In his book Cross-Cultural Connections author Duane Elmer relates a statement he once heard from a Bible teacher. That man said: “What John 3:16 is to the non-Christian, Romans 15:7 is to the Christian.” Elmer has the humility to admit that despite his years of Bible school and seminary, he could not recall what Romans 15:7 says, although at the time of the incident he sort of bluffed his way through a response. Reading the story in Elmer's book, I had to admit the same.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
Simple, yet if we reflect on the implications, very profound and very challenging. In order to understand this verse, we must understand the meaning of acceptance. Elmer offers this definition:
Acceptance is the ability to communicate value, regard, worth and respect to others. It is the ability to make people feel significant, honored and esteemed.
Elmer speaks of acceptance in the context of learning to relate cross-culturally. I concur with him on this, but I would take it further. (To be fair to Elmer, he probably would as well outside of the context of a book specifically focused on cross-cultural interaction.) Paul doesn't tell us to accept only certain people. He doesn't say we should only accept those who are like us, with whom we feel comfortable. He states that we are to accept one another, without qualification. In the context of the surrounding verses and chapters in the letter to the Romans, Elmer considers that Paul argues for the Romans to demonstrate acceptance of one another as the key to overcoming cultural (and other) differences that divided their community. Acceptance means that we proactively, intentionally extend regard, worth, and respect to all people, including those whom we'd rather ignore, shun or worse.
Such acceptance can only be shown to others when we recognize and believe with all our hearts in the inherent value and dignity of each person. Elmer states it very well: “We must show acceptance toward all people, because deeply rooted in the soul of every person is dignity. God himself bestowed dignity upon every human being when he shared his image with us.” If we do not believe in the inherent dignity of each person, we will not be able to accept her or him. We will set ourselves or some other person or group up as the ideal standard by which all others must be measured. Those who fall short of that measurement we consider to be beneath us, to be unworthy, to have little or no dignity. And we treat them accordingly.
Looking around me – and more importantly looking inside myself – I see that a great lack of acceptance. I see us dividing society into groups, into those who are “in” and those who are “out,” those who are accepted and those who are rejected. The exact definition of who is in or out depends on the particular person or group drawing the boundaries. But we all draw boundaries. And Christ came to erase those boundaries. Jesus came to inaugurate a kingdom in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. Does this mean that those distinctions cease to exist, that we all become one large mass, without any kind of differences? Not at all. Americans and Chinese and Germans and Indians and every other culture still has its distinctions. Men and women still differ (although as some have pointed out, not nearly as much as we often are led to believe). But these distinctions do not indicate worth, value or dignity. They do not define who is in and who is out, who is acceptable and who is unacceptable, who can fill certain roles and who cannot.
We are called to accept one another first of all because we have all been accepted by God. In addition, we must accept one another because each one of us has inherent worth, dignity, and value because we are created in God's image. No differences we have can outweigh those two factors.
In light of this, I'm thinking about my own behaviour. I'm evaluating how I treat others and where I have drawn boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. I want to choose to extend acceptance, even to people I deeply disagree with (acceptance doesn't mean the disagreements will or even should disappear), recognizing that even those whom I am most strongly inclined to reject possess the same fundamental value and dignity that I do. As a mental exercise it's not so hard. But the application...