Division, whether in politics, families, or churches, arises often from insecurity. Paul’s prayer of blessing in Romans 15:13 underscores the role of trust (faith) in achieving peace. Disunity disrupts growth; it displaces hope with confusion and anger.
Even as Christianity began to spread across the Roman Empire in the first decades after the resurrection of Jesus, the apostles and other church leaders had to deal with potential division within the Christ’s church. In Acts 6, Greek-speaking Jewish Christian widows are overlooked in the daily distribution of food to the needy. It provokes unrest in a predominantly Aramaic-speaking church. The apostles respond by appointing seven from the same background as the overlooked to oversee distribution. In Acts 10-15, the conversion of Gentiles introduces new variables for disagreement into the Christian community. Which Jewish practices remain binding for non-Jewish disciples of Jesus? In the book of Galatians, the disagreements over the answer to these questions result in one apostle rebuking another. In a multicultural Christian community such as existed in Rome, these questions gained traction as disciples debated the eating of food previously sacrificed to idols and other issues.
In Romans 15, Paul emphasizes the priority of glorifying God by seeking unity, accepting differences while refusing to compromise core values or to ignore the sensitivity of those genuinely offended by practices that other Christians find wholesome. If you’ve ever done something that you regarded as a breach of your own values, you know the sick feeling that accompanies the act. When one thinks they have been forced into compromise, that feeling morphs into resentment and alienation. Reactions range from angry backlash to sullen withdrawal, but imposing cultural differences as standards of religious practice devastates hope for authentic communion.
For what do churches or individual disciples pray when division threatens? Paul’s benediction, following admonitions on resolving tensions, reveals the subjects of such a prayer. He writes,
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
When disagreement darkens the atmosphere of relationships, seek answers that will produce joy and peace, that will revive hope. Those answers will endure when rooted firmly in faith that trusts God and his Word. When one compares the words of this prayer with the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5, one realizes that division fails when Christians allow God’s Holy Spirit to produce those fruits in their lives.
When we cling to selfishness and clamor for “rights,” we risk harming others who will interpret our behavior as Christian and turn away from their hope for peace. Selfish insistence on “my way” often stems from insecurity; my stability wavers when confronted with change. I recently realized that I disliked something that had been done in a church service not because it was wrong, but because it displaced a practice that makes singing in corporate worship easier for me. As a student of church history, I have to admit that Christians sang without written musical notes for centuries. I prefer strongly to see musical notes in a book or alongside the lyrics on slides rather than having to learn my part by hearing others sing. Other issues may be harder to discern or resolve. Approaching disagreement with focus on glorifying God and promoting the spiritual growth of someone other than myself makes it easier for me to accept another’s practice when it does not conflict with God’s will.
When we pray, our words reflect our trust in God. They reveal our anxieties and our desires, our anger and our love. When my prayer focuses on what I want, and ignores what others need, it (to use the “call for fire” metaphor again) sends up a request that targets me for God’s attention. When I pray for others, it opens the door to unity with them. If my prayer echoes Paul’s prayer for the Roman Christians, then both I and those for whom I pray will grow in the unity that God desires.
Theodore Monod concluded a prayer in 1874 with these words: “Higher than the highest heavens, deeper than the deepest sea, Lord, Thy love at last has conquered, ‘None of self and all of Thee,’ None of self and all of Thee, None of self and all of Thee. Lord, Thy love at last as conquered, ‘None of self and all of Thee.” Monod prays, as Paul prayed, that our lives and our prayers will glorify God. Paul’s prayer implies that we will be more likely to know joy and peace when we trust God. Hope will abound when we pray for the glory of God and the needs of others.