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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Habitat for Jesus
August 8, 2013

We end this series on the “Notes of the Reformed Church” by looking at what it means to claim a church to be “true.” The Book of Order says that “Reformed Christians have marked the presence of the true church wherever the Word of God is truly preached and heard, the Sacraments are rightly administered, and ecclesiastical discipline is uprightly ministered.” (F-1.0303, emphasis added) Another way to put it without theological jargon might be, “Wherever people cultivate the presence of Jesus, a true church exists.”

Jesus promised to be with his followers always when they gather – even just two of them is enough! (Matthew 18:20, Matthew 28:20) What makes a gathering truly “church” is the intentional recognition and cultivation of Jesus’ presence through listening to his word (preaching), receiving him tangibly (sacraments), and following his way (discipline).

Historically, this formula of preaching-sacraments-discipline was the Reformers’ counter-claim to the prevailing notion in the church of their time, namely that the “true church” existed wherever the Mass was celebrated by a priest in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome. Either the Reformed churches were illegitimate, or another definition of the “true church” was necessary.

Notably, the Reformers did not dismiss Roman churches as “untrue,” in so far as they too were intentional habitats for Jesus. Neither the form of government nor the name of the franchise has a lick to do with whether a church is “true,” and the Reformers knew it. Both Luther and Calvin sought earnestly to repair their breach with Rome even as they continued to decry Rome’s errors, because they believed it still to be the true church wherever it ministered the means of divine grace.

Alas, the business of defining the “true church” took a terrible turn when it became a tool for dismissing some churches as “untrue.” To be “untrue,” a so-called church would have to be marked by the absence of Jesus. And who among us has the right to judge that Jesus is absent from a people gathered in his name?

Jesus does not tie his promise to be present with those who gather in his name to the purity of their teachings and behaviors. For us to mark a church as “untrue” on account of its defects is to arrogate to ourselves a judgment that Jesus is not really present there at all. To suggest where Jesus may and may not be present is to assume far too much for myself, and far too little for him.

A wise mentor told me years ago that we tend to be right in what we affirm, and wrong in what we deny. Over the decades I have discovered that to be reliably true. We don’t need to cast aspersion on the integrity of others in order to establish our own.

This means I have no right to break fellowship with others because I perceive errors in their doctrine or practice. If Jesus is present with them, I am joined to them. To walk away from them is to cut myself off from Jesus. Sure, Jesus may well be present in my own particular fellowship of word, sacrament, and discipline – but he is also with them, and I can no more afford to be severed from him as he is present there as I can afford to be without him as he is present here.

You don’t have to be part of our denomination to be a “true church,” though being true to our PCUSA vows is an important marker of integrity. Some who have taken those vows have indefensibly abandoned them. For our fellowship’s good health, we require each other to remain true to the vows we have made to one another before God. So in our polity we sometimes differentiate the “true church” by those who remain true to our covenant of life together. But let us never confuse that with the idea that those who leave our fellowship are no longer a “true church” in the larger sense we have been discussing here. Even if some charge that we are no longer a true church, we may not defensibly respond to them in kind.

Any decision by a congregation to depart fellowship with other congregations is a tragic tear in the body of Christ. It bears witness only to the frailty of our commitment to be the true church. And thankfully, it is only a temporary breach that the Lord promises ultimately to heal, when the kingdom of God will come in fullness and all who name Christ will be joined in one chorus around the one throne of the one and only Lord of all.

And so, beloved, if there is anything within us that would cast aspersion on the integrity of other communities that seek to establish a habitat for Jesus, let us bury it. We will need, for the sake of order, to deal with the practical ramifications of some among us seeking to be set free from our mutual covenant. But let us never turn that technical adjustment into judgmental dismissal, even as we bear the acute pain of Christ’s body still being torn asunder.

Yours in the one true fellowship of Jesus,

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

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