A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery
August 18, 2011
This summer saw the launch of a new Book of Order in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Two-thirds of the book (the parts known as “Directory for Worship” and “Rules of Discipline”) remains unchanged, but the remaining one-third has been substantially retooled. That third section, known previously as the “Form of Government,” has been replaced with two sections: “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” and “The Form of Government.”
Naming one section of our Book of Order “Foundations” is an acknowledgment that we hold some commitments so basic that everything else rises or falls on their being properly in place. While the new Book of Order increases sessions’ and presbyteries’ leeway in applying our core principles of governance, its identification of some things as “foundations” indicates such local freedom is not unlimited. The range of our leeway is proscribed by the perimeters of our foundations. “Anything goes” simply won’t fly.
So what are these basic “foundations” in our new Book of Order?
Ephesians 2:20 points to the witness of the apostles and the prophets – that is, to Holy Scripture – as the church’s foundation, with Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone. While that exact formulation is not adduced in our new “Foundations of Presbyterian Polity” section, we should note that thirteen times in this brief section, Holy Scripture is set forth directly as the ground of our identity, conviction, and mission.
The Reformation might well be summarized as a movement to recover the central governance of Scripture in the life of the church. The Reformers held that Church authority derives from Scripture, and not vice versa. An old church formula asserts that the church is “a creature of God’s Word” – a belief Orthodox and Catholics affirm, as well as Protestants.
All of this points to a central conviction about the church – it is founded and ruled not by our initiative or plan, but by God. Only God decides its mission. Only God decides its makeup. Only God decides its membership.
This easily gets lost on us. After all, we build sanctuaries, we choose which church to attend, we form affiliations and denominations of like-minded congregations, we develop forms of government, we shape the church’s worship and mission. In the process, we can forget the core principle that the church is God’s creature.
Of course, the church is also a human organization. But if we buy what Scripture says about the church, we affirm that this very human organization is something far more than meets the eye. It is not a club, a service organization, or an advocacy group by which men and women join forces in common cause. According to Scripture, the church is the living Body of Christ, it is his treasured Bride, it is God’s beloved adopted Family. Seen through the lens of Scripture, the church is not ours to make up or break up, to join or to depart. This is our firm foundation – the church belongs to Christ, and Christ alone. “For from him and through him and to him are all things.” (Romans 11:36)
In His calling,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, Pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery
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