No one denies that Christians should accept each other. As a reader recently pointed out to me, Scripture tells us that we must live in peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ. She provided Romans 12:16-18 as substantiation:
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (ESV)
I agree that many evangelicals ignore these words in this day of social media. From the safety of our keyboards, we so easily type vicious words with the very conscious intent of putting others down in order to elevate ourselves. Sadly, some so-called discernment ministries have degenerated into such barbaric behavior.
Furthermore, legitimate discernment ministries must continually check themselves to make sure we don’t use discernment as an excuse to tear fellow believers down for the sake of feeding our own egos. Pride lurks in every human heart, and even the most spiritual discernment blogger bears the responsibility to examine his or her motives each time he or she takes on a popular teacher or trend that could lead people away from the purity of the Gospel.
But does Romans 12:16-18 really teach that we must accept those who distort the Gospel? To answer this question, let’s consider the context of these three verses, and then compare them with other passages in God’s Word. After all, we best interpret Scripture by Scripture.
In Romans 12, Paul laid out the importance of church members functioning together as a unified body. He stressed that we belong to one another (Romans 12:3-8). Then he gave practical instructions on how the body of Christ can model our unity:
9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. ~~Romans 12:9-21 (ESV)
Already, verses 16-18 look a little different. That clause in verse 9 about abhorring what is evil causes a bit of trouble for anyone trying to argue that we shouldn’t call out false teachers or expose erroneous teachings. How does one simultaneously abhor what is evil and accept those who teach false doctrine?
We must also keep in mind that Romans 12 comes immediately after Romans 9-11, in which Paul argued that Jews by birth had (as a whole) rejected God’s grace and had therefore justified His act of extending salvation to the Gentiles. Paul added that the Lord will one day restore Israel to Himself, and for that reason Gentiles mustn’t adopt haughty attitudes toward Jewish believers. At that point, he began Romans 12.
Moving to Chapter 14, we see Paul’s admonition that Jewish and Gentile Christians accept each other rather than judging each other regarding their dietary customs and resulting personal convictions. As someone who covers my head for church, I often go to Chapter 14 to remind myself not to judge my sisters in Christ who don’t share my personal conviction on that particular matter. Wearing hats to church doesn’t make me better than my sisters who choose not to wear hats, nor does it entitle them to judge me as a legalist. Paul’s point was that some things really aren’t worth arguing over.
Yet Paul closed his letter to the Romans by warning them against false teachers who would divide the church.
17 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. 19 For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. 20 The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. ~~Romans 16:17-20 (ESV)
When someone teaches things that distort God’s Word and/or distracts people from the Gospel, we have a responsibility to mark them and (yes) separate from them. Romans 12:16-18 in no way obligates us to tolerate them. Actually, they seriously endanger less mature members of Christ’s body. Exposing them protects our more vulnerable sisters from deceptions that could potentially undermine their faith.
Certainly Christians should accept each other. But we must never accept anyone who perverts the Gospel.