We considered the boundaries of Christianity. We now consider the “rules.” And there are rules.
Now, rather than approaching the scriptures asking our own questions, we need to let the scriptures tell us both the questions and the answers. You see, sometimes what we think is important isn’t important to the New Testament writers at all.
Take Romans — a very long book written to a church that Paul had never visited. You’d think if there ever was a great occasion for Paul to lay out the “marks of the church” to make sure the church in Rome would be a “faithful” congregation of the brotherhood, this would be it. And Paul, indeed, writes chapters and chapters on how to live as a congregation of God’s people — but says hardly anything about how to conduct a worship service or how to organize. He doesn’t even lay out a whole bunch of rules, as we think of rules.
(Rom 12:1) Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.
I stand corrected. Paul does talk about acts of worship. He means by this living as Jesus lived — as a voluntary sacrifice. And Paul immediately begins this section by referring to the gospel — the crucifixion of Jesus. He doesn’t pull out a tract of rules — he tells the Romans to act like Jesus in his self-sacrifice.
(Rom 12:2) Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Now, we see Paul speaking about attempting to conform to a pattern, but he uses “pattern” very negatively. Rather than seeking to conform (active voice), we should “be transformed” (passive voice) by the renewal of our minds. This is a reference to God’s work in us through the Spirit described in chapters 7 and 8.
(Rom 7:6) But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.
(Rom 8:5-8 ESV) 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Paul is describing a new kind of service and a new kind of mind, made possible through the power of the indwelling Spirit.
(Rom 12:6-8) We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.
Paul then instructs that we are to use the gifts given us through the Spirit (1 Cor 12) in God’s service. Among those gifts is “leadership.” Now, Paul is saying that if God gives you the gift to lead, lead. You see, leadership is first and foremost about God-given giftedness. When we look at the rules to the exclusion to the power of God working among us through his Spirit, we make bad decisions about leaders.
Recall in Acts 6 that the qualifications for the men appointed (some say to be deacons) over the distribution of food to widows is that they be filled with the Holy Spirit. And yet today those Churches trapped in 20th Century Church of Christ teaching ignore the workings of the Spirit — denying that the Spirit even works — and the result has been the appointment of some very unspiritual men to church office.
My own view is that God is far more qualified to make these decisions that we are, and so we need to look among our churches to find to whom God has given the gift of leadership and filled with the Spirit. It’ll change everything.
(Rom 12:9-21) Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul spends the balance of the chapter discussing love, especially love among brothers in the congregation. He makes many obvious references to the words of Jesus.
Now, to some this is liberal mush and has nothing to do with the rules. But to Paul, well … to Paul these are the rules. And imagine if our Churches had actually honored these commands over the last many years. How many more members would we have and how few would the splits have been?
Had we been willing to “associate with people of low position,” how might the Churches have acted differently regarding racial discrimination in the last century?
Jesus says we’ll be known as his disciples by our love. Paul is now telling us exactly how to do that. This is how to let your congregation be marked as Christ’s church.
Paul next discusses the church/state relationship to complete the thought of 12:19-21, and then he says,
(Rom 13:8-10) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Plainly, the rule is love for our neighbors. That rule includes these other commands because these other commands cannot be violated if we love our neighbors.
Now, Paul doesn’t discuss the first tablet of the Ten Commandments, because those commands are subsumed within “faith.” You see, the left tablet is honored by those who have faith. The right tablet is honored by those who have love. Faith + love is the entirety of the Ten Commandments as viewed through the fulfilling work of Jesus on the cross. We believe in Christ and him crucified, the Messiah, Lord, and Son of God. We love as he loved us — so much so that he died for us.
But this understanding actually requires much, much more of us than the Ten Commandments.
(Rom 13:11-14) And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
Paul next looks ahead to the end of time. The promise of the resurrection should motivate us to live the lives we’re called to. “Clothe yourselves with the Lord” refers to living as Jesus lived — sacrificially and in service to others, whereas orgies, drunkenness, etc. are all selfish acts. You see, Christian love is a serving, sacrificial love. Christian love is offering your bodies as living sacrifices.
(Rom 14:1-4) Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
Now, Paul does not at all change the subject. Rather, he continues to tell us how to live as a congregation of God’s people who clothe themselves with Christ — who live the crucifixion — but he applies the rules, the marks, the commands, the laws to tolerance for those whose faith is so weak that they disagree over doctrinal issues that aren’t salvation issues.