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  • Writer's pictureBetty Valdés Ramones

UNDIVIDED - SBC Leadership Conference 2023

On March 17-18, 2023, Steinbach Bible College and supporting conferences held the annual Leadership Conference titled Undivided: Can the Good News Still Unite the Church? The speakers, Pierre Gilbert (Canadian Mennonite University), Joshua Coutts (Providence Theological Seminary), and Terry Kaufman (Steinbach Bible College/ Evangelical Free Church of Canada) were eager to engage with the pressing topic of church division.

SBC Leadership panel discussion: Arlene Friesen, Pierre Gilbert, Joshua Coutts, Terry Kaufman. Photo by Rebecca Roman, The Messenger

Pierre Gilbert asked, can the Gospel still unite the church at a time when there is intensifying ideological and theological division? Gilbert focused on Deuteronomy 6:4-5, known as the Shema pointing to God as Creator and as the One with supreme authority. The Israelites were commanded to be unconditionally loyal to God. Scripture makes it clear that the unfaithfulness of Israel’s leaders influenced the rest of the people to be unfaithful.

What lessons can we learn? Gilbert suggests that church leadership must be committed to Jesus Christ, Scripture, and Christian orthodoxy. He states, “Christian unity must orbit around two poles, an attitude of loyalty toward Jesus Christ and a deep commitment to a sort of prepositional truth.”

One of the ways of accomplishing this is through prophetic preaching; having Christian discourse that is relevant and in continuity with Scripture. The Church must constantly adjust to address the ever-changing culture that we live in without falling into cultural control. At the heart of the issues is culture’s radical depreciation of the value of individuals made in the image of God.

Rather than becoming defeated, Gilbert encouraged leaders to see this moment as a great opportunity for the church to offer a vision of life. He asserted, “There are powerful forces that are colluding to erase the notion of the intrinsic value and dignity of men and women; we need pastors and churches who push back against these forces and proclaim eternal truths.”

Joshua Coutts addressed the question of unity through the perspective of John’s gospel. Coutts brought attention to the danger that lies in merging one’s identity with one’s ideas or ideologies. He explains, “When we attach ourselves to our beliefs, doctrine, ethics, etc., we can feel personally attacked when someone challenges them.”

To address this problem, Coutts directed attention to John 12 and 17. In John’s Gospel, “Jesus divides.” In John 17, Christ makes a clear distinction between those who follow Him and those who do not - “they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world (17:16 NASB20).” The source of life and identity of those who are followers of Christ cannot be found in this world.

Christian unity in John 17:11 and 17:21-23 comes from being one with God – who is in unity Himself. From those passages, the Coutts noted three elements that highlight unity: confession, identity, and cruciform love.

Confession is the declaration and recognition of Christ as Lord and the transformation that comes with accepting the Gospel that should bring people together.

Identity is how Jesus’ whole life is rooted in His relationship with the Father –they have a relational identity. John 1:1 states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Coutts stated, Jesus’ “identity did not need the applause of the world, because He knew where He came from and where (to whom- God the Father) He was returning.” In the same way, we need to be embedded in the life of God, and rather than letting the world define who we are, we need to remain in “the vine,” who is Christ, to understand who we are.

Cruciform love (the love of Jesus shown on the cross) is the way that Jesus loves. Our union with God comes from the fact that God incarnated to fold us in his love (John 3:16). Not only that, but He also died atoning for the sins of humanity; this is the ultimate model of love.

Coutts concluded that the key to unity among Christians is to be found in Christ. He emphasized the importance of understanding that “unity is not the goal; it is the fruit of abiding in Christ.” Disagreements do not equate with disunity. In fact, disagreeing, as long as it comes from being in unity with Christ, is a healthy thing. Churches should be training schools where people can disagree with one another so that they sharpen each other.

Terry Kaufman spoke on, “Church Unity in a Polarized World.” He stressed that the cause for cultural disunity is rooted in expressive individualism. This means we are living in a polarizing, narcissistic, pluralistic, amoral, and anti-institutional argumentative culture.

However, Kaufman believes that cultural disunity is something that the church can leverage. For the world, differences and division have no solution because they do not have a commonly accepted foundation. But for the church, biblically robust unity thrives in diversity because the center that unites us is Christ.

SBC Leadership panel discussion: Arlene Friesen, Pierre Gilbert, Joshua Coutts, Terry Kaufman. Photo by Rebecca Roman, The Messenger

There are practical solutions that the church can take to achieve unity. First, churches need to reshape our understanding of maturity. Our picture of maturity is one of strength and power, but true maturity is seen in Christlikeness and how we live in peace with others (Ephesians 4).

Second, we need to reject our sense of independence. We can only go far as a church if we work together.

Third, we need to be governed by humility because it is essential to our leadership.

Fourth, we need to embrace healthy diversity and disagreement. Practice diversity, stop demonizing disagreements, and believe that sameness weakens unity–unity is not homogenous.

Fifth, Kaufman encouraged leaders to model unity within their churches, asserting that this will influence the attitude of their people.

Kaufman made frequent references to the book Winsome Conviction by Tim Muehlhoff and Richard Langer. The book offers valuable insights that can help leaders deal with the challenges of disunity.

He concluded by asking the audience the question “Could the good news still unite the church today?” To which they replied in unison, “YES!”

The conference concluded with a Q&A session led by Arlene Friesen, instructor at SBC. Among the various topics discussed this central principle kept emerging: when navigating disunity, one has to be primarily oriented on the person of Jesus Christ who informs us about our identity. Christ is the vine and we are the branches. That is what unites us. Diversity is not fruitful unless it is embedded in Jesus. If we have this clear, then we can move toward having healthy disagreements.

Disagreements challenge, sharpen, and grow us towards greater unity with Christ and each other. In these times we are fully conscious that those who we disagree with are also image-bearers infinitely loved by God. This is the church –a beautifully diverse fellowship where people can come together in the same spirit and worship the one true God.

Author: Betty Valdés Ramones is a student from Monterey Mexico completing her studies at Steinbach Bible College.


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