Inquiring Minds: a Selection of Q&A from the SBC Leadership Conference 2023
Steinbach Bible College Leadership Conference, March 17 & 18, 2023, “UNDIVIDED: Could the Good News still unite the church today?”
Q: Should the prophetic voice today be directed to the church as God’s people now or to the pagan world we live in and amongst?
Pierre Gilbert (PG): Today, the prophetic function of the church, while it does address the church, we also have a responsibility to speak to our culture, to speak to our neighbours. Preaching the gospel is proclaiming Jesus Christ but it is also proclaiming these complementary truths that are intrinsic to what the gospel implies. For example, Bonhoeffer didn’t only speak to the church at the time, he also spoke to the Nazi regime.
Joshua Coutts (JC): We see in Ephesians 3 there’s a proclamation being made to the cosmic powers and to the wider world that the church being the church is a profound witness, partly because we are allowing the agenda for what we bear witness to be set by Christ our Lord and not the wider culture.
Q: How do we go about determining the essentials versus the non-essentials? The gospel is to unite us, but how do we define the gospel?
JC: What is the gospel is a great question. It depends on who you ask in the New Testament. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God on earth, in Acts it is tied to the resurrection, and Paul speaks about being made right with God; it is a multi-faceted thing.
Terry Kaufman (TK): We don’t want to create a list because that list requires us to talk through what we mean by each thing. Some helpful guidelines: 1. It’s clearly biblical and biblically clear; 2. The church has historically considered it to be essential; 3. It’s an essential that every culture understands to be an essential; 4. It points back to Jesus and the gospel.
JC: Jesus said, my sheep know my voice; I call them by name, and they come, they hear. How do you know it’s the voice of Jesus? I think those who are his recognize the signs of Jesus, the evidence of his fruit. The checks Terry laid out are helpful to counter my own blind spots.
PG: I emphasize the role of leadership. The church is like a hospital. We are in the business of inviting people who are broken; we can’t expect these people to be perfectly orthodox on everything. But at the core of the church there needs to be a clear concept of what the gospel is, what the fundamentals of Christian orthodoxy are. If we don’t have clarity on these issues, the church becomes defensive and can’t welcome outsiders. Clarity eliminates fear and enables us to be pastoral.
Q: If is true that the good news of Jesus leads us to unity how might we recover the goodness of this message in a revitalization of evangelism in our nation?
JC: We no longer are confident that it is good news. Our culture is constantly telling us you have nothing good to offer us, and we’ve begun to internalize that. Some misguidedly proclaim the good news in a way that embarrasses us, so we just shut up about it. The heart of evangelism comes out of a deep confidence this is really good news for the world. What God does and what God wants to do in each life and each community and each culture is to transform its ugliness and brokenness and death and make life come out of it. That’s good news and we’ve forgotten it’s good news.
PG: An entire two or three generations have become entirely convinced we’re just intelligent animals with no vertical dimension to us. That is extremely difficult to overcome. The secularism of our time has been extremely effective not only in terms of immunizing most people to the claims of the gospel, the claims of Jesus Christ, but also in eroding the confidence of the church and theologians and pastors in terms of that great value that the gospel represents. There is a yearning in the heart of every person that goes beyond this indoctrination from secularism and materialism. We as the church, through the power of the Spirit, have to rediscover how to uncover this yearning that they have for God so that when they do hear the message they hear it as good news.
Q: How do we deal with an increasingly political and politically polarized church?
TK: We have to be Philippians 4 people that fill our minds with things that are excellent and good and praiseworthy. We have to again focus on the mission, focus on the vision of what we’re called for, the Great Commission, and we’ve got to talk more about that and stop talking about the other things all the time.
JC: Through the New Testament how much air time does Paul give to politics? Two verses in Romans about the governing authorities and that’s about it. One of the most prophetic things Paul does in terms of Christianity in relation to the state is to almost ignore it entirely. In a democracy, political participation has become in some circles too tightly wedded to Christian allegiance to Jesus in a way that has decentred and dethroned Jesus. So preach Christ, proclaim Christ, live Christ, that is what has always defined Christians, and he is our only hope. Jesus Christ is the hope of the world and is only insofar as we are attached to him can we play a role in being the hope too.
PG: Right now the state is inserting itself into areas where it should not be and we as Christians, churches, pastors and theologians are not used to that; we don’t know exactly how to respond. When it becomes illegal to counsel someone who feels they need a transition, or when someone with depression can get access to assisted suicide, these are spiritual and theological issues. We need to decide together what are going to be the essentials, the hills upon which we’re willing to die, and what are the ones where we can allow and encourage diversity.
Q: What have you seen in your work or theologically that gives you hope?
PG: We have truth in Jesus (John 14:6) and we have the Holy Spirit.
JC: I am humbled and encouraged by the little glimpses of that future glory that I see in real people who are endeavoring to allow Christ to be formed in them. I’ve seen instances of repentance and reconciliation. The gift of communion is a mystery to behold. These moments are sort of mundane, but I think that’s exactly the sorts of places where Jesus is most likely to be found; that’s what gives me hope.
TK: I have seen a burden in God’s people to be making a difference for the kingdom of God. The fact that God is still working in the hearts of his people gives me great hope—and it should because God’s always been working in the hearts of his people. The church has always been his; he’s never given up on it and he’s not going to now. History gives me hope.
Rebecca Roman is editor of The Messenger, publication of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference She is a member of Stony Brook Fellowship in Steinbach, MB.
This article was originally published in The Recorder Vol 60 No 5