Many people see Christianity as legalistic and perceive the church as a place where conformity is required and individuality is stifled. And, unfortunately, many Christians help perpetuate those notions by being judgmental and intolerant towards those who think or do things differently. But Paul’s letters paint quite a contrasting picture of church life. They are full of the idea that Christ brings us liberty.
In Christ, we are free to “work out our own salvation” (Philippians 2:12), to set our own standards in many things and not be bound by rules and traditions of men (1 Corinthians 8, 10:29; Galatians 1-6). And we are not only free to be different in personality and life-focus, but also encouraged to find our own unique part in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12; Romans 12).
Whenever we allow this kind of freedom within a group of people, the challenge will be to make sure there is still unity. We see this in our nation. We declare “freedom for all,” but then realize that means we have to find a way to coexist with people who have very different opinions and lifestyles from our own. How do we promote diversity without ending up in civil war? How do we make sure people can exercise their own rights without trampling on the rights of others? And how do we ensure people understand that rights and freedoms come with responsibility?
As I was considering this same problem for the Church, I thought of the word “harmony.” The word is often used interchangeably with “unity” in Scripture. What this word illustrates to me is that we can sing different parts, but still be in the same choir, singing the same song. The song we sing is what unites Christians of different backgrounds, different gifts, different opinions. We sing the song of the redeemed, the song of a people loved by God and learning to love others through God. When we sing this song together, suddenly our differences don’t matter so much; we’re not as concerned about imposing rules on each other as we are encouraging each other (Colossians 2:1-3:17).
All this is not to say we have a casual attitude about these things. Since Christ died to set us free from sin, we must be careful not to let our liberty be an excuse to go back into sin (Galatians 5:13). That’s why Paul, after saying we are free to “work out our own salvation,” also reminds us that we must do that “with fear and trembling.” When we are deciding what is “lawful” for us in our own personal walk of faith, we must be careful that it does not hinder our own spiritual growth, or that of others (1 Corinthians 8:9, 10:23-33; Romans 14). But if our key concerns are love for Christ and love for others (remember, those two greatest commanments?) we can experience both freedom and harmony in the church.
“May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 15:5,6, RSV)
As part of the ongoing Encourager’s Devotional Series, I offer these challenges and suggestions for this month:
- I challenge you to think about how often you discourage others by voicing disapproval over their being different or doing something different than you would. Even if you are not saying it directly to that person, you could be helping to create an atmosphere where “difference” or “change” is unacceptable. Besides, you never know if/when something might actually get back to someone (a very discouraging thing). If it’s not a serious doctrinal or sin issue, can you be content to let others be different and guard your words? And even if it is an issue you deem to be contrary to Scripture, will you consider being silent on it for one week until we look at this issue further in the Bible study that will be posted next Wednesday? It seems to be a real challenge in this age of social media to restrain from posting our every thought as soon as it comes to us. But for the sake of harmony, I think we would all be wise to push away from the keyboard every now and then and let the Holy Spirit guide us in how to better handle the issues we are bombarded with daily.
- Can you think of someone very different from yourself that you could encourage? What about someone who ministers in a way you never could (and maybe wouldn’t even want to). Can you show appreciation for their work? Or perhaps there is someone you seem to always be at odds with. Surely, there is something praiseworthy in them you could highlight (Philippians 4:8).
- The featured image for this post is Norman Rockwell’s painting entitled America. Rockwell’s parents encouraged him to develop his talent for drawing. I have read that he actually tried very hard in his younger years to be like all the other children and develop himself in the area of sports. But he just wasn’t athletic. His parents encouraged his uniqueness and empowered him to pursue what God had gifted him to do. They even supported him in quitting high school early to pursue training in the arts – now, that’s different! Can you think of someone you could encourage to branch out into an area of giftedness or calling?