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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Leading by Example
March 7, 2013

In our third and fourth ordination vows, church officers promise to be guided by the church’s confessions as we let the Bible shape both what we believe and how we live as disciples of Jesus. Most folk would agree that the Bible should shape our theology; what is less clear to many is how we might let the Bible shape our daily living.

A few years back a question swirled through social media, “What car would Jesus drive?” Many considered this merely a joke, but some took it as a serious question. Would Jesus drive a gas-guzzler that depletes the earth’s energy resources and fouls the atmosphere? Would Jesus drive a big new luxury vehicle while millions live on the edge of starvation? For most Christians, the decision of which car to buy is affected far more by TV commercials, user reviews, and the state of their bank account than it is by the Bible. On a similar vein, last Sunday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran an article by Presbyterian minister Graham Standish entitled, “What kind of gun would Jesus carry”? Recently our presbytery has been undergoing a study of shale drilling on church properties, which might be described as, “Where would Jesus frack?”

Silly as such questions may seem at first hearing, they do get at something of vital importance for Christians – the Bible is not just for defining doctrine, but for shaping everyday choices and practices. Jesus’ complaints about the teachers of the law were directed not at their doctrine, but at their practice. “Do whatever they teach you,” he told his followers, “but do not do as they do.” (Matthew 23:3) In our ordination vows we promise that Scripture will shape both what we believe and what we do.

The point of this comes home in the phrase: “Will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?” Only those who are themselves led by Scripture in their daily living can lead others to respond rightly to God’s word.

Paul has the audacity, as a church leader, to invite the church, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) Church leaders fulfill their responsibilities well only to the extent that their lives are, in the words of our Book of Order, “a demonstration of the Christian gospel in the church and in the world.” (G-2.0104) For church leaders, how we live matters at least as much as what we say. The confessions underscore for us the kind of daily living to which the Bible calls us. Let there be no mistake – those called to lead the church of Jesus are expected to be exemplary not only in their talk, but also in their walk.

I subscribe to a Christian news service that headlined this week news of admitted sexual impropriety by one of the highest officials in the Roman Catholic Church, and of alleged massive financial corruption by the pastor of one of the world’s largest Christian churches. We are rightly dismayed by such stories, despite recognizing that we too are sinners who could easily be in similar straits given opportunity to go there. We know well that the church’s witness to the Gospel is damaged when church leaders preach one thing but do another.

How do we, as leaders of the church who join the hymn-writer in confessing, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love,” guard ourselves from behavior unbecoming to our office? How do we guard our conduct to demonstrate the Word we proclaim?

In Reformed church life, our safeguard is the community of those who share a vocation in the church’s ministry. When we do ministry alone, we multiply our temptation to live by standards different from those we proclaim. When we gather regularly with colleagues to nurture our shared vocation in the Lord, we encourage one another to live in a way that accords with the faith we profess (Hebrews 10:23-25). This is why our next ordination vow focuses on nurturing collegial friendship in ministry. More on that next week….

Seeking to demonstrate the Gospel in company with you,

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

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