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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Of the World, But Not In It
November 29, 2012

Jesus calls us to be in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-16). He asks his followers to bear witness to God’s love in the world, to “go out into the highways and byways” with the Gospel invitation. His commission to go “into all the world” to proclaim the Good News (Matthew 28:19) is still ours today.

Our Reformed forebears took with great seriousness this calling to bear Christian witness in the world around us. John Calvin’s great theological masterpiece, Institutes of the Christian Religion, concludes not with teachings on doctrine, Bible, or church, but with a lengthy discussion of the role of the Christian in the public sphere. Calvin kept his office in City Hall, signifying his commitment to worldly engagement. The elders of the church in Geneva met weekly to hear minor disputes, an early version of what we might now call “small claims court” – or, if you would, the church superintended the domain of Judge Judy.

As we rub shoulders, make friends, and share concerns with folk outside the church, we need to take care lest we become more of a thermometer than a thermostat, reflecting in our lives and fellowship what is going on all around us rather than changing the world by our witness to the Gospel. Scripture calls us both to be embedded in the life of the world for Jesus’ sake and to take care not to let the world get into us.

Peter says our identity in this world is that of “aliens” – people who live and work in a society that has a story and value system different from their own (1 Peter 2:11). As aliens, we maintain an identity distinct from that of the world in which we are embedded. Paul puts it to us this way – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (Romans 12:2)

As a youngster I learned what it meant to be “worldly” in this way: “Don’t drink or smoke or chew, or run with those who do.” I came later on to understand that “worldliness” is less about such visible lifestyle markers than about a fundamental inner orientation – do we live for the sake of others, or to advance our own agendas? The way of the world is to do all we can to promote our self-interest; the way of Jesus is to lay down our lives for the sake of others.

We have recently completed the quadrennial dance known as the presidential election, and each round seems to display more demonization of opponents than we’ve seen before. This year’s election was no exception. More than we’d care to admit, those despised TV commercials reflect our own values. We place more confidence in our ability to move ahead by tearing down those different from us than by letting our integrity speak for itself. Like the campaign ads that seemed as interminable as they were objectionable, we live as though the best way to advance our cause is to put others down. “Survival of the fittest” is not just the law of the jungle – it is the essence of worldliness.

Alas, this way of ordering life has become as deeply embedded in the church as in the world around us. We divide into affinity groups with the “like-minded,” becoming ever more wary of those who do not see things as we do, rather than seeking ways to join hearts and hands across affinity lines in common cause for Jesus’ sake. We fight each other rather than learning from each other. We are known more for what we say “No” to than what we say “Yes” to. We draw lines through the center of the church, saying that only one side really “gets” the essence of the Gospel. In so doing, we demonstrate the triumph of worldliness within the church.

The Gospel creates a people identified no longer by a narrative of separation, but of reconciliation. It is not what we are against that constitutes our essence, but what we are for – just as the heart of Jesus’ mission is not to condemn the world, but to save it. (John 3:17)

Too often the church mirrors the chasms evident in the world around us. Like members of Congress, we vote in blocs, depending on which party we belong to, rather than exercising real discernment in the Spirit. We distance ourselves from those different from us, displaying in such divisions the heart of the worldliness we claim to be avoiding by separating ourselves from those we think wrong about this or that. Make no mistake – such behavior exhibits worldliness rather than godliness. God created us in all our variety to live in unity, reflecting the image of the Triune God who is fully Three, yet ever One. Distinct, different, yet inseparable. The Spirit of God unites us; a spirit that divides us is the spirit of the world.

In becoming preoccupied with internal contests, we lose touch with the crying needs of humanity around us. We designate huge sums for defending our property and interests from other parties in the church, while a fraction of those dollars could make the difference between life and death for thousands who are starving in our neighborhoods and around the world. We have, in short become a people “Of the world, but not in the world.” Lord, have mercy on us!

Seeking our Lord’s forgiveness,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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