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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

“So, what is a presbytery, anyway?”
January 14, 2010

As part of my move to Pittsburgh, I have encountered many times the question, “So, what is your new job?” My answer leaves people scratching their heads – they don’t have a blessed clue what a “Pastor to Presbytery” is. Try trotting that out to the bank people when applying for a home loan. After I try to explain, some will have an aha moment, “Oh, like a bishop!” Then we get into this thing about Presbyterians and bishops…

One way to get at the question is to consider, “What is a presbytery?” Of course, it means many things – it refers to a regional church office, to its staff, and to meetings of its members. It is sometimes defined as a “governing body” or “judicatory.” Notably, most of these definitions or understandings are functionally, rather than biblically derived.

Originally, presbytery referred to the gathered church leaders from a particular city or region. The Greek word presbuteros means “oldster,” or in our more common usage, “elder.” Eventually it came to signify the broader church represented by the elders, the company of God’s people in a region. Paul writes his letters to “the church of God that is in ____” (Corinth, Philippi, etc.), referring to clusters of congregations in each locality. Pittsburgh Presbytery can be understood as just this: “the church of God that is in Pittsburgh.” Notice that I do not put “the” or “church” in upper-case, as though ours is the only true church in Pittsburgh. The Lord has many other churches in this city, whom we delight to count as our brothers and sisters in Christ. But we too are the church – not just “a” church, or “some” churches, but “the church” in this city.

This means that we do not have the luxury of being merely “partially” church – as though part of the church’s mission belongs to us, but some of it we can defer elsewhere. We cannot declare part of the gospel only, as though Presbyterians have a particular segment of the truth to which we bear witness, but need not proclaim the whole of the gospel. We are “the church,” and our charter as a presbytery is nothing less than the “great ends of the church” – that is, the mission of the whole church: preaching the gospel of salvation, nurturing the saints, worshiping God rightly, preserving the truth, promoting social justice, and publicly exhibiting the kingdom of heaven in the way we live together. (See Book of Order G-1.0200) These ought to be the primary features and aims of our life as Pittsburgh Presbytery.

It’s a tall order. It’s all about owning the fulfillment of the church’s mission as presbytery’s raison d’être. Nothing less will do.

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Presbytery

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