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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

A Mixed Legacy
August 9, 2012

Several years ago I invited a prominent national church leader to preach for our congregation’s Reformation Day worship service, and he struggled mightily over the invitation. He wanted very much to preach for us, and he gladly celebrated the positive achievements of the Protestant Reformation. But he was deeply conflicted over the fact that the Reformation represents not only a recovery of biblically-centered Christianity, but also a splintering of the church for whose unity Jesus prayed. (John 17:11, 22) Should we celebrate this milestone, or grieve it?

As heirs of the Reformers, we find this conflict persisting deep within our DNA. Martin Luther never sought to leave the Roman Catholic Church, but was expelled from it against his will. John Calvin was also dismissed from the Roman church, though without the high drama of Luther’s papal excommunication. Both men fled Roman authorities at long stretches, their very lives at risk. Yet both thought far too much of the church to be satisfied to practice their faith only in private. John Calvin quoted with approval a statement from the early church father Cyprian, “You cannot have God for your Father unless you have the Church for your Mother” (Institutes 4.1.1) – and insisted that this refers to the visible, institutional church, not just to the invisible communion of the saints. And so they remained deeply committed to the church, albeit in a new institutional configuration. Both Luther and Calvin believed themselves to be in continuity with the historic Catholic church; their problem, as they understood it, was not that they had departed the church but that Rome had done so.

Yet Calvin, at least, earnestly sought reconciliation with Rome. As he neared his life’s end, he issued again a call he had repeatedly made to the church: “To put an end to the divisions which exist in Christendom, it is necessary to have a free and universal council.” (December, 1560) The solution to our problem is not to pursue separate pathways, but to come together. By “universal,” he meant for it to include representatives of both Rome and the Reformation. He thought the Pope should certainly be part of the council, and (while he’d prefer otherwise) he said he was willing for the Pope to preside if he so insisted.

So here lay Calvin’s dilemma – he rejected vigorously many of the practices of “Popery” (as he often called the Roman church system), yet he believed it God’s will that the Reformed churches be reconciled to Rome. In his view, the church’s institutional division was intolerable – yet at the same time, many of Rome’s practices and doctrines were also intolerable.

Alas, like Luther, Calvin only exacerbated the Reformers’ alienation from the Roman Catholic Church by often fulminating against Rome. His epithet “Popery” was in itself an undisguised slam against Rome’s integrity.

Still, Calvin taught that it is almost always indefensible to withdraw from the church’s visible bonds, despite its many errors. The only sufficient grounds for such separation that he identified were (1) Denial of God’s unity; (2) Denial of Christ’s divinity; and (3) Denial of God’s mercy. (Institutes 4.1.12) But his professed commitment to church unity got lost amid the torrents of his verbal attacks on Roman churches, as well as on the Anabaptists.

And so it is with a decidedly muddled legacy that we face the grievous prospect of yet another round of church separations at this time in our life. On the one hand, the Reformed have always taught that the church’s unity is to be guarded and nurtured diligently. Yet on the other hand, we have from the beginning been a people who readily rail against those who speak or act contrary to our understanding of the Gospel.

Acknowledging the reality of our mixed DNA, I wish to offer a modest appeal. If, in seeking to be faithful to the Gospel, some among us find themselves compelled to seek departure from our denominational bonds, could we not yet maintain vigilance to “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so your words may give grace to those who hear”? (Ephesians 4:29) To put it another way: If separation becomes unavoidable, can we not resist the urge also to burn our bridges?

Calvin’s hope for a universal council was not realized in his time. Indeed, it has yet to be realized more than 450 years later. Perhaps the story line might have played out differently had our forebears resisted some of their readiness to sling mud and arrows at brothers and sisters in the name of “contending for the faith.” May our Lord help all of us, even as some of us contemplate separation from the rest, to avoid saying things about each other that could make it nigh impossible for us to gather again at the one Table of our Lord, or to join our hands and voices in proclaiming the Gospel together in word and deed.

Committed to your welfare,

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

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