One surprising thing about Paul’s letter to the Romans is that it ends with a theological strategy for multicultural ministry.
Many in the early church thought the Gentiles who believed in Jesus for forgiveness had to become Jews. Paul fiercely and repeatedly defended the gospel by making it clear that you don’t have to become a Jew to be saved.
Faith in Jesus Christ is the sole basis for inheriting the promises of God by grace rather than works of the law (which defined who was a Jew and who was not).
But this was only half the battle.
Although the apostles and elders protected the gospel from being collapsed into a false one of cultural conformance, they still faced a very practical issue.
After generations of strict Jewish separation from Gentiles, how could these new “Christ communities” worship together?
Could God’s diverse people live as one when some subgroups found the practices of others offensive? Could outsiders accept the people who formerly looked down on them?
In a letter to the Gentile churches, these leaders wrote:
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. (Acts 15:28-29 NIV)
In order to preserve both the truth of the gospel AND the unity of the Spirit, they asked believers to avoid offensive practices and minimize cultural friction.
How the “weak” and “strong” can live together
Since the Holy Spirit is already baptizing unexpectedly diverse people into Christ, we follow the Spirit by foregoing our rights and preferences to make space for others.
Paul explains how this works in Romans 14 and 15 by drawing out the nuances of “weak” and “strong” believers and how each should behave towards the other.
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand. (Romans 14:1-4 NIV)
Each person is permitted to honor God according to their own cultural conventions and personal convictions. And since each person is accountable to God for their own behavior, members of the body must stop judging and looking down on one another.
The only way “weak” and “strong” believers can live together as God intended is by accommodating one another in love instead of judging each other.
This inversion of preference is nothing less than the imitation of Christ. It is the way we become disciples of Jesus who consider others more significant than ourselves.
The Kind of Diversity That Glorifies God
In Romans 15:1-7 (NIV), Paul continues:
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.
May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
God’s glory is displayed when diverse members of the body of Christ adopt the attitude of Christ towards one another and accept each other wholeheartedly.
Has Christ forced you to become a Jew like him or to become an itinerant prophet like him or to become poor like him?
No, Christ welcomes you as you are. The transformation he works in you isn’t a change in cultural preferences, values or habits. It is a change of nature, being, character, purpose, and destiny.
And how did Christ do it?
By becoming a servant, by humbling himself and becoming the lowest, fulfilling the Scriptures through dying on a Cross and opening the way for Jews and Gentiles–people from every tribe, tongue and nation–to become one new humanity in him.
When this vision and mindset pervades your community, diversity automatically happens. The details will vary, but the structure is the same.
The Holy Spirit leads the way, using us to welcome people very different from us into Christ. And as this mindset spreads, it creates diverse communities that glorifies God–the kind of communities worth belonging to.
- What kinds of cultural practices are barriers to diversity in your community? In what ways would they be considered offensive versus simply inconvenient?
- What are the ways “weak” and “strong” believers hurt each other in your community? What would it look like to put each other’s interests before their own?
- How have you seen God give you and people in your community the attitude of Christ and what has been the fruit?
- Pentecost Sunday worship resources
- The Color of Church by Rodney Woo*
- The Next Worship by Sandra Maria Van Opstal*
- Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church by Soong-Chan Rah*
- Divided by Faith by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith*
* Note: affiliate links