About Us
Small Churches
New Churches
Resource Center

A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

“Gracious Separation”?
August 2, 2012

Nineteen days hence we shall gather as a presbytery to discuss a proposed “gracious separation policy” to govern how we relate to each other when congregations seek to explore departure from the PCUSA. The process by which this proposal took shape is outlined at the end of the policy document, so I won’t repeat that here. I want rather to explore the general concept of “gracious separation” among God’s people.

Frankly, the term is rather an oxymoron, like “amicable divorce” – unless we deem marriage, or the church’s koinonia, as casual agreements rather than solemn godly covenants. If two marriage partners are genuinely “amicable,” they won’t need to divorce. Churches that are truly “gracious” to each other will be marked by generous investment in one another, rather than by separation from each other.

The term for “grace” in Greek is charis, which in turn forms the root of charism, which we translate “gift.” Charisms in the church are Spirit-empowered actions by which members of Christ’s body build each other up. Charismatic/gracious acts build up and bind together church members, rather than driving between them wedges of separation.

But of course we live in a fallen world in which our relationship ideals are always tarnished by sin. Divorce becomes the least possible evil in some cases. Sometimes, such as at the time of the Protestant Reformation, parts of the church have felt themselves so hindered by ecclesiastical obstruction, perfidy, or error that institutional separation has become their only way forward.

When marital divorce or church separation become inevitable, we must grieve that we have arrived at such a point at all. This is not how things ought to be. Our work at such a point is first and foremost “grievous” than “gracious.” But when the grievous becomes unavoidable, we can choose to be gracious in how we do this grievous-yet-necessary work.

The first step in being gracious at the hour of separation is to grieve. There is no room in “gracious separation” for eagerness or vindictiveness on the part of either party. Will there be some immediate relief when two parties that have been at odds are no longer in each other’s face? Absolutely. Does that mean they will be better off for being separated? Only in some respects. The wounds of separation will leave them permanently scarred, and they will never be able fully to replace what they lose by their estrangement.

Next, being gracious in separation requires us to do the same as we do in every other situation in which we are called to be gracious – we embrace the discipline of assuming the best of each other. We purpose to bless, not to curse. We refuse to demonize, acknowledging that those from whom we are separating continue to be as fully beloved by God as when they were our close partners.

Finally, being gracious in separation leads us to cast ourselves upon the Lord in prayer, that the day will hasten when all our separation will be healed. We pray for those from whom we are being separated, that God will prosper them while we are apart. When Jacob and Laban finally went their separate ways after years of struggle together, Laban declared, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.” (Genesis 31:49) It’s a double-edged prayer – it commits both parties to the Lord’s care, and reminds them that their separation doesn’t end their obligation before God to treat each other honorably.

So as we approach conversation about a policy by which congregations may depart our fellowship, let us be sure that it comports with these features of graciousness amid departure.

  1. It reflects honestly that separation is truly grievous, something we engage only as a last resort.

  2. It seeks to bless rather than to curse those from whom we are being separated.

  3. It is done under solemn awareness of our ongoing accountability to God for our behavior toward each other, and with the understanding that separation is not the final word between us.

As further preparation for this momentous presbytery conversation, I shall in this space consider in the next two weeks what we learn about church separation from the experience of the Protestant Reformers, and how our tradition’s historic commitment to freedom of conscience shapes our way of handling differences in our fellowship.

Yours in God’s grace,

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

Click here for the directory of archived letters.