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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Freedom of Conscience
August 16, 2012

In just a few days, we shall gather in a special meeting of presbytery for the purpose of considering a proposal from the Executive Committee to govern our process of dismissing congregations that feel compelled to cease affiliation with our denomination. The prospect of separation is truly grievous for us all – none of us who purposes to leave or to stay takes lightly the gravity of going our separate ways. We know that this isn’t how things are supposed to be, or how they will indeed finally be among the saints of God.

Some churches seeking dismissal from the PCUSA have cited a “crisis of conscience” as grounds for their request, indicating their conviction that some positions taken by the PCUSA are incompatible with the Word of God. Freedom of conscience has been a bedrock commitment of the Presbyterian Church for hundreds of years, and we need to honor the conscience of all our members – not just those with whom we happen to agree.

Our Book of Order stipulates that, so long as we submit to the constitutional governance of the church and maintain adherence to essentials of the Reformed faith, “freedom of conscience with respect to interpretation of Scripture is to be maintained.” However, such freedom is not limitless; it is bound to the Word of God and remains under the discipline of the church. (G-2.0105) Further, when some believe that the majority has departed from the Word of God or the discipline of the church, their freedom permits them to stay in the church or to leave it, as they deem best.

American Presbyterianism’s earliest plan of union as a General Assembly, forged back in the mid-18th century, addressed this so helpfully that its language remains part of our Book of Order more than 250 years later.  Essentially it affords three options to those who disagree with particular church actions: 1. They may actively support such actions, despite disagreeing with them; 2. They may passively submit to them, even though they continue in their objection to them; or 3. They may withdraw from the church if they are unable to follow either of those courses. In shorthand, we have long held that constituents have three available responses to church decisions: support actively, submit passively, or withdraw peaceably.

Support actively. It is easy for me to support a decision when I voted with the majority. It is more of a challenge when my candidate or position loses. Paul promoted the decision of the Jerusalem Council to prohibit eating food offered to idols, even though he personally held that it can be perfectly acceptable to eat such food. (See Acts 15:25-29; compare 1 Corinthians 8:4-8.) Suppose that you voted against the person who was elected your pastor; you would be reasonably expected to support him or her despite your negative vote, though you could certainly vote again your convictions in a future poll.

Submit passively. Imagine some distant planet in another age where Presbyterian General Assemblies sometimes adopt policies that some folk in the pews do not support. Imagine!! When they are asked to contribute funds to special offerings to underwrite programs they oppose, they may put a dollar in the plate despite their disagreement (support actively) or they may keep their wallet in their pockets until it comes time to contribute their regular offering (submit passively).

Withdraw peaceably. If your church asks you to do something you cannot do or to affirm something you cannot affirm in good conscience, you may peaceably withdraw.
“Peaceable withdrawal” entails minimizing harm either to those departing or to those left behind. It is mindful of the biblical counsel, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger…. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.” (Ephesians 4:26, 29) Withdrawing from each other’s fellowship is, metaphorically, letting the sun set on our shared life. Should the sun set on our life together as partners in the community known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), may we by the grace of God live up to this high and holy charge to go our separate ways peaceably rather than harboring abiding anger or engaging in destructive speech or action toward each other. Whether we take the high road in how we speak of each other before, during, and after any separation that may occur will be one of the most telling marks of our integrity.

In the grip of God’s grace,

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

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