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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Unity or Purity?
May 2, 2013

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

I fear we have bought into a lie. It may seem true at first blush, but is it really true, in the fullest sense of what “true” means?

All too often we imagine being “true” as simply a matter of indisputable fact – either you are right or you are wrong. There is only one true answer, for instance, to the question “What is five times five?” The answer is either 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong. Close doesn’t count.

But there are other important dimensions to being “true.” For instance, someone who is fully committed to their school or country or club or friends is sometimes called “true blue” – they can be counted on to stay loyal to their team through thick and thin. We call such a person a “true” friend, fan, patriot, or booster. Or consider the exacting work of a builder to assure that every wall, floor, and ceiling is “true” (exactly level or perpendicular), so everything fits together perfectly. Or again, we call someone “true” if what they say and what they do are fully consistent. A story or an art object is considered “true” if it resonates with life as we really encounter it – even if the story is fiction or the art is abstract. A shooter’s or golfer’s aim is “true” if they hit exactly where they intend. Being “true” is about more than simply being right.

So back to where I started: What is this lie that I fear we have bought, and how is it not true?  This is the lie – that we can promote the church’s unity without upholding its purity, or conversely, that we can hold to its purity at the expense of its unity. We have turned them into competing values, and nothing could be further from the truth.

A quaint old phrase from our forebears is enshrined in our Book of Order: “Truth is in order to goodness.” (F-3.0104) That is, something cannot be “good” if it isn’t “true,” nor can anything be “true” if it isn’t “good.” The same holds for the church’s unity and purity – there is no authentic purity in the church when its unity is broken, and there is no authentic unity in the church apart from purity in our devotion to living honestly by God’s Word.

As officers of the church, we promise in our seventh ordination vow to further the church’s unity and purity, abandoning neither for the sake of the other. A version of ecclesial unity that winks at faithless behavior or unsound teaching is not unity in Christ at all, but mere tolerance. A version of purity that justifies rejecting fellowship with those who in good conscience differ in their understanding of what Scripture leads us to believe and do is not a biblical purity at all, but an execution of judgment that belongs only to God.

Neither the purity nor the unity of the church are ours to produce. They are gifts of God’s Spirit alone. All we can do is either nurture them or resist them.

The apostle Paul ties purity and unity together securely: “Be of the same mind in the Lord… Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4) The way we think makes all the difference in what we do.

This resurfaces what Paul said earlier about emulating Jesus’ mindset – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” a mind characterized by putting the interests of others ahead of our own. (Philippians 2) As ordained officers of the church, we promise to let the mind of Christ rule us, a mind that at one and the same time presses for pure personal excellence (Philippians 3:12-14) and trusts that God is also at work among our sisters and brothers who understand excellence differently than we do (Philippians 3:15).

To seek the church’s purity means first of all to purify my own heart before the Lord, to cleanse myself of ideas and ways contrary to the mind of Christ. To seek the church’s unity is to commit myself resolutely to full partnership with others who seek to live by the mind of Christ, even if their understanding of what that entails may differ from my own.

Unity and purity are two sides of the single coin of ecclesial authenticity. They are inseparable. May the Holy Spirit help us to further them both, thus exhibiting the mind of Christ in our relations with each other, to the glory of God, for the sake of the world.

Pressing forward,

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

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