Key Thought: We grow in joy, peace, and hope by joining and loving specific communities.
Note: How do we find joy, hope, and peace in our lives? The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about that. He teaches that we do it by having more faith, hope, and love. In the 8th part of this study, we consider how Paul wrote to a specific community of Christians who had a lot of differences. How would they come together in love? This is the 8th of an 8 part study of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. You can read part 1 here, part 2 here, part 3 here, part 4 here, part 5 here, part 6 here, and part 7 here.
Paul, as a Christian missionary, took it for granted that when people accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior they would join specific communities in which they would praise and worship God, help each other grow, and serve one another. This is what we often call church, which simply means a gathering. Remember that the whole goal of this letter is that people would glorify God together (Romans 15:5–6). How would they learn to do this? They would gather in specific communities and build relationships based on the practices of worshiping God, personal growth, and serving Him.
As we noted in the last post, this can be hard. Human relationships are our greatest source of joy and pain. Love is a risk. It is worth it, but it often hurts.
Loving is also hard because people are different. They do things differently than we do. They come from a different place than we do. They come from different cultures than we do. They have different opinions than we do.
In spite of this, Paul was successful in building communities consisting of people of vastly different cultures, backgrounds, and social status. It’s really an amazing accomplishment. Over the past few years, I have built many relationships with both Latino and white Americans. I have tried to bring them together. I have been surprised at how hard it was to do so. The whites would arrive at 5 for a party and would leave at 8. The Latinos would not even arrive until 8. It was a simple difference, they both did what was natural to them, and this made it harder for them to come together. This is just one minor example of many differences people can have. My small efforts have made me appreciate what Paul did in bringing Jews and Gentiles together in one community.
What Paul accomplished was not easy. Paul and other leaders in the church had to constantly remind the people what it meant to love a community well. I want us to consider here five principles for loving a community well that Paul explains in Romans 14–16.
How to Love and Bless a Specific Community
1. Start with acceptance. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7). Community begins with acceptance. We ought to have a basic stance of welcoming and accepting people. How we greet each other matters. Notice that in Romans 16, Paul lists all sorts of people that he greets. This is not a minor point. These are the people who are on his heart. We should have a list like that, and it should be long. We should care about as many people as we can.
This is rooted, Paul says, in the basic truth that we already considered. God accepts us in Christ. “Accept others . . . as Christ accepted you . . .” This is the basis for community. God starts the process. He says to you, “I accept you.” How, then, can we not say that to others? We should show others in our words, acts, and face that we accept them.
2. We should think of how to please others, not ourselves. Paul says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up” (Romans 15:1–2). We should develop the habit of thinking of what is good for everybody and not just ourselves. Note: this also does not mean simply pleasing the loudest, angriest, or richest. It means everybody. We should look for the interests of the community as a whole, what will be good for everybody.
That’s what Jesus did. He came to earth not to please Himself but to please others. “Christ did not please himself . . .” (Romans 15:3). The irony is that in not pleasing Himself, He reached the highest state of blessedness. As Jesus said elsewhere, “He who desires to save His life will lose it, and whoever loses His life for my sake will gain it.” This ability to please others is rooted in a deep trust that God accepts us and is making us whole and that He will do us good. If we find ourselves not able to please others, then we should go back to what we studied in the previous lessons.
3. We should tolerate differences of personality, custom, and secondary doctrines. When we join a community, we will find all sorts of differences. This is not a bad thing. It is part of the process. It will help us grow, and it will help our neighbors grow. Paul begins this discourse by saying, “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1). There are many things that can be done differently. There are many things that are important but not central. Paul talks here about foods. He had an opinion about what the Bible teaches. However, he says that there should be tolerance for these differences, even though he says it is a matter of truth. He recognized that this was not something that was of first importance (see 1 Cor. 15:1–11).
4. We should not become a stumbling-block for others. We should be careful not do those things that will harm others. This means that we avoid putting burdens on people that they are not ready to bear. It may also mean that we don’t flaunt our freedom in a way that some people are not ready for. When we make a big deal out of a minor issue, then we can be a stumbling-block. When we don’t take care of major issues, then we can also be a stumbling-block. The point is to think of others as well as ourselves. As Paul puts it, “Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Rom. 14:13).
5. We should aim at helping people grow. We do not want people to stay where they are. We want to help them grow. Growth is a process. You can help a plant grow by watering it, fertilizing it, and pruning it, but growth has to occur through its own internal processes. You can’t rush that. So it is with people. That should be our aim, and we should recognize that it will take time. We should always be thinking about how we can help people grow in faith, hope, and love because that is the most important thing for people to grown in. “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (Rom. 14:19). Edification means building them up. We should engage in all measures that will help people grow.
When I was serving in Spearfish, South Dakota, we put a strong emphasis on the secondary doctrines of Scripture. When new people came to the church, we emphasized these points strongly. Before they became members, they would have to know a lot about the details of the teaching of Scripture, as we conceived of it.
Eventually, the church as a whole came to a recognition that this approach was wrong. We were putting a stumbling-block in the way of the weak and the seeker. We needed to focus on the simplicity of the Gospel and help people grow from there. We repented. It was amazing to see new people come, departed children return, and current members feel more welcome. When we did this, we were thinking about the community as a whole. It did lead to greater joy and peace. We were aligning ourselves with Christ’s mission.
We are made to live in community. We will have to work at it and continually challenge ourselves but loving a community well is a way to greater joy, peace, and hope in our lives.
Questions for Building Your Own Lesson
- How did Paul build and envision the community that believers would be a part of?
- What dangers did Paul see that would inhibit the building of community?
- What characteristics and actions did people need to develop in order to love the community well?
- What were the motivations that Paul gave to encourage people to love well?
Questions for Application
- Are you a part of a specific community? What has that been like for you?
- Where do you need to adjust your way of participating in a community?
- Do you have a list of people you love and care about like the Apostle Paul did in Rom. 16?
Thank you for taking the time to read this study. I hope that it was a blessing to you. If you enjoyed it, consider sharing it on social media or subscribing to this blog in the box below. I would also love to hear your feedback and experiences about being in community in the comment section below. I hope I will see you here again.