Having spent nearly a week in Canada this summer, I have become interested in Canadian history in a way that I was not before. To be perfectly honest, I’m pretty ignorant of the history of the country just north of us, and some of it is stunning.
In the 1750s, as the United States was moving toward independence from Britain, the British and French were fighting over the Canadian territories. A British commander, Admiral Philips, was sent to hold the port of Quebec. He was not to engage in active confrontation but to wait until the army of British soldiers arrived, having traveled over the land to approach Quebec.
As his ships lay anchored in the harbor, the admiral became irritated somehow by the statues of saints atop the nearby French church, so he ordered his men to fire at the statues to knock them down. It’s unclear how accurate the ships’ cannons were or how many of the statues were actually damaged, but when the army arrived for the attack, the admiral’s ships were powerless to help.
The ships had fired of all of their ammunition at “the saints of Quebec.”
Today, in our scripture reading, we are warned not to ‘fire at the saints.’
Now, Paul is often accused (and rightly so) of being hard core in the way he diagnoses problems. He’s passionate about the love of Jesus Christ, and he struggles at times in his writings with people who don’t get it. But periodically, a shift in his tone seem to show us a different way he is considering things, and we see his compassionate side.
Paul lays out a series of points about church dynamics that make sense thousands of years later, even if we might put them differently.
#1 Accept those whose faith is weak. For all of Paul’s talk about standing strong in the faith and pursuing what God is calling us to, he seems to be acknowledging that not everyone’s faith will get to the same point. We might think that someone who just met Jesus for the first time would not believe in the same way, or as strongly, as someone who has known him for a long time but Paul’s reflection on the strength of faith isn’t about chronology. No, Paul says that those who ‘get it,’ who are fully bought into what Jesus is calling us to, should do everything we can to support and encourage those who are not there yet. Isn’t that mentorship? Isn’t that walking alongside someone who is asking questions about faith and serving as a friend and guide? Of course, that means we have to find people who aren’t Christians and befriend them…
#2 Don’t argue over disputable matters. What do we argue about in church? Which of those things are non-negotiable? Which ones are debatable thanks to Scripture and experience? Which ones are … ridiculous? It hasn’t happened in quite some time but I remember when we used to debate things like what music we could use in service or whether someone was a member or not. It’s like getting in an argument with your spouse about something, even when you know that they’re at least a little bit right. But what do we see happen on television in someone else’s worship and assume they’re doing wrong? Hands in the air during prayer? Talking back to the pastor? Incense in worship? Paul is basically pointing out here that we all become accustomed to our way of doing things and we assume it’s the “right” way. On the other hand, if you want to tell Paul that Jesus isn’t the Son of God or that he didn’t die on the cross for our sins, well, then you’d have a problem.
#3 Don’t judge others – they, like you, are servants of God and he is the master. Maybe the whole thing could boil down to this, right? Don’t judge. In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, Jesus makes it abundantly clear that we’re all guilty, all behind the eight ball, all in need of someone’s mercy (God’s, at the very least). All of these could boil down to this but it’s interesting that Paul goes out of his way to say it directly. Maybe it’s because he judged others as a Pharisee for so long, or maybe it’s because he’s being judged constantly by Christians and Jews alike. Paul knows we don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to critiquing someone else.
#4 All Christians stand/exist/succeed because God makes them stand. None of us is ‘doing life’ on our own but we exist and survive because God makes it so. You can breathe, eat, talk, walk, limbo, jog, work, love, etc. because God says so. Paul says that should give us a whole, new philosophy on life.
#5 The things we consider sacred are things we are convinced of in our own mind. Nothing is ‘not sacred’ by itself but it may be for someone else. What does that look like to us? Some people become torn up over space or a way of doing things; some people get caught up in the way that music is performed in church. It’s a lot like point number three, but it asks a bigger question: what if everything God made is holy? What if we’re supposed to recognize that we should see God in all things? What would happen if you tried that for a week?
#6 None of us live or die for ourselves alone, but we live for God and are accountable to him. The life we live isn’t ours but Paul says we actually owe God for how we use it, that God will judge what we’ve done with our lives. Whew, that one is heavy! I recently had a moment – I was on the treadmill at the gym – and I realized that I had become caught up in a way of looking at my life that wasn’t the best way. I was concerned with the wrong things, worried about the wrong perceptions and ideas. And on mile 4 of the workout, amidst sweat and heavy breathing, I thought, “You’re supposed to do everything for the glory of God.” In this chapter of Romans, Paul is reminding us that we should do everything for God’s glory, not our own, and that we should use our gifts to the best of our ability because they are God’s gifts in the first place!
#7 Don’t cause someone else to stumble. Hey, you’re a role model! No matter what you think, you are watched by someone else who is taking cues from you. Somehow, Paul ends up back at the beginning. What you do shouldn’t be for other people, but you have to remember that you’re in community and your actions influence other people.
Paul’s “Seven Rules For People In Church”? I hope we’re grading on a curve!
What points do you think Paul makes? What does he miss?