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“The Dimensions of Acceptance”

Romans 15:1-7
Bob DeGray
September 29, 2002

Key Sentence

The strong believer avoids a critical attitude and embraces those with different convictions.


I. The Context in Romans 14
II. The Boundaries of Acceptance
III. The Key to Acceptance (Romans 15:1-3)
IV. The Strength for Acceptance (Romans 15:4-6)
V. The Depth of Acceptance (Romans 15:7)


        I love a story that took place during the ‘Jesus Movement’ of the early 70's. A church in Massachusetts was getting strange visitors called hippies. Some of you remember them. Some of you were them. Anyway, they didn't exactly fit in, and people began to complain. The showdown came one Sunday when a young man with hair to his waist and patched_up blue jeans came in during the service and sat in the middle of the aisle, cross_legged. Members started to murmur. Finally a crusty old deacon got up and walked down the aisle. The church held its breath. That 70 year_old deacon came to the young hippie, didn’t say a word, and sat cross_legged next to him.

        The subject of our message today is the simple phrase ‘Accept one another’. Located as it is in Romans chapter 15 this phrase opens the door for all kinds of thinking about acceptance and attitudes, thinking that ought to challenge our attitudes and stretch our individual comfort zones. Because what we’ll see in this text is that a strong believer avoids a critical attitude and embraces those with different convictions.

        Our text is Romans 15:1-7, but I want to preface the text with two very important things. First I want to summarize the larger context by looking at Romans 14, the chapter before ours. Then I want to examine the contemporary application of Romans 14. Only then will we look at Romans 15, which teaches us how to accept others, how to avoid a critical attitude and embrace those with different convictions.

I. The Context in Romans 14

        So let’s begin with a quick overview of Romans 14. If you turn there in your Bible you’ll see that Paul starts that chapter with the words “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” The subject of Romans 14 and 15 is the same: acceptance. The word is used in Romans 14:1 and Romans 15:7, and in a sense the two verses are bookends of Paul’s discussion. The word ‘accept’ literally means take or receive together. It is used in the Gospels of taking someone along for a journey. So Paul is saying ‘take each other along’ without passing judgment on someone else’s opinions.

        Notice that these are opinions. They are convictions about disputable matters, not things where one person is clearly right and another clearly wrong from a Biblical point of view. These are things that believers can disagree about without threatening any central doctrine of the faith. We’re going to spend a little time later establishing what the boundaries of acceptance are, but for now simply notice that whatever is going on here, it is within these boundaries, these differing opinions. Romans 14 is going to help us understand what our attitude should be in that situation.

        The specific issue here is kosher food. Some Jewish believers felt they must continue to avoid some foods. Others took the view Paul had, that in Christ food issues didn’t matter: you could eat anything you wanted. Now Paul says both groups should be accepted. Acceptance is expected even if one opinion is more Scripturally sound than the other so that one holding that opinion is ‘strong’ in faith and one holding the opposing opinion is ‘weak’ in faith. Even if that’s true, when something is morally neutral and not a matter of core doctrine we are to accept one another.

        Romans 14:3 tells us what attitudes to avoid in such circumstances. “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.” Two unfit attitudes: the one who sees himself as strong in faith should not disdain the one who feels he needs to maintain these practices, and the one who practices these things should not judge the one who doesn’t - should not pass judgment by words or behavior.

        This is key. Every disputable matter requires an attitude check. Am I despising someone, looking down on them for their belief? Or am I judging, calling someone ‘sinner’ for his behavior. To obey the command ‘accept one another’ we must avoid both. Paul goes on: “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” We’re not ultimately responsible for anyone’s opinions. We may be responsible to educate or guide, to help a person grow, but disputable matters are between them and God. God is able to make someone strong even if they lack a conviction that I hold.

        Paul mentions both attitudes again in Romans 14:10 “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Romans 14:13 “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way.” In addition to our attitude we need to check our behavior and words: Have I said or done anything to create a roadblock, an obstacle that stands in the way of their conviction? In answering this question, we need to be careful with ourselves. We need to honestly evaluate if we are blocking the path of another person’s faith. But we also need to discern if the person is so sensitive that they are seeing obstacles where none exist. We need to remove real obstacles and prayerfully reassure if any false stumbling blocks are being perceived.

II. The Boundaries of Acceptance

        Romans 14 warns us against letting disputable matters, these things that come up all the time between believers, threaten our unity. But what are these disputable matters? Where do we cross the line into things in which we should confront our brother or sister? The answer seems simple: we confront when there is sin or doctrinal error. We don’t confront when there is not. The thing we might disagree on is where the line between opinion and doctrine should be drawn, the line between morally neutral behavior and sin. That’s what I want to spend a few minutes discussing.

        Let me repeat the basis: we do not accept behavior that is clearly sin or doctrine that is clearly heresy. The key word is clearly and by it I mean biblically. Sin or error must be demonstrated from Scripture. If not it is just your opinion against mine. Any specific sin or error will violate clear Biblical principles that can be agreed on by a wide range of believers. Disputable matters will raise a wide variety of opinions even among mature believers. That’s the distinction I’m trying to draw.

        So what would be some grounds for non-acceptance? Well, here’s an example. The Bible doesn’t mention pornography explicitly or the Internet, and yet I would be unwilling to call ‘brother’ someone who said that viewing pornography online was acceptable for believers. That’s outside the boundaries. In the same way, I can’t call ‘brother’ someone doesn’t believe the doctrine of the Trinity, which is central to the faith.

        There are many things, morally and doctrinally, that are outside the boundaries, but there are many things where we might disagree on behavior or doctrine without either of us being over that line. There is a grey area, where some of us will be sure we ought to behave one way, and others will think behaving another way is OK. There is a grey area where some of us will be convinced the Bible teaches one thing, and others will be just as convinced it teaches another. Let me give some examples.

        For a doctrinal issue, let’s take the old classic of predestination and free will. This has been debated forever, sometimes here in our church. Some believe one thing, some just as strongly the other. Some feel the whole question has been framed wrong. Be that as it may, we know people can be saved, be strong believers and have differing opinions on this. It is not a doctrine on which we can judge others or disdain others.

        However, and this is where we fine tune a little bit, I think a church is free to say at times ‘this is our position, and we ask you not to teach in opposition to it.’ An example would be the doctrine of pre-millennialism, which means that Christ is returning to reign on earth for a thousand years before his eternal kingdom is established. Our church and denomination have said ‘this is what we believe.’ I think it’s the Biblical position. But even though I would ask someone attending this church not to teach against this position, I would not deny that someone who was a-millennial or post millennial was truly saved or mature. It’s within the boundaries of acceptance, though it might not be inside this other boundary of church distinctives.

        There are many issues like this: Certain aspects of baptism, of the tribulation, of spiritual gifts, of church government are in this donut between doctrine and distinctive. We need to accept as fellow believers even those who disagree with things distinctive to our church. But what about behavior? How do we draw boundaries of acceptance relative to behavior. This may be more important: people can distance themselves from their doctrine, but it’s very hard to avoid being hurt when someone judges your behavior. It is critical that we master the skill of acceptance in this area.

        Let me give examples significant to us as a church or as families. Take worship style: a few weeks ago I said that raising our hands and saying amen were Biblical behaviors. They are not however, mandated behaviors. Acceptance means we need to be a church where you can raise your hands or not, and it’s okay, you can say ‘Amen’ or not and it’s okay. We need to believe that God can be honored by either of these worship styles if done from a sincere heart.

        How about education choices? People in our church have made several different schooling choices. Does the Bible mandate one of these? No. Each family has to make choices based on their circumstances and convictions. Is one right and the others wrong? No. You can have a conviction from Scripture for any of them, and it’s OK not to hold the same conviction: these verses teach us to embrace and support whatever choice a parent makes. But the sad truth is that some people have fallen into the negative attitudes of Romans 14. They have judged their brothers and sisters for the choice they have made, or looked down on their brothers and sisters for not making the same choice. Some have put stumbling blocks in the paths of others, mostly by judging as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ behavior that is morally neutral. Every schooling choice conscientiously made ought to be positively supported.

        Here’s another pertinent example: dating choices. Some families have strong convictions that courtship is a good Christian approach to guy-girl interactions. Others with similar goals have been comfortable with dating. Still others have moved from one position to the other as the child in question has matured and their life situation has changed. Which of these approaches are you willing to call sin? I hope none of them. But are you willing to let others make these choices with positive acceptance?

        I could go on. If I took a poll I’d find many behaviors stemming from differing convictions among believers. These differences are unavoidable, because God creates and leads all of us differently. It would be wrong for any one of us to follow the dictates of men rather than the one we serve. But we do need to learn to accept others.

III. The Key to Acceptance (Romans 15:1-3)

        Our text addresses positive acceptance, the flip side of the negative attitudes exposed in Romans 14. The first thing the text does is give us not just a corrected attitude but a counterbalanced attitude. Rather than being judgmental or disdaining, we need to live to please others. Romans 15:1-3 We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. 2Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: "The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me."

        Here’s a positive prescription: We will accept others much more easily if we serve them. We’ve already seen that we’re not to put a stumbling block in the path of those who have different opinions and convictions. We are not to judge or disdain. Now we learn that we are to bear with those people and please them.

        Now what does that word ‘bear with’ mean? It doesn’t just mean ‘put up with’, though in this context that’s implied. But the meaning of this word has more to do with lifting something up. It is the word that is used of people bearing a stretcher. It is the word Jesus uses to tell us to carry or bear our cross and follow him. We are not just to put up with people we disagree with, but to support them. We’re to help them carry their burdens, even burdens that come from the area of our disagreement.

        The other instruction reinforces this. We’re not to please ourselves but to please our neighbor for his good. Now be careful. This doesn’t mean that we are to give up our own conviction to support a conviction we think less Biblical. Certainly not. But we are to think of others first, and be a whole lot more concerned with caring for others than with defending our convictions. Thus, even while disagreeing on one area of faith or practice, we can support others, encourage them and do things to show love toward them. Paul says we should work to build them up, to edify them. We can pray for them, encourage them through the word, rejoice in what we have in common, spend time in fellowship and give them the kind of practical help and even sincere advice that does not come from passing judgement or showing disdain.

        Is this easy? No, it’s hard. Like a sore tooth or an insect bite, we tend to focus on what hurts or itches, on the differences between us. We should focus on what we share in common, believe in common, struggle with in common. That would help us accept one another. It’s the principle of walking a mile in someone’s shoes before you judge their behavior. Jesus is our model: he walked in our shoes, became a man like us, but he didn’t live to please himself: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” He identified with us, sympathized with our weaknesses, bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. The quote from Psalm 69 in verse 3 says that ‘the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. The Psalmist so identified with God’s cause that when that cause or God’s person was insulted, the Psalmist felt it as a personal attack. But Paul’s quote implies when we bear other people’s burdens, as Jesus did, we will feel what causes them pain. When they’re insulted we will feel the hurt. I’ve experienced that - words directed at others in this body have often been very painful to me.

IV. The Strength for Acceptance (Romans 15:4-6)

        So we are to support those who hold opinions and convictions different than our own. We are to live not to please ourselves but to build others up. This is one of those hard tasks God gives us that we cannot do in our own strength. We must rely on God. Paul recognizes this. Look at verses 4 to 6: 4For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, 6so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

        The key words in this section are endurance and encouragement. We need these things in order to accept others the way we’ve described. Verse 4 tells us that the first place to look for endurance and encouragement is in Scripture, in the things written in the past. We look to these things to teach us, to correct weakness, and at the same time, the examples we find, the commands we find, and above all the God we find in Scripture is a great source of encouragement. Knowledge of these things helps us to persevere when acceptance gets difficult. In Scripture we find that God is in control, has a plan, acts in love, and is unfailing in faithfulness, so that his promises are sure. What more could we ask to give us hope?

        At harvest time back on the old farms the men would have to work from before dawn to after dark to bring in the crop. Imagine the encouragement at mid-day when a man saw his wife coming across the field carrying a big basket of food and a large stone jug of cool water or milk. That’s the encouragement we find in Scripture. It gives us strength to endure and hope to carry on in accepting and loving one another.

        In verse 5 Paul identifies the ultimate source of endurance and encouragement as God himself. “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus.” God gives endurance and encouragement, often in Scripture. As he does we are able to accept one another in love rather than isolating ourselves in judgment or looking down on each other. As we accept one another there is unity among us rather than division and dissension.

        This unity, just like the endurance and the encouragement, is given by God. Paul prays for God to give it as a gift. We can’t think that unity among ourselves and acceptance of one another is natural. It isn’t. Nor should we think we can generate this unity in our own strength. We can’t. It is a supernatural gift of God, given as we depend on him and follow Christ Jesus. As I tried to show the kids this morning, when we focus on following Christ and when we draw near to Christ we will also draw near to each other. The problem is that instead of being simple iron filings attracted only to Christ, we all tend to be little polarized magnets, attracted to Christ and to some around us, but distanced from others. Since we can’t draw near to Christ without getting close to those others we end up distancing ourselves from Him as well.

        Notice finally in verse 6 the evidence of unity and acceptance: “so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Despite our differences we are to have essential unity in our worship and in our faith. Paul said in Galatians: “You are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” We may have differences but we have more in common. As someone has said, anyone who is the son of my father is a brother to me. That’s our unity in Christ.

        This unity is seen in our common purpose which is to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks “What is the chief end of man?” and answers “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” This verse is just one of many showing that our purpose is his glory. In Ephesians Paul uses the poetic phrase ‘to the praise of His glory’ to describe the outcome of all the good that God has done for us. Our very practical acceptance of one another despite our differences of opinion and conviction has the very impractical and wonderful purpose of bringing praise to the God who saved us and whose we all are.

V. The Depth of Acceptance (Romans 15:7)

        So we’ve seen attitudes and behaviors that poison acceptance. We’ve teased out boundaries of acceptance and seen that many things are inside those boundaries. We’ve seen the attitudes and behaviors we should adopt - supporting and caring, even for those with different ideas. We’ve seen that endurance and encouragement are gifts from God to give us hope in the difficult task of accepting one another. Finally we’ve noted that God’s purpose is to give us the gift of unity, because this brings him glory. Paul closes the discussion with a word of motivation for when acceptance gets rough. He reminds us of the depth of God’s acceptance. Romans 15:7 Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

        The one another command ties it all together. It explicitly tells us to accept one another, linking the discussion back to Romans 14:1 where the same word was used. Accept one another, faults and all, practices and all, convictions and all. Accept believers who have different views than yours as long as their beliefs and practices don’t cross that far boundary of heresy and sin. The basis of acceptance in this verse is the depth of God’s acceptance. Accept others as Christ accepted you. How did Christ accept us? At a minimum he accepted us as forgiven sinners, saved by faith in his sacrifice, coming to him as babes, weaklings, opinionated, untaught, immature people. But you can take it further than that, can’t you? Christ accepted us as sinners. He didn’t ask us to get our doctrine or practice straight before he accepted us. As Paul reports with wonder in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates his love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Jesus says that he came to seek and save the lost. He found us and called us and accepted us not because of our righteousness, but solely because of what he would do for us through grace. Yet his purpose in accepting sinners was the same as our purpose in accepting each other: to bring praise to God. Therefore, as imitators of Christ, we ought to accept all kinds of believers, in order to bring praise to God.

        An old cartoon pictures what appears to be two wriggling worms sticking up from the ground, one trying to take a piece of leaf from the other. But as he grabs the other one is crying out with indignation. “Hey wait, I'm your other end.” Those people you think you disagree with? They’re your other end. You need them. We share an essential unity. Let’s practice it by accepting one another - to the Glory of God.