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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

The Church of Your Choice?
June 16, 2011

I remember well when refillable bottles delivered by the milkman gave way to cardboard milk cartons purchased in the grocery store. Marketers salivated over what all could be done with the blank carton space on the side panels. There wasn’t much to say about the milk itself, so milk cartons became billboards advertising other things. I particularly remember one that pictured a family of four entering a church, with the caption, “Attend the church of your choice.” How pious it made the milk company look – and so, of course, we chose their product over the competition. They were no fools.

This came to mind recently as I visited a Mormon church with a group of local faith community leaders, as part of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Initiative. The Stake President (my counterpart in their system) told us that the building in which we were gathered actually houses two congregations – the original congregation outgrew the sanctuary, so they divided it into two congregations. Members to the north and west make up one congregation, while those to the south and east make up the other. I asked, “What about people who want to be part of the congregation from the other side of the neighborhood, rather than from their own side?” He found the question puzzling. I learned that Mormons go to church simply where they are assigned, based usually on geography.

They have good precedent. Churches in the New Testament were identified by geography – the church in Rome, Ephesus, Laodicea, etc. When the church in Corinth sought to divide according to preacher preference, Paul put the kibosh on it. When the woman at the well tried to engage Jesus in a local argument about which place of worship one ought to pick, he deflected the question immediately. Participation in the apostolic church is shaped not by our choices of where and with whom we worship, but by God’s sovereign claim upon us.

The fact that we are in the church by God’s choice, not our own, is underscored by two metaphors the New Testament uses to describe our inclusion in the family of God – birth and adoption. In both cases, membership in the family results from parental decisions, rather than children’s choices.

I am not commending forced church affiliation. But we should recognize that freedom of association, while a commendable liberal democratic ideal, is not part of the Bible’s doctrine of the church.

We are made part of Christ’s church not by our choice, but by God’s gracious love poured out upon us while we were yet sinners. For John Calvin, this was one of the main reasons for baptizing infants – the church thereby underscores that our inclusion in the covenant family is based not in our choice, but in God’s goodness.

This is not a call to reshuffle our membership rolls so that each of us is part of the congregation nearest to where we live – though I sometimes do wonder about the current practice of many to drive past several churches in order to be part of a congregation that confirms more than challenges our convictions. Rather, I wish to remind us that our place in the church is far less about our being part of a congregation or denomination of our choice than it is a matter of our receiving a gift – a gift of a God-given place where we can flourish in our vocation to glorify and enjoy God forever.

 To God alone be the glory!

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

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