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A Letter from the Pastor to Presbytery

Rules of the House
September 6, 2012

I grew up with no TV in the house – which is the main reason I learned to play piano, I am certain. We tried it for a while when I was 11, and my TV time was strictly regulated – but soon it became apparent that the one or two hours a week I was permitted to watch TV were subtracted from piano practice time. So we lost the TV, and I’ll be forever grateful.

For entertainment our family spent time instead with board games – and we still do. When we’d visit friends, or they would visit us, a good game of Monopoly or Scrabble would soon break out. It didn’t usually take long before one the players would erupt in protest over being victimized by the host applying some house rule that the rest hadn’t known about. It always went to the host’s advantage, of course. The printed rules that came with the game, if they were still around, always got trumped by the rules of the house. Sometimes we’d argue so vehemently about these “surprise” rules that the game was abandoned. For us to enjoy a good fair game, we needed to have a clear, shared understanding of the house rules.

There is a wonderful Greek word that means literally “rules of the house” – oikonomia, which is the root of our word “economy.” As the U.S. presidential election battle heats up, one of the main issues is the economy – as it is in every election. One of the biggest questions is whether the economy is fair, whether there is a level playing field for everyone. Presidents’ performance ratings hinge significantly on how well the average household fares under their watch. Has government established conditions that make it equally possible for all households to prosper?

The same ideal of fairness extends into church polity. We Presbyterians are nothing, if not fiercely committed to fairness – at least that’s what we aspire to be. We have this wonderful document called the Book of Order that seeks to establish house rules that are transparent and equitable to all. When a congregation, a pastor, a presbytery, or a session tries to bend the rules in order to favor their own interests over those of others, things quickly go awry. A healthy household is marked by an economy that is clear, consistent, and honored by everyone. The most fundamental conditions for a well-ordered household are that the rules of the house are both fair and transparent.

In God’s economy, we speak and act in a way that is scrupulously fair. James rightly excoriates the church for giving preferential treatment to some folk on the basis of worldly categories. “Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” he inquires. (James 2:4) “If you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” Our problem is that we insist on preserving our own rights and things, rather than following Paul’s counsel to “look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others.” (Philippians 2:4, emphasis added) When we are looking out for ourselves first of all, we become partial to those who are in position to benefit us, and we trample on those whom we deem unhelpful to us.

Moreover, in God’s economy we act and speak in a manner that is utterly transparent. There are no hidden agendas. In the Lord’s household we speak honestly and forthrightly to each other, with a direct “Yes” or “No,” no fingers crossed or strings attached (as Jesus instructs us in Matthew 5:33-37). Like Paul with the church in Corinth, our hearts are entirely open to each other; we seek neither to hide nor to hold back anything from one another (see 2 Corinthians 6:11-13).

Imagine a congregation, or a presbytery, or a cross-denominational group of believers whose members are always fair and transparent in their dealings with one another. Instead of striving to protect their competing interests with walls of mutual mistrust, they are free to believe the best of each other, free to love one another as God in Christ has loved us. Is that sheer fantasy, or can it be that God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will shall be done here on earth as it is in heaven? Did our Lord mean for the great prayer he gave us to be merely a parade of pious platitudes? By God’s grace, in the power of the Spirit, it can be so among us; indeed, it shall be so!

In sure hope of the coming Kingdom,

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

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