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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Healthy Tension
April 18, 2013

Do you promise to further
 the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

Sometimes “peace, unity, and purity” are understood as competing commitments, as though we ultimately must decide which of them in the end trumps the others. I contend that they are in fact inseparable, even when they tug in opposing directions. So before we consider them separately, today I invite us to consider how they work together.

This Valentine’s Day Tammy and I gave ourselves a Valentine present that keeps on giving – a year’s membership at a massage therapy center. I know that therapeutic massage doesn’t appeal to everyone, but for us it has proven to be a wonderful tool for relaxation. It relieves the bodily tension generated by our hectic life pace. All it takes is one rush hour morning trying to navigate the Parkway to build up tension that cries out for relief.

Yet not all tension is bad. When the pitcher winds up to deliver a fastball, the shortstop had better have every muscle tensed and ready to react instantly to wherever the batter hits the ball. As racers crouch at the starting blocks before launching themselves into a 100 meter sprint, every muscle quivers in the tension of extreme readiness for the gunshot that starts the race. A piano can produce its glorious sound only when its strings are stretched into thousands of pounds of tension across a massive cast iron frame.

Tension is produced when forces pull in opposing directions. A muscle works best when it is free from mutually opposing impulses, so a massage therapist seeks to reduce its inner tension. But some tensions enhance rather than undercut health.

The Bible is replete with advocacy for certain healthy tensions, where apparently opposing forces are both needed for the well-being of God’s people: Word and Spirit. Faith and works. Cross and resurrection. Victory and self-sacrifice. Justice and mercy. Forgiveness and judgment. And the list goes on. Our seventh ordination vow lands us into a world of tension, the maintenance of which is crucial to the health of the church. Alas, our impulse to reduce tension sometimes leads us to stress one part of this vow while relaxing another.

In a healthy tension system, opposing energies need to be sustained, without one side capitulating to the force of others. Think of four firefighters holding the corners of a net, urging someone caught in a house fire to jump into it from a second-floor window. The plan works only if the firefighters at the corners strain in opposing directions.

In our seventh ordination vow we promise to keep the tension strong between three poles that, taken together, constitute a safety net for the church. When any one of the three gives out, the church is disabled from fulfilling its mission. The church’s peace, unity, and purity all flourish in robust tension in a sound, healthy, mission-driven church. Notice that Jesus advocates directly and repeatedly for these three markers – unity, sanctification, and peace – to persist among his disciples after he leaves them; see John 17:11-23; 20:19-23.

In 2001, the Presbyterian General Assembly appointed a “Task Force on the Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church” to address the ongoing struggle in the PCUSA over issues that had long been polarizing and paralyzing the church. A panel of 20 people was designated to constitute the task force, with special care that to have an equitable distribution of folk singularly passionate for peace, for unity, and for purity in the church. The task force met often over the ensuing five years, its work culminating in a final report that was adopted by the 2006 General Assembly. I personally know and count as treasured friends eleven of those twenty individuals. I can testify to their honest sincerity of faith in Jesus and deep commitment to his church. Over the years they met, they all became (and remain) fast friends, even though their disagreements were not all resolved.

Alas, many observers quickly dismissed their project as a failure, because it did not achieve the resolution of tensions for which they had hoped. But perhaps the task force modeled for us a way that is even healthier, namely living together to God’s glory amid our tensions. Our seventh ordination vow underscores that the church is not fully the place God calls it to be when any one of those three commitments collapses.

As church officers, we promise to uphold all three – even when we are most passionate about one or two of them – acknowledging that the church needs all three commitments to flourish if it is to be what God intends it to be. In remaining unshakably committed to all of these values, we continue the pattern set for us in the early church, where the ministries and emphases of both Peter and Paul – Jews and Gentiles, faith and works, freedom and obedience, etc. – were fully embraced by the Christian church as it was being built on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:19-20)

Yearning for the church’s wholeness,

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

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