Does Rom. 15: 7 teach that we ought to receive all Christians into fellowship?
This verse is often quoted by those who will ‘break bread’ with any Christian without any reference to the way they conduct themselves, or to the doctrine they hold. ‘Christ has received them’ so the argument goes, ‘and therefore so should we’. It is, sadly, a classic case of taking a Scripture out of context, and, at the same time, ignoring other passages relevant to the subject.
The Assembly (or Church), is the house of God (1 Tim 3: 15), and a fundamental characteristic of God’s house is holiness (Ps. 93: 5). That is why Paul instructed the Corinthian assembly to “Remove the wicked person from amongst yourselves” (1 Cor. 5: 13), even though it seems that the offender had been a true convert all along (see 2 Cor. 2: 1–11). “Do ye not know” he says “that ye are [the] temple of God, and [that] the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3: 16) To have not dealt with the man would have been to “corrupt” (v17) the temple of God for “a little leaven leavens the whole lump” (5: 6). In our day there are plenty of genuine Christians who, through lack of watchfulness, have been overwhelmed by serious sins similar in character to that detailed in this inspired epistle. Sexual immorality, drunkenness, greed, slandering, fraud and many other things much worse have got a hold on many a careless saint. Those who receive such are often “puffed up” (5: 2) by what they see as their ‘Christian wide–heartedness’ but they overlook the fact that the text they are so fond of ends with the words “to [the] glory of God” (Rom. 15: 7). Indeed, by their actions they dishonour the holy God they profess to serve. Scripture is explicit: with such persons the saints are “not even to eat” (1 Cor. 5: 11), that is, not only are they to be denied the privileges of fellowship, but social contact as well.
The fact is it is impossible to obey the Bible and be prepared to walk in fellowship with more or less all Christians. How is it possible to “flee from idolatry” (10: 14), and yet be in communion with persons who though they truly love the Lord, see nothing wrong in prostrating themselves before images of Mary? How is it possible to “withdraw from iniquity” (2 Tim. 2: 19) and yet walk in fellowship with false teachers who bring in “destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2: 1)? How is it possible to “Flee fornication” (1 Cor. 6: 18) on a personal level, and yet share the Lord’s Supper with a good conscience with Christian couples who live together outside the marriage bond? Personally I may be free from defilement, but my association with those defiled defiles me. This was part of Haggai’s message: “If one that is unclean by a dead body touch any of these, is it become unclean? And the priests answered and said, It shall be unclean” (Hag. 2: 13). I repeat, a little leaven leavens the whole lump, whether it is immorality or evil doctrine (1 Cor. 5: 6; Gal. 5: 9). Thus in 2 John even to greet one who did not bring the doctrine of the Christ made oneself a partaker of his wicked works (v11). I may argue that love would receive them, but such love is not love according to God.
Thus while there are some Christians with whom we cannot be in fellowship because they are personally involved in what is wicked, there are many more who, though personally clean, are defiled by what they are associated with. Hence while I may not be a denier of the resurrection myself, to be identified with a company that allows such doctrine to be propagated is to make oneself a fellow–partaker with the evil–worker. It is obvious then (if we have any sense of the holiness that is due to God), that we cannot break bread with a great many Christians and as a consequence that Rom. 15: 7 cannot refer to receiving persons into fellowship. So what is its real meaning?
The epistle to the Romans was addressed “to all that are in Rome, beloved of God, called saints” (1: 7). Put simply, Paul was writing to the Assembly of God in Rome, the assembly in a city including all the saints in the place. He is thus addressing persons already in fellowship with one another, and therefore he cannot be referring in chapter 15 of the same epistle to reception into the fellowship of the Assembly. The epistle to the Romans is a single letter to a single company.
The sense of “receive ye one another” is to be favourable to one another despite a natural inclination to keep one’s distance. Thus in Acts 28: 2, the barbarians showed Paul and his companions “no common kindness” (same word in Greek as ”receive”), despite the cultural and racial differences between the two groups. Again, in Philemon 12, 17, Paul exhorts Philemon to welcome Onesimus back in spite of a justifiable reason to be very angry with him (again, the same Greek word as in Rom. 15: 7). The word ”receive” also occurs in Rom. 14: 1 “Now him that is weak in the faith receive, not to [the] determining of questions of reasoning”. What these questions are is revealed in the verses following. They refer to scruples about eating certain foods (v2), the observation of days (v5), and the drinking of wine (v21). The saints are not to “judge one another” (v13) on these things, but to “pursue the things which tend to peace, and things whereby one shall build up another” (v19). We are not to receive persons for the purpose of ‘putting them right’ (“determining of questions of reasoning”), but instead our reception or welcome is to be hearty and unreserved. To what does this ‘reception’ refer? The word is in the present continuous tense which indicates that it relates to a continuous attitude. It is the favourable attitude we have to one another all the time. To make it refer to reception into fellowship is to miss the sense. Paul is speaking to persons already (at least nominally) in fellowship with one another. He wishes them to be in the good spiritually of what they had come into formally––desires the practical working out of the fellowship. What he is saying is that whilst we may not see eye to eye on certain disputable matters with our partners in fellowship that ought not to affect how we regard one another.
A little further on the apostle declares “Let not him that eats make little of him that eats not; and let not him that eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him” (v3). “Make little of” is in contrast to “receive”. It has nothing to do with becoming partners in fellowship, but refers instead to our treating those already in fellowship with us with the love and respect they deserve. Mere toleration will not do. There were saints from many different backgrounds in the Assembly––culturally, racially, religiously, and socially. Thus if there was a lack in holding fast the Head such natural differences would come to the surface. Even in the very earliest days we find “a murmuring of the Hellenists against the Hebrews” (Acts 6: 1). The simple meaning of Rom. 15: 7 is that even as Christ has treated all alike (for in salvation God is not a respecter of persons), so also ought the saints not to make a difference. It is not about reception into fellowship, but about improving the quality of a fellowship already existing. As James says “My brethren, do not have the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, [Lord] of glory, with respect of persons” (James 2: 1) Real fellowship produces real unity, hence the words immediately preceding Rom. 15: 7: “Now the God of endurance and of encouragement give to you to be like–minded one toward another, according to Christ Jesus; that ye may with one accord, with one mouth, glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs5, 6).