers and sisters who are not of like mind with us on divisive issues because of the surpassing benefit of our mutual commit to Christ, then we haven’t just missed the boat on the matter. We’ve missed the whole ocean. We are claiming an allegiance to Jesus without actually living and loving like He did. As we talked about this past Sunday, followers of Jesus are to be known by love alone.
Loving when everything is the way we like it and we’re all of like mind is easy. The purity of the gold, though, isn’t shown when conditions are good and easy. It is only in the crucible that the impurities are revealed. Friends, COVID has and continues to be our crucible. The impurities are rising to the top. And they are sometimes ugly; uglier than we ever imagined they would be.
As this happens, we have two choices before us in how to respond. We can fixate on the impurities, be frustrated by the impurities, and otherwise leave them there to continue spreading their poison in the background, preventing us from becoming fully who God designed us to be. Or, we can scrape them off with the Spirit’s help and shine all the more brightly with the character of our God. Now, presented like that it seems the choice is simple. And it is. But it’s not easy.
The problem with impurities rising to the top is that if we don’t scrape them off (which only happens when we throw ourselves entirely in the direction of practicing the love of Jesus in practical and meaningful ways with our ideological opponents in the church), when things eventually cool back down they’re no longer hidden inside of us, they’re out there on top where everyone can see them. They become the things that define us to the repulsion of everyone who isn’t already part of the club. In other words, at the core, these various issues aren’t merely matters of preference and convenience. They are Gospel issues putting the eternal destiny of the people around us at stake. On the other side of all this mess, churches who fail to lean into love here will become enclaves of the saved who cease to attract unbelievers to the Gospel. That is, they will cease to be churches at all. They’ll be Christian clubs in a culture where such clubs have become and are becoming more everyday utterly irrelevant.
Love is the way forward. Whatever the precise issue is, love is the way forward. If we get this right in this season, we will come out of it on the other side shining as bright Gospel lights attracting a world tired of the darkness like moths to a flame. The road won’t be easy and we’ll have to consciously give of our preferences in favor of those we don’t like many times along the way, but the payoff will be an expanding kingdom of God and that’s always been the goal. Let’s aim for it. “Therefore welcome one another, just as Christ also welcomed you, to the glory of God.”