I love Romans chapter 16. It’s one of my favorite chapters in the Bible.
It’s primarily a list of names…all of them fellow-servants with the Apostle Paul. People he valued highly. Some of them he greets, because they are in Rome, and some of them he sends greetings from, because they are with him. What does he say besides “greetings”? Be good to each other. Teach one another. Be united.
They were all just like us, of course. They had different personalities, different dreams, different ways of doing things. But Paul wanted the church at Rome to come to a place of unity based on the highest purpose known to man – the spreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Their differences would only strengthen them if they would grasp their unity and cling tenaciously to it.
The only “difference” they were not to tolerate was the ones who wanted to cause division, didn’t care if they offended, and turned people away from truth. Paul says to “avoid” these people. Not hate them…but definitely don’t be friends with them. Avoid them.
Each local church was chosen by God to be united and then touch the lives around them with the Gospel.
I’ve had an interest in church history over the last few years, and I’ve been puzzled to notice that there were sometimes long stretches of time when it seemed there was no solid Gospel witness anywhere in the world.
For instance, when Constantine declared Christianity the state religion and therefore persecution of Christians became a thing of the past, I’m sure it was a welcome relief for weary believers. But it didn’t take long before the truth of the Gospel was so easy to proclaim that people just didn’t fight that hard to proclaim it any more. Going to church became the law of the land…and was regulated more and more by authorities who cared little for the Bible…and church got farther and farther away from proclaiming the truth. In fact, after many years, the message of the church was exactly the opposite of the true Gospel – the church’s message became: “here are the many things you have to do to be saved…Jesus’ death on the cross was not enough…you must also be baptized, take communion, attend church regularly, give money, etc.”
So I’ve been asking myself – “Why did this happen? Where was the ‘true’ church? Where were the real believers? They didn’t just die out, did they? Weren’t there any true believers anywhere who were still courageous enough to proclaim the simple Gospel?”
And I’ve wondered if the explanation for this dark, dark time of hardly any Gospel witness was that churches simply stopped acting like churches. They stopped being united in their love for Christ and their desire to glorify Him, and started being united in their common government or their common lifestyles or their common comforts. And they slowly, slowly decayed and died.
So…you might say…our differences, which frustrate us so…keep us focused on Jesus….which means health and future for the church.
But….even in the darkest of times, the Lord never left Himself without a group of people who were determined to live for Him and be united for the right reasons. I’m not sure where all of those “true” churches were, but I did read the other day that the Gospel made it all the way to the capital of China in the year 800 a.d., and that there is evidence that several high-ranking politicians counted themselves amongst the believers in Jesus.
That was encouraging to me. I can imagine that so many years ago, there were a few true believers in Jesus in China….and a few in the middle-east….and a few in even dark, dark Europe….and that God preserved them and gave them unity within their local tiny congregations and empowered them to keep passing on the Gospel…until He again was able to miraculously multiply the truth to huge numbers of people.