A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
What binds us together?
July 14, 2011
This week I was hit by “Christmas in July” – I received my copy of the brand new bright green 2011 Book of Order, just one day after it came into effect. Be still, my beating heart! The portion known as the “Form of Government” has been thoroughly revised, with the intent of affording more flexibility in how church “councils” (the single term denoting sessions, presbyteries, synods, and general assemblies) go about conducting their mission. The core principles of our polity remain unchanged, but we have made more room for variety in the ways they manifest in the life of the church.
Changing our constitution may seem like a relatively small thing, but for a church whose name – perhaps even its core identity – derives from its form of governance, this may be hard to swallow. Can this new, more flexible glue hold us together as well as the more rigid old stuff did?
That is probably asking the wrong question. Our polity is not what holds us together – nor, for that matter, is it our theology that holds us together. Rather, we are knit together by the work of the Holy Spirit, who unites us to one another by joining us to Jesus Christ. We are bound together not because of our decisions, but because God has chosen to join us in common fellowship, service, and witness.
So why, then, do we even bother with a Book of Order? It seems that the early Christian church did just fine without such a blueprint of how to shape its life and ministry. The most notable thing about New Testament church order is that is left almost entirely unspecified; indeed, it varies widely from place to place. In one place, the apostle appoints elders for the congregation; in another, congregational officers are elected by the people. Church leaders are sometimes called elders, sometimes bishops, sometimes pastors, sometimes teachers, sometimes prophets or apostles. Difficult decisions are sometimes made by group consensus, other times by church leaders. Worship seems sometimes to be highly informal, while other times the emphasis is on conducting worship decently and in order. The constant is not a particular polity, but an utter dependence on the Holy Spirit to work among and through them to the glory of God.
Even though polity particulars vary widely in the New Testament church, some core principles are discernible beneath all that variety. First, there is no such thing as solo ministry. Whatever we do for the Lord is done in company with the rest of the church. The apostles traveled not by themselves, but always with partners in ministry. Wherever Jesus ministered, he took partners with him, and when he sent them out, he sent them out to minister in his name he sent them in teams rather than as individuals. Another bedrock principle is that the church is a place of openness and transparency. There is no place for hidden agendas or backroom deals – everything is done in the light. One more principle is that there is always an openness to the Spirit’s leading – whether appointing officers, commissioning missionaries, or deciding controversial questions, the church always seeks to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit as it navigates its way forward.
So perhaps it’s the New Testament way to focus more on basic principles that shape our common life, than on highly regulated church governance. Yet as we move forward into living with a more flexible Book of Order, let us remain steadfastly committed to doing ministry together rather than in isolation, to conducting our business transparently and truthfully, and to seeking the Spirit’s leading as we chart our way forward in fulfilling the great commission that our Lord has given us.
Your yokefellow in Christ,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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