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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Rules of the House
March 14, 2013

Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline?
Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them,
 subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?

When I was growing up, I spent countless hours playing Monopoly with friends in each other’s homes, each of which had somewhat different house rules for the game. For instance, some put all the fines in a kitty that was won by anyone who landed on “Free Parking.” We all agreed that rules of the particular house in which we were playing would be binding on everyone – even if we didn’t like them. To be part of this friendship circle, each of us had to follow house rules as well as the universal game rules.

In our fifth ordination vow, church leaders covenant to be bound to each other in a particular community order, and to hold each other to account in remaining true to that order. We do not have an ecclesiastical hierarchy that commands obedience of its subjects; rather, we are a covenant community of folk living in mutual accountability to a particular set of house rules that we have forged together over time. These are not universal church rules; they are the particular rules by which we bind ourselves together in the family known as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Though they are not binding for the church worldwide, in our particular branch of the church we make the same promise to abide by them as we do by the church’s universal guidance in Scripture.

The polity and discipline of our church specify the detail of how we embody our core commitment to follow Christ together. In the fourth ordination vow we promise to obey Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, as guided by our Confessions. Now in the fifth ordination vow we promise further obedience to our particular “polity” – a catch-all term for the house rules that specify how our obedience to Jesus plays out day to day in our particular “polis” (the Greek word for “city”).

This fifth ordination vow rightly underscores that our ability to fulfill our ministry with integrity depends on our working closely with each other as friends. Agreeing to abide by our church’s polity is the concrete expression of our commitment to genuine friendship with each other. “Friendship” is a mutual commitment to walk together with others, and to stick with them even when the road gets rough.

It is critical for vital ministry in Jesus’ name that we move from being mere associates to being friends. When we join a church or a presbytery, we become an associate with others in that body; as we spend time with one another, we move to the deeper level of being friends. Jesus was not ready to leave his work in the hands of his disciples until they had moved from being a band of servants to being truly his friends. (John 15:15) Jesus identifies the core quality of this friendship as the commitment to be fully transparent with each other: “I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything.” When we live as friends in ministry, we do not set our course without telling our friends what’s going on with us. Our conduct in our particular fields of ministry is an open book to our friends who work neighboring fields.

We have laid a high priority in our new presbytery mission plan on intentionally cultivating our friendships as leaders of our Lord’s church. Our commitment to abide by our polity is rightly lived out in the realm of friendship, not of coercion. When we promise to live by our polity, we are promising to engage one another as friends – people who are transparent with each other, who are committed to sticking together come what may.

Being governed by our polity and being friends in ministry are in fact two sides of the same coin. Disregard for our polity is nothing more – or less – than a sign of the breakdown of the friendship in the Lord that binds us together in his ministry. Disregard for our promise to live by our polity signals that we have abandoned the rich web of friendships in ministry that sustains us for doing the Lord’s work faithfully and effectively. Rightly engaged, our polity is not a set of rules that church authorities seek to enforce by compulsion; rather, it is a web of mutual commitment sustained by friendship, through which we are better enabled to fulfill the ministry that our Lord has entrusted to us.

Your friend in ministry,

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

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