A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
January 31, 2013
When we ordain someone as an officer in the church, we do so with a host of expectations. Some of those expectations are specified in our ordination vows, but our most significant expectations are less formal, yet they are equally weighty. We expect those whom we ordain to be exemplary Christians, both as a condition for their being ordained and as an ongoing living standard – whatever being an “exemplary Christian” might entail!
The Reformed tradition teaches that ordination confers no special status or sanctity to a person – ordination does not make someone a higher-order Christian, but simply signifies the church’s concern that its core ministry functions are being carried out by people with appropriate gifts, training, and church endorsement. Ordination is about function, not about identity. At least that is what our theology of ordination holds.
Our problem is that while we consider ordination to be setting folk apart for particular functions, we also hold that someone ordained by the church is thereby publicly identified as a church representative, and thus should be more than “merely” good at the tasks to which they are ordained, but also an “exemplary Christian.” Our former Book of Order captured this well, when it directed that “Those duties which all Christians are bound to perform by the law of love are especially incumbent upon elders because of their calling to office and are to be fulfilled by them as official responsibilities.” (Book of Order 2009-2011, G-6.0304)
Whoa!! Talk about a high bar – to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves, are “official responsibilities” of church officers?! When we accept the church’s call to ordained service, who among us can promise with a straight face that we’ll always keep up to that standard? Or more modestly, who among us can pledge constant fidelity to the Book of Order’s expectation of officers that “their life should be a demonstration of the Gospel in the church and in the world”? (G-2.0104) Would that it were so, but alas, all of us fall short of such lofty aspirations more often than we care to admit.
Let’s acknowledge openly that we do expect our officers to hold to a higher standard of Christian conduct on account of their ordination. We do hold that ordination constitutes a claim on a person’s identity – it is more than just a functional authorization to do a particular job. Perhaps this larger, less specific but more momentous set of expectations can be boiled down to this – we expect people whom we ordain to keep their promises honestly, to the best of their ability. If we expect ordained officers to be faithful to their specified ordination vows, we will want to assure before we ordain them that they have a track record of making every effort to remain faithful to their promises. First among these are our baptismal promises to reject evil, trust Jesus as Savior and Lord, and live as his disciples in the world.
The church rightly wants to be sure that the hands into which it entrusts its ministries are in fact trustworthy. It holds that if someone proves faithful in pursuing their baptismal promises, they are likely to be similarly faithful in fulfilling their ordination promises. Conversely, if someone lives in disregard of their baptismal promises, the church understandably doubts their readiness to conduct ordained ministry.
Truthfully, none of us is fully up to the challenge of fulfilling the enormous expectations that the church has for its officers. What matters in the end is not whether we are perfect exemplars of Christianity, but whether we are diligent in seeking to become ever more faithful as Christ’s disciples. Our desire to grow in faithfulness to our Lord gets expressed in two ways: 1. We confess our sin without excuses; and 2. We avail ourselves of the God-given means of grace to help us grow as Christians – that is, we participate personally and regularly in the church’s ministries of Word, Sacrament, and Prayer, so we may become more faithful in our discipleship to our Lord.
As we speak specifically in coming weeks to the particular promises we make in our ordination vows, let us never lose sight of the larger context of non-specified yet crucial expectations that we hold for officers, namely that they seek diligently to live in a way that is faithful to their baptismal promises to reject evil, confess Jesus as Lord, and live as his disciples in the church and in the world.
Seeking to live the Gospel,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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