How Are We to Treat Our Neighbors in Christ?

One of the major problems in ministry is disunity. The little things in church fellowships can destroy relationships with our neighbors. Misunderstood statements can produce resentments. Ministries that go unrecognized can cause hurt feelings. Cliques often form that exclude and alienate others. Busy schedules bring about irritations. Envying the positions of others can lead to jealousy. Disagreements can lead to divisions. In Romans 15:2-13, the Bible provides an answer to these inconveniences and irritations with our neighbors.

The apostle Paul wrote Romans around A.D. 57–58 from Corinth near the close of his third missionary journey. Paul wrote this letter to present the Gospel to a church he had neither started nor visited in preparation for a visit to Rome and a missionary journey to Spain (cf. Romans 1:10, 13; 15:22–25). More importantly, however, the apostle conveyed the message, in keeping with the Gospel, that no distinction exists in God’s impartial judicial administration.[1] The law condemns everyone, and yet all who believe—Jew and Gentile—are justified by faith through the Gospel (Romans 1–11). In light of Romans 1–11, Paul then provoked all justified believers—Jew and Gentile—to accept one another in the body of Christ (Romans 12–16). Put simply, though all stand condemned before God (cf. Romans 3:22), everyone can be saved through faith in Christ (Romans 1:16), and the fact that God plays no favorites in salvation should provoke us to accept one another in the church.

Problems existed, however, between saved Jews and Gentiles in the church (cf. Romans 14:1–5). They were not getting along well with one another. On the one hand, Jewish converts (the “weak,” overscrupulous in faith) were clinging to some practices (not eating meat and observing various religious sacrifices and holy days) that were not necessary to observe once they came to faith in Christ—as far as the full comprehension of God’s grace in Jesus is concerned. On the other hand, Gentiles (the “strong”) felt free to eat anything and did not observe the holy days. Needless to say, conflict ensued. The disagreements over these issues hampered unity in the church body, and the effects of this disunity might also have hindered the church’s advance of the Gospel and Paul’s missionary plans if he did not intervene.

In Romans 14:4–9, Paul addressed these Christians as the “household slaves” (οἰκέτης) of God.[2] He had strong words for them: “Who are you who judges another’s household slave? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). In other words, your brother in Christ is a household slave in God’s house—not in yours—and he must answer to God, his master—not to you (Romans 14:9–12). Paul further admonished these believers not to disparage one another nor to cause a brother to stumble in his faith (cf. Romans 14:13). He taught that we are to relate to our neighbors in Christ by recognizing that we are the Lord’s household slaves.

So, in Romans 15, the climactic chapter of the letter, Paul exhorted the Roman church to treat their neighbors in specific ways. First, he exhorted that, as the Lord’s household slaves, we are to “please” our neighbor for our neighbor’s good because this fits the pattern of our master (15:2–4). Each of us is to “please” his neighbor. We do not indulge our neighbor’s every whim, but rather, we please our neighbor “for his good, to his edification” (v. 2). The goal of pleasing our neighbors in Christ is to “build them up” in the faith, not to be critical and tear them down. Paul explained that even Christ did not please Himself, because He took upon Himself our reproaches (citing Psalm 69:9, v. 3). He then justified the Old Testament quotation he used in verse 3 by pointing to the Old Testament’s purpose mentioned in verse 4: it provides hope.

Second, Paul prayed that God would grant the church’s members (slaves in the Lord’s household) the power to live in harmony with one another (15:5–6). He asked that God may grant them to “think the same thing” so that “with one accord” and “with one mouth” they may glorify the Father of “our” Lord. Only through the Lord’s enablement can people who are different and at enmity with one another live in unity.

Third, Paul commanded that, as the Lord’s household slaves, we are to “accept” one another as Christ accepted us (15:7–13). Jesus again is the comparison. The Lord had accepted Jews and Gentiles in salvation; so, both groups also needed to receive others cordially and in full Christian fellowship. To illustrate further, Paul cited the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 32:43; Psalm 18:49; 117:1; Isaiah 11:1, 10) to point out that the Gentiles were now included along with Jews in the church (vv. 9–12), and then he ended with prayer for the church to be filled with joy and peace (v. 13). Just as Christ forgave our sin and accepted us with all of our faults and idiosyncrasies, we also need to accept others in the church.

Some appropriate verses with which to close are Romans 12:1–2. They act as a bridge, linking chapters 1–11 with 12–16, and serve not as a call to individual spiritual dedication, but rather to corporate unity:

I exhort you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living, holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (12:1–2).

In light of God’s mercies, Paul exhorted Jewish and Gentile believers to present their “bodies” (plural) as a “living, holy sacrifice” (singular). The “reasonable service” for the justified is to be a single, corporate, holy sacrifice to God. Let us also glorify the Lord in such a way so as to live in unity in our churches as “many members in one body” (Romans 12:3–8) and together advance the Gospel around the world!

[1]My friend and former colleague Alan Tomlinson shared with me many years ago this understanding of Romans, which I also came to embrace and teach.
[2]All Bible translations in this article are my own. The HCSB and the newer CSB are the only translations I know of that correctly render οἰκέτης in Romans 14:4 as “household slave.”