Unity in the body of Christ can be destroyed by pride, an unforgiving heart and unwillingness to join together for the sake of the gospel message, said speakers during Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s LifeWay Conference Week.
The special chapel services, which are an annual event to focus on Christian education and spiritual formation in the local church, brought together LifeWay Christian Resources and Southeastern in an effort to learn more about how to accomplish those goals. This year’s conference week, held on March 17-18, featured Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay, and Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research.
Stetzer delivered the message during Tuesday’s chapel service, addressing a predominant problem in the Southern Baptist Convention. He exhorted the young and future leaders of the convention to work to close the generational divide that he said is threatening the SBC. As president of LifeWay Research, he is well-versed in the trends of the Southern Baptist Convention, including seeing the declining numbers of young leaders remaining in ministry within the SBC.
Stetzer taught out of Titus 2:1-8, looking at the roles and responsibilities of multiple generations of believers in ministry with one another. Speaking on the disunity within the convention and the widening generation gap, Stetzer said it is important to overcome the challenges of generational tradition and bridge the gap.
“I know it’s easier to birth a baby than raise the dead,” Stetzer said, in relation to the importance of finding common ground among the generations, rather than splintering into multiple factions.
“We share the same gospel, but perhaps not the same direction,” Stetzer said. “Generation has become a dividing line in the SBC, and it hurts and hinders our witness and our mission in the world.”
This tendency to divide on a generational basis comes down to differences in the way one generation does church versus the way a different generation does church, Stetzer said.
“Why are we battling about the way to do church instead of standing on the word of God and taking it to every tribe and tongue in the world?” Stetzer said. He said that instead of fighting against one another, it is the responsibility of the young leaders to look back at prior generations of leaders and honor them as the ones who fought battles for the Bible and built the denomination and seminaries into what they are today.
In addition to honoring elders, Stetzer said younger leaders ought to work on cultivating elders of integrity. “We need to stop seeing older members as hindrances to the plan and instead see them as fellow laborers for the gospel.
“It doesn’t mean I need to treat his way as truth, but it does mean I need to honor him. There’s a promise of mutual accountability.”
“Do you want to know how to bridge the generational divide?” Stetzer said. “Talk less about the way you ‘do church’ and instead, talk about the doctrine you teach.”
A vital part of the doctrine Christians should teach and emphasize among the local body of believers is that of forgiveness, Rainer said in delivering Wednesday’s chapel message. The power to forgive others, regardless of how grievous the sin, is found in God alone. Teaching from Matthew 6:14-15, Rainer said, “When we talk about the health of the church, perhaps one of our greatest spiritual impediments to that is the inability to forgive others.”
Even within the SBC, Rainer said, there is an “office of denominational conflict.
“People are unwilling to say, ‘I forgive.’ The issue is about our hearts,” Rainer said. “Jesus knew everyone would be hurt.”
However, Jesus didn’t give any constraints in the passage on when to forgive others.
“Every Christian has been sinned against, and everyone has something in their past or present that causes them to have anger. There is no sin we should not forgive,” Rainer said, because textually there is no limit on 'wrongdoing' or 'sin.'
“It does not say ‘forgive men when they commit a minor sin against you.’
Sometimes, we have to forgive them for more than the minor. Sometimes, it is more than the petty. It’s deep and you say, ‘How can I do it?’ In God, all things are possible, including forgiving those who have hurt you.”
Citing the example of strife and unforgiveness that characterized the early years of his relationship with Stetzer, Rainer said, “I despised him. We didn’t see eye to eye on hardly anything.”
However, Rainer said that as God began to soften their hearts, they sought reconciliation with one another.
“Finally, my stubborn heart melted enough to see that I did not have an enemy, but a brother in Christ,” Rainer said. Now that Rainer and Stetzer both work at LifeWay and recognize the dire need for unity among the body of Christ, Rainer said they are attempting to glorify God together. “Sometimes, now, we may actually be able to do some good things for the kingdom.”
“Maybe some denominations are failing because they fail to forgive,” Rainer said. “The health of the local church depends on the hearts of its people, and the restoration of our fellowship with God is predicated on our willingness to forgive others. Though our relationship with God will hold, our fellowship with him is broken as long as we are unwilling to forgive.”