Home group notes - By Simon Butler
The Body of Christ No. 6
Last week we began a two part study reflecting on the imagery of the church as the ‘body of Christ’.
We looked at some important practical questions such as:
Who decides on the role each person has in the body
The equal value of each member
How do I fit into the body of Christ
This week we’ll be thinking about Pauls words to the Church in Rome about the functioning of the body of Christ. We’ll explore the context in which the words were written and then interpret them for our own contemporary situation.
Writing to the Church in Rome:
In writing to the church in Rome Paul has numerous theological and practical concerns and aims. One of these theological and practical concerns was the unity and functioning of thechurch, made up as it was of both Gentile and Jewish Christians. Indeed this is a concern that Paul raises elsewhere in letters to other Churches too.
This issue expressed itself in both theological ways: the question of the relationship between the law and the Gospel, Gods old covenant and Gods new covenant, and in practical ways; which rituals should be observed and by whom, what role for the Gentile converts and what role for the Jewish converts? Whose customs ought to be adopted by this new community?
Both the theological and practical differences and questions all challenged the fundamental unity of the Church in Rome and as such were important to resolve and comment upon.
Leaving issues unresolved:
Although Paul offers resolution to certain questions:
The Jews and the Law – Rom 2
Righteousness and faith – Rom 3
The relationship between the Law and the Gospel – Rom 2 - 8
The role of Israel in the new covenant people – Rom 9 - 11
There are also questions which he does not attempt to resolve directly, or even highlight directly, preferring instead to focus on the manner in which questions and differences of opinion are handled than on the actual differences and opinions themselves. In doing so Paul has some important things to say about the unity of the body of Christ.
It is this that will form the heart of our study – how can the church live and express its unity in Christ in the midst of disagreements and divergence of opinion and practice?
Reflect and discuss:
It’s rather nice when the scriptures give us definite answers and clear leading – and on some issues this is certainly the case. However on many issues the scriptures do not give absolutely clear leading, nor are they always clear about the degree to which they are culturally focused. This leaves Christians the task, guided by the Holy Spirit of interpreting and working out the application of Scripture in every day life and situations.
Naturally this is at times complex and takes time, prayer, and a great deal of conversation and soul searching.
How do you feel about this? Would you rather it were all simply made clear once and for all, or do you enjoy the dynamic interpretation of Gods word in partnership with the Spirit? Why?
Dealing with differences – living in unity:
Firstly it’s important to say that the unity of the church is not located first and foremost in agreement and doing stuff together!
Rather the unity of the body of Christ is located primarily in having a shared head – Christ himself. The whole body, to use Paul’s imagery is held together under the head. Having the same head it cannot be anything but united – it is by default ‘one body’.
That said, the body can work in greater or lesser harmony, living out, or not living out the unity which it possesses. Displaying or not, the unity which is given.
So, our starting point for dealing with difference is this:
We are as Christians united. We are one body. We have one head.
When we disagree – we are still one body.
When we break apart – we are still one body.
When we get cross with others and form into factions – we are still one body.
And it is precisely because we are, and remain, one body, that division, fighting, and breaking away are so futile, damaging, and daft.
To true silliness is made clear in Pauls imagery – a hand cannot get rid of a leg saying ‘I don’t need you’ without harming the body of which it is a part, and so in turn without hurting its own life.
And yet as a world-wide church this pattern of self-harm is repeated time and time again, on the world stage, in the local church, everywhere.
Reflect and discuss:
How do you think about unity in the body? Have you tended to view it more as something we have to work to achieve or something which is given as gift and then to be embraced and lived out? Why?
How do you find dealing with differences of opinion, theology, and practice in the body of Christ? Do you find it difficult to maintain unity in the face of these?
So how to deal with differences?
Spend some time reading and discussing the following quotes. How do you respond to them? What do you think of them?
Richard Baxter, the famous Puritan pastor and theologian once said
“In essentials: Unity. In non-essentials: Liberty. In all things: Charity.”
St Paul, writing to the Christians in Rome, strugging with difference of opinion, and difference of practice wrote:
“…Love one-another with mutual affection; outdo one-another in showing honour…” (Rom12:10)
“…so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…” (Rom 12:18)
“…do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought to think, but think with sober judgment…” (Rom 12:3)
The theme that emerges, not just from Pauls writing to the Church in Rome, but across all of Paul’s letters, is that within the body of Christ, on matters that are not essential matters of the Gospel, different opinions and practices ought not cause division.
In Romans Paul specifically tackles one such issue – the problem of dietry codes and rituals. (Rom 14). One side of the dispute considered themselves so strong in faith that they looked down on others whose faith was not strong enough to permit them to eat any kind of food or ignore set days of worship. This group in turn looked down on the others and accused them of compromise and weakness.
Paul responds to the argument by saying quite clearly that each side ought to respect the opinions of the other side and learn to live in mutual tolerance.
Tolerance is a fashionable word in 21st Century life. It’s usually taken to mean a mild form of ignoring others who are different so long as they don’t push their views on others. But Paul has in mind something a little stronger. Rather than simply leaving those with different opinions to get on with it out of our way, Paul says that where opinions differ each side ought to go out of its way to ensure that it does not cause harm to the other side or cause them to stumble in faith. This ‘active’ tolerance is the sort of tolerance the church ought to show member to member.
Reflect and discuss:
How do you do on this? When faced with different opinions, theological standpoints, or practice, are you able to respect the other person and live alongside them or do you find it difficult?
If you find this difficult – which most of us do at some points – spend some time in prayer, asking God to reveal the reasons for this…then pray around these.
Denying disagreement in the body…
Sometimes, in order to protect unity, we try to hide disagreements and divergence of opinion, but as we together move forward under the leading of the Spirit it’s worth bearing in mind the words of St Gregory the Great
“it is better that differences arise than that truth be concealed”.
As we talk and wrestle with issues of life and theology, working out and interpreting the scriptures and Gods desires, we, together as the Church, are guided by the Holy Spirit.
If we listen in love, show a gracious spirit towards others, live in peace as far as it depends on us, then we are actively participating in the ongoing and united life of God’s church, led by the Spirit into truth.
Through our participation in this process and life, we as the body of Christ will come to a unified mind on some things, have to agree to disagree on others, and simply let some things drop.
Close in prayer:
Why not spend some time praying for someone with whom you’ve had serious disagreement. Ask God to help you see that person as a brother / sister and a companion and helper on the journey of faith.
Perhaps also spend some time praying over a particular issue and disagreement. Pray for those involved, ask for each side in the debate to show love, charity, and graciousness. Pray for the leading of Gods Holy Spirit. It might even be an issue in which you are involved or simply a disagreement about which you hold strong views.
Close by asking God to help each member of the group to play their part in the ongoing conversations that work out the life of faith. That each member may be gracious, loving, and eager to make sure we do not cause others to stumble in their faith.