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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Bearing True Witness
September 5, 2013

The Westminster Confession unpacks the commandment “Thou shalt not bear false witness” by detailing first of all what it requires concerning speaking truthfully about and toward each other (Book of Confessions 7.254). Last week in this space I wrote alerting us to how some folk are bearing false witness concerning the PCUSA’s proclamation of the Gospel. Today I write to urge that we not flag in bearing true witness in two critical commitments we make as congregations.

I have over the last two Sundays been part of two joyous yet sober promise-making events in two congregations. First, I was part of a congregational meeting to call a pastor, in which the congregation pledged to pay him fairly, “promising you in the discharge of your duty all proper support, encouragement, and allegiance in the Lord” (words from the standard pastoral call form that all congregations adopt in electing a pastor). In covenanting to support, encourage, and maintain allegiance to our pastors, we commit ourselves to blessing them, even as we expect them to bless us with the ministry of the Gospel. Many churches have designated October (I know, it’s just September, but October comes quickly!) “Pastor Appreciation Month” – it can be an especially appropriate reminder to Presbyterian congregations that already promised to do exactly that when they first called their pastors. I encourage pastors to love their congregations in such a way that their congregations know their pastors love them – and I would urge congregations to love their pastors similarly. In truth, both pastors and their congregations have solemnly promised to do just that. Were they bearing true witness when they made those commitments? I hope and pray so.

Second, this past Sunday I was privileged to participate in the baptism of a precious child of the church. In baptism, the congregation “assumes responsibility for nurturing the baptized person in the Christian life.” (Book of Order W-2.3013) Our Book of Common Worship enacts this responsibility by having the minister ask the congregation at each service of baptism, “Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to nurture this one by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him/her to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church?” The people respond, “We do!” (Book of Common Worship, 406) The same commitment is made whatever the age of the person being baptized.

When we make these promises to those we baptize, are we bearing true witness? One way the church has made true that promise is through its various Christian education programs. Church school, confirmation, youth, and adult discipleship programs constitute exactly this – they fulfill the promises we all made to those whom we baptized in Jesus’ name. To maintain and support such programs robustly is nothing less than our keeping our baptismal promises.

None of us is only a promise maker, without continuing also to be a promise receiver. As a long-time believer and church member I certainly intend to live up to my pledge to nurture the Christian life and faith of those who are being baptized; but I too am still a recipient of that promise as it was originally made to me at my own baptism, and the church is still responsible to continue nurturing me in the faith, even as I nurture others. 2 Timothy 2:2 captures well this image of multi-generational mutual responsibility for encouraging each other in the faith, as the apostle instruct his protégé, “What you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others also.” At each stage of this faith transmission chain there is a group of people learning and teaching the faith together.

Presbyterian pastor Tod Bolsinger brings this into the 21st century in his insightfully entitled book, It Takes a Church to Raise a Christian(Grand Rapids: Brazos Press 2004). I commend it to you for study as you launch a new year in your Christian education program. And as you begin your new church school year, remember this – what we are doing through all our Christian education efforts is simply ensuring that we bore true witness when we promised to nurture the faith of those whom we baptized.

To each church school teacher, Bible study leader, Sunday school superintendent, education committee member, youth leader, Christian Educator, and small group facilitator, I offer my deepest thanks in the Lord, and my encouragement to keep strong in the ministry the Lord has given you. You are doing nothing less than helping the church stay true to its promises. To sessions and pastors, I charge that you resource generously these vital ministries in your congregations. And to those who may be disengaged from this perpetual school of Christian living, I urge you to get involved as a participant, leader, assistant, or supporter. Do so first of all to fulfill the promises you made when your church baptized its members; but do so also because you too need nurture in your own faith and life. We never outgrow the need to learn Christ more fully and to live for him more wholly.

Growing in faith with you,

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

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