Think of this chapter as a template, a form (or pattern or framework) which may be laid over the entire 21 verses, and which depict a healthy church.
The word "church" is not used in Romans 12. In fact, it's found only 5 times in the entire Epistle and all are in the final chapter. Yet, there is no question that the Apostle Paul is writing to all the Lord's churches in general and His church at Rome in particular.
Likewise, there is not a single reference to Romans 12 being a pattern for a healthy church. Some things are so obvious it's not necessary to spell them out. The healthy church description of this chapter is one such.
Why does this matter?
The health of the Lord's churches in this 21st century is a major concern for everyone called to shepherd God's people. So many churches that were once healthy and strong, vibrant in their witness and effective in their mission, have fallen onto hard times. Some came under the influence of corrupt leaders, some were hijacked by carnal power-brokers, and some grew discouraged and surrendered to the world.
The typical young adult called into the ministry today has never seen a healthy and strong church. He goes forth to fulfill a mission in the faith that there must be such a church out there somewhere and if not, he is to build one from scratch.
Here is a snapshot of such a healthy church
FOUNDATION: everyone is committed to the Lord. (Romans 12:1-2)
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (NKJV)
This is about our vertical relationship. It comes before anything else. Without this, there is no church, period.
a) The mercy of God is the starting point. Everything we do is in response to all He has done. (See the previous verses, Romans 11:30-36). The initiative is with Him; we are all responders. "We love Him because He first loved us" (I John 4:19). No one not having a great appreciation for God's mercies has ever come face to face with his own depravity and unworthiness.
b) We commit our lives to the Lord God through Jesus Christ. Living sacrifices. We place ourselves on His altar every day of our lives. This means after our initial salvation experience, we daily recommit ourselves to Him. "I die daily" (I Corinthians 15:31). No one is living on remembered blessings or ancient grace.
c) We become focused on the will of God. Knowing that will and obeying it become our chief concern. "What will please the Father?" was the driving force of Jesus' earthly years. Link: see Matthew 11:26 and Luke 10:21.
Summing up: All the Lord's people, but particularly leaders of His church, have been the recipients of His mercy, have committed their lives to Him, and are daily focused on becoming more like Him and doing His will.
FRAMEWORK: everyone is growing in Christ. (Romans 12:3-8)
For I say, through the grace given to me, to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly, as God has dealt to each one a measure of faith. (vs. 3)
This is about our internal relationship. In a house, the framework is the massive timbers that form the rafters and joists, the underpinning and studs. It will become invisible to everyone, but if it is absent or done poorly, everything is in jeopardy.
Church members are healthy in relation to:
a) Themselves. They are humble, but not groveling. (vs. 3) They have a solid, balanced view of themselves as sinners saved by grace, as objects of divine grace.
b) The body as a whole. They belong to the entire group, and are not loners.(vs. 4-5) They have a deep appreciation for the whole congregation. The more they love the Lord, the more they treasure one another. Let them backslide and this will be the first thing to go.
c) Their spiritual gifts. They accept their gifts and use them within the congregation in Christ-honoring and body-building ways. (vs. 6-8) (Link: See Paul's indepth teachings on spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12-14.)
Summing up: There is no place for lone rangers within a healthy church. People see themselves as part of the Body of Christ. They do not exalt themselves above others. They are no soloists but performers, so to speak, in the Lord's choir or symphony.
FINISHING: everyone lives by the law of love. (Romans 12:9-21)
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good....
This is the horizontal relationship. As with a house, the finishwork is what people see. They do not notice the foundation or the framework unless something is wrong. In a congregation, they will see the behavior of God's people toward one another and the world.
As Jesus did in Luke 6:27-38, after commanding us to "love," Paul does not stop there but explains what that kind of love within the body looks like. After all, love in scripture is never presented as an emotion, something we feel, but an action, something to be done.
If our love is pure and without guile or hypocrisy, here is what it will look like:
a) This kind of love hates some things.
Followers of Christ will hate what He hated: bad religion, corrupt leaders, and hypocritical do-gooders, for starters.
An unhealthy church will love some of the things it should be despising and opposing. (Abortion, living-together-without marriage, and homosexuality come to mind.)
b) This kind of love values good things.
It's worthwhile to note that this does not say "cling to what is religiously good." After all, "every good and perfect gift comes from Him" (James 1:17). God's people should treasure any music, art, or other expressions that are truly good, and not restrict their approval to the religious, something Scripture does not do.
An unhealthy church values unhealthy things.
c) This love puts others before itself (vs. 10).
Seek out and treasure the pastor and church worker who does this and you know you have found a winner. To our everlasting shame, many of us in the ministry devote time and energy and wealth to enhancing our resume' and furthering our career.
An unhealthy church is beset by members vying for first place.
d) This love is grounded in faithfulness to Christ (vs. 11-12).
This is its source, its reservoir.
An unhealthy church will skip the daily faithfulness in order to get to the exciting work of serving Him.
e) This love does kind deeds to others, particularly fellow disciples (vs. 13).
Hospitality is a big deal in Scripture. See Hebrews 13:1-2 and Matthew 25:40,45. Also III John, especially the brute Diotrephes who forbids church members from showing hospitality.
An unhealthy church does kindnesses only to the deserving.
f) This love treats enemies kindly (vs. 14,17-20). This is in complete harmony with our Lord's command that we love our enemies (Luke 6:27). We should not fail to see the specifics of this love commanded by Jesus: we are to do good, bless, pray, and give to our tormentors. (see below**)
An unhealthy church attacks its enemies.
g) This love blesses the hurting and the lowly (vs. 15,16).
No student of Scripture--and that should be all of us who follow Jesus--can miss that the hurting and the lowly are favorites of the Lord. And yet, they are the quickest to be deserted by an unhealthy church.
h) This love is an overcoming-with-good force (vs. 21).
An unhealthy church is overcome by evil.
**The Lord fully intends His people to show His kind of love toward those who do us wrong. Our natural instincts kick in here and we want to retaliate. But the Lord's plan is not to destroy our enemies, but to win them over.
When we do loving things toward those who hate us or curse us or threaten us or would forceably take from us, we accomplish 12 things:
We honor God, please Jesus, and cooperate with whatever plans the Holy Spirit has going on here.
We infuriate the devil, puzzle our enemies, and silence the church's critics.
We bless the church, encourage other believers going through equally difficult times, and bear a strong witness to the watching world.
Doing so causes our anger to dissipate, and according to Luke 6:35, two more things happen: our reward in Heaven is great and our reputation for Jesus goes through the roof.
Want to see this principle in action? See Paul and Silas in the Philippians jail. Acts 16:25 and following.
Let us teach Romans 12 to our people as the model for a healthy church, and constantly keep it before them.
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About Joe McKeever
Joe McKeever says he has written dozens of books, but has published none. That refers to the 1,000+ articles on various subjects (prayer, leadership, church, pastors) that can be found on his website -- joemckeever.com -- and which are reprinted by online publications everywhere. His articles appear in a number of textbooks and other collections. Retired from "official" ministry since the summer of 2009, Joe stays busy drawing a daily cartoon for Baptist Press (www.bpnews.net), as an adjunct professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, writing for Baptist MenOnline for the North American Mission Board, and preaching/drawing/etc for conventions and churches across America. Over a 42 year period, McKeever pastored 6 churches (the last three were the First Baptist Churches of Columbus, MS; Charlotte, NC; and Kenner, LA). Followed by 5 years as Director of Missions for the 135 SBC churches of metro New Orleans, during which hurricane katrina devastated the city and destroyed many churches. Joe is married to Margaret, the father of three adults, and the proud grandfather of eight terrific young people. He holds degrees from Birmingham-Southern College (History, 1962), and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (Masters in Church History, 1967, and Doctorate of Ministry in Evangelism, 1973). Joe's father was a coal miner who married a farmer's daughter. Carl and Lois McKeever, both of whom lived past 95 years of age, produced 6 children, with Joe and Ronnie being ministers. Joe grew up near Nauvoo, Alabama, and attended high school at Double Springs. Joe's life verse is Job 4:4, "Your words have stood men on their feet."
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