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FIRST-PERSON: The secret of a loving church

LAKE FOREST, Calif. (BP)–One of the reasons for Saddleback Church’s growth is that we’ve maintained a harmonious atmosphere. When a church loves, it attracts people like a magnet. When a church really offers love to each other and those who are welcomed into it, you’ll have to lock the doors to keep people out!

In the second half of Romans 14, Paul says building each other up is the secret to building a loving church. He says it’s not enough to just accept –- or tolerate -– the people you don’t get along with in the church. Instead, he says we need to actively build each other up.

Romans 14:19 says, “So then, we must pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another.” Paul says you should concentrate on two things: (1) that which makes for harmony, and (2) that which helps the church grow. So we must always aim at those things that bring peace and health, that strengthen one another.

According to Paul, there were three issues causing conflict in the Roman church: diet, days and drink. But the principle Paul establishes in Romans 14 transcends those three examples. Paul gives five ways that we are to build others up:

— By committing ourselves to building each other up.

We all need to learn from Paul’s instructions in Romans 14. The strong believer needs to grow in love, and the weak believer needs to grow in knowledge. Now, when Paul talks about a weak believer, he’s talking about a legalistic Christian who, rather than seeing the relationship with Christ as the key element, sees the rules, regulations and rituals as the key to a Christian life. Legalistic Christians need to grow in knowledge of God’s grace. On the other hand, Christians who say, “I’m not hung up on rules and regulations” need to grow in their love, possibly limiting some of the things they do for the benefit of those who might be offended.

Paul instructs us to make “building up” of others our goal. Life is tough, and there are enough discouraging people in the world. We need a whole band –- an army — of encouragers. Can you imagine if a small core of leaders in your church committed to building up everyone they came in contact with? What if just five people in your church began writing letters –- one note a week -– saying, “I appreciate you,” and they sent them to others in your congregation. What kind of impact would that have on the morale of your church?

— By recognizing the value of every person.

“Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:15b).

When you start to get upset with someone in your area of ministry or in the church, just remember: Christ died for that person. They may be obnoxious; they may be immature; they may be disagreeable, but Christ died for them. That shows how valuable and important they are to God. What right do I have to hurt people for whom Christ died?

— By keeping our focus on what’s really important.

“For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and is approved of men” (Rom. 14:17-18).

Paul is saying that food and drink are not the burning issues of life. By focusing on the things that are eternally important, we can then put up with a lot of quirks, faults and faux pas. Paul is making the plea: Don’t be sidetracked over minor issues.

When the world looks at a Christian, they ought to be able to see righteousness, peace and joy flowing from the Holy Spirit out of that Christian. As the great preacher Vance Havner once said, “You can be straight as a gun barrel doctrinally, but be empty spiritually.” You can avoid that by focusing on what’s really important.

— By limiting our liberty out of love for each other

“Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It’s better not to eat meat, drink wine, or do anything else that will cause your brother to fall” (Rom. 14:20-21). When my liberty limits the work of God, then I’ve got a problem. I have to be sensitive to how my liberty potentially causes a weaker brother to stumble.

When God called me into the ministry, I had really long hair. But then I was asked to go to Bakersfield –- a rather conservative area of California –- to do a citywide crusade. When I sent them a picture, the steering committee wanted to cancel the crusade. They were concerned that my hair would encourage the young people to grow their own hair long, in direct contradiction to what the adults had been teaching.

What did I do? It didn’t take me but a moment to decide. I cut my hair. Even though I had every right to wear my hair any length, I limited my liberty in order to minister to others. I wasn’t limiting myself out of legalism. I limited myself because I wanted to minister to people who may not be mature enough to accept a different form of dress. Other people’s souls are far more important than my liberty.

— By not forcing my opinion on others.

As long as I am the senior pastor of Saddleback, we will not make disputable issues a test of fellowship. We will not say, regarding disputable matters, “Believe as I believe, think as I think, do as I do -– be like me! Only then can I fellowship with you.”

Romans 14:22 says: “So whatever you believe about these things, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” Paul says, on these disputable matters, keep them between you and the Lord. You can practice your freedom without parading it.

While you need to look out for people who might be offended by a legitimate “stumbling block” issue, some legalists will be upset no matter what you do. You’ll never be able to please them. In that event, Paul says, “As far as it depends on you, if it is possible, live at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). What you need to do is allow the Holy Spirit to help you determine when you’re dealing with a legitimate stumbling block and when you’re dealing with another believer who is simply unpleasable.

The result of building each other up is a spirit of unity that glorifies God: “So with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God is glorified because unity brings glory to God. When Christians are divided, it’s a bad testimony to the world. When Christians are united, it’s a beautiful testimony.

Romans 15:13 says a unified church is marked by joy, peace, hope and power: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of. Saddleback is not a perfect church, but it is a healthy church –- and it’s growing in joy, peace, hope and power.
Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

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  • Rick Warren