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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Why the Church?
November 18, 2010

Social Righteousness

Our Book of Order lists six “great ends” of the church, in a formula adopted by the United Presbyterian Church of North America more than 100 years ago. In this series, I am exploring what it might mean for our presbytery to be purposeful in working toward these “great ends.” Today we investigate the fifth item on the list, “the promotion of social righteousness.”

One of the consistent hallmarks of Reformed churches has been an abiding concern for the welfare of the larger society beyond the church family. The church exists not just to serve its members, but also to reach beyond its walls with the good news of the Gospel.

Jesus began his ministry by claiming as his own Isaiah’s ministerial mandate: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me… to bring good news to the poor,… release to the captives,… to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18) The church follows its Lord into the world to proclaim the good news of deliverance for those who struggle on the social margins.

I had an opportunity to visit Geneva a few years ago, and was not surprised to see John Calvin’s long shadow of influence all over the church and the academy in that great city. More unexpected was the discovery that he maintained his office in City Hall, so that he could keep watch on public servants and the policies they enacted. Would they be true to their vocation of upholding justice for all, especially those on the margins of society?

Concern for social justice is in our DNA as Presbyterians. The question is not whether, but how the promotion of social righteousness is part of our mission. More to our point here, how does our social justice mandate relate to our work as a presbytery?

Presbytery is our place for bringing hearts and minds together to consider which social needs we must address and how we might go about doing so. Presbytery serves a second critical function, as a place where competing demands for social assistance are sorted out, so we can be confident that we are working through the best channels in order to meet the social needs we feel called to address. Presbytery applies strict evaluation criteria to assure that validated social agencies are reliable and efficient in putting financial and human resources to work.

Presbytery also considers requests for assistance from beyond our bounds, whether major disasters such as the Haiti earthquake or more nearby needs such as flooded communities in West Virginia. In such matters presbytery seeks both to channel mission gifts appropriately and to equip and advise mission groups that wish to visit needy situations on-site.

A generation ago, presbytery was construed not only as an agency that equips and advises its members and their congregations in their various social mission work; it was also a mission agency in its own right, collecting and distributing funds both locally and abroad. Congregations gave the majority of their mission dollars to presbytery for presbytery to allocate as it saw fit. The day of such a way of doing social justice ministry is dying, for better or for worse. But that is not to say that presbytery no longer has a critical function.

As congregations enter into social justice work in their own right, they still have much to benefit from a trusted agency validation process. Presbytery can provide such a validation mechanism. Presbytery can also be a networking agency well positioned to connect people with projects and colleagues that can enable them to accomplish the mission work to which they are called. And finally, presbytery can help with training of mission teams and stewardship education for congregations as they prepare themselves to do the mission to which they feel themselves called. In each of these cases, presbytery has moved beyond being a mission-doing and mission-funding agency, to being a mission-equipping and mission-inspiring agency, helping congregations better to fulfill their mandate to promote social righteousness in Jesus' name.

For the sake of a needy world,

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

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