Unity Despite Diversity (Sep-Oct 1999)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mike Cope
September – October, 1999

Most peace accords hammered out in volatile areas are short-lived. Too many times we’ve heard hopeful announcements of new peace treaties in Ireland, the Middle East, and the Balkans, finding out only months later that the treaties had been broken.

A document cannot change the heart! As long as you still see people the same way, peace efforts are precarious.

I think the Apostle Paul knew that. He wrote the book of Romans, at least in part, to help a diverse church learn how to be one. He challenged them to accept one another as Christ had accepted them (15:7). He prayed for the day when their spirit of unity would allow them “with one heart and mouth [to] glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6).

But after he finishes his careful appeal for unity, Paul launches in chapter 16 into extended greetings. It sounds like he’s sitting in Corinth flipping through the pictorial directory of the Rome Church of Christ! “Greet Mary, Greet Urbanus, Greet Apelles,” etc.

Could it be that this last chapter is a bit of Paul’s brilliant strategy to unify the church? He wants greetings to pass between the house churches. And as those greetings are passed, new relationships can form and old relationships can deepen. Not only that, but his greetings then become a model of how they were to view one another. Paul knew that if he could get them to see one another differently, in light of the redeeming work of God in Christ, then there was a real chance for unity.

So Paul uses the language of diversity. Most of the people he greets have gentile names. But a few are Jews, or “relatives” as he calls them.

We tend to think of racial diversity through the experience of American history. But to Paul’s audience, this diversity wasn’t so much racial as it was cultural. Some grew up as keepers of the Law, while others didn’t.

There is also gender diversity. Paul names seventeen men and nine women. He commends Phoebe, who is a deaconess of the church in Cenchrea. He also sends greetings to Priscilla, a “fellow worker in Christ Jesus,” and to Junia, who, along with Andronicus, was “outstanding among the apostles.”

Paul also uses the language of unity. The bond holding people together is the sacrifice of Christ. So five times he refers to their relationship “in the Lord” and four times to their positon “in Christ.” Phoebe is a sister in the Lord (v.1), while the men are his brothers (v. 14).

His deep concern for these friends is poignantly expressed when he sends greetings to the mother of Rufus, who, he says, has been a mother to him as well (v. 13). The promise from Christ that we would find, amng his followers, many brothers, sisters, parents, and children had come true!

It makes me think of an older woman at the church we attended in the early ’80s in Memphis. When Diane and I went to visit her in her nursing home, she asked if we’d like to see her family. That seemed curious, since we’d heard that she had no known living relative. But she smiled as she pulled out her Wooddale Church directory. She leafed through the pages, showing us her notes in the margin where she had recorded the dates and specifics of her prayers for her precious family.

It makes me think of Dickie and Becky Porche, who became like parents to our boys. When our daughter was still alive, several times we had to make middle-of-the-night emergency runs to the hospital, and we’d drop the boys off with them.

And I think of Charles Mattis, who’s like a spiritual uncle to my older son, coming over every year before the first day of classes to challenge him and pray for him.

And I think of Bob Strader, a former football coach, who has written my seventeen year-old notes that sound like this: “Matt, I saw your game last night. You’re a great middle linebacker. I love watching you play. But I especially enjoy seeing the way Christ is being formed in your heart.”

These are some of the people in my Romans 16. There are many others!

Finally, you’ll notice that Paul uses the language of affirmation. He tells the church how Phoebe has been a great help to many; how Priscilla and Aquilla risked their lives for him; how Epenetus had been the first convert in Asia; how Mary had worked very hard for the Christians in Rome; how Andronicus and Junia were outstanding among the apostles; how Ampliatus was loved in the Lord; how Urbanus was a fellow worker in Christ; how Stachys was his dear friend; how Apelles was tested and approved in Christ; and how Tryphena and Tryphosa worked hard in the Lord.

What a powerful way to end Romans! This plea for unity builds to this new way of seeing others. There can be true peace, lasting peace, because in Christ we have been made new.

Here’s my challenge: to sit down, get a pen and a couple sheets of paper. Get in a quiet corner with your Bible open to Romans 16. Read the first sisteen verses a couple of times. Ask God to open your heart. And then write your own Romans 16. Write about all the people in your church. Include your friends and some you don’t know well. Include the young and the old. Throw in a few you’d rather not be around. Then back away and be amazed!Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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