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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Building Up or Tearing Down?
June 9, 2011

Noted theologian Stanley Hauerwas has a poster on his office door that reads, “A modest proposal for peace: let the Christians of the world resolve not to kill each other.” Hauerwas is a committed pacifist, so he’d surely like us to stop killing everyone. But, he hopes, at least this first step would be a good beginning. How might his challenge relate to how we live together with the Christians nearest to us, our fellow-Presbyterians?

The sixth commandment warns us, “Thou shalt not kill.” Clear enough – though we must note that the same people who heard God speak this word also heard God tell them to destroy the residents of Canaan. Thus many interpreters have gathered that the saying should read, “You shall not commit murder.” We cannot hear this commandment apart from Jesus’ warning that hatred violates this command as much as actual murder.

The Westminster Catechism teaches that each of the Ten Commandments presents us first with positive duties, rather than prohibitions. So, it says, this commandment has first of all to do with building up life, and only secondly with preventing its destruction. Before listing what this commandment forbids, Westminster says it entails that our conduct toward others be marked by “charitable thoughts, love, compassion, meekness, gentleness, kindness; peaceful, mild, and courteous speech and behavior, readiness to be reconciled, patient bearing and forgiving of injuries, and requiting good for evil.” Such practices are life-giving; they build up rather than tear down.

Similarly, Westminster interprets the ninth commandment against bearing false witness as requiring us first of all to defend “the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all things whatsoever, a charitable esteem of our neighbors, loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name;… defending their innocency, a ready receiving of a good report, and an unwillingness to admit of an evil report concerning them.”

Between these two commandments, according to Westminster, God requires us to believe and affirm the best of others. What a monumental, counter-cultural challenge amid a world given to polarization and demonization of those with whom we disagree! Listen again: “In all things whatsoever, a charitable esteem of our neighbors, loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name.” In all things whatsoever! Here Westminster is promoting a way of life in the neighborhood, not just the church. If that is how we are to live with those in general society, how much more ought we think the best of and promote the good name of our brothers and sisters in Christ!

Do my words and actions build up my sisters and brothers? Am I their defender, or their prosecutor? If we are members of the one body of Christ, as we profess, anything that is said – by me or by others – to diminish my brother or sister also hurts me in the end.

This is no call to cease trying to persuade one another of what is right, good, and true. To the contrary, it makes our efforts to seek the truth all the more important, because as each one comes to live more truthfully, the whole body benefits. But seeking to bring one another to truth gives us no license to question the integrity of one another, let alone to walk away from those who don’t see things as we do. Indeed, an honest pursuit of the truth will drive us into deeper relationship with those whom we engage as fellow-seekers, rather than away from them.

Seeking God’s truth with you,

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

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