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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

No Voluntary Affiliation
January 9, 2014

I taught for a while at a college in Tennessee, and regularly passed a church near campus named “Volunteer Church” (I won’t divulge its denominational affiliation). The name was probably meant to be a clever riff on Tennessee’s claim to be the “Volunteer State.” Most churches depend heavily on volunteers for everything from mowing grass to making music to teaching Sunday school to doing mission projects. Thank God for all who volunteer to serve! Still, I found myself troubled by a church claiming to be constituted by “volunteers.”

Something is theologically amiss when we consider our participation in the church a voluntary affiliation, like being a Democrat, or a Rotarian, or a server at a soup kitchen. Voluntary associations can be powerful social forces for good, but the church is no more a voluntary association than is my family, or yours.

This week the church calendar highlights the Baptism of our Lord, an event underscoring that our place in God’s household is determined by God, not by us. Jesus chooses one thing – to present himself humbly to God. But the claim of belonging to God that gets sealed by baptism is made not by Jesus toward the Father, but vice versa – a voice from heaven claims Jesus as “my beloved son.”

The same is true for every single person baptized in Jesus’ name. Baptism is not our joining God’s team, but our being presented to God so that God may put a claim on us. Jesus speaks of our being made part of God’s realm by being “born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5) None of us chooses to be born; we are born entirely at the initiative of our parents. Similarly, Jesus stresses to his disciples that their relationship with him depends on his choosing them, not on their choosing him. (John 15:16)

In the face of a growing tide of Reformers that permitted baptism only to those who had already made a personal Christian faith claim, John Calvin insisted that infant baptism is to be retained – even preferred! – because it witnesses unmistakably that our place in God’s household is initiated by God, not by us. We can no more choose to belong to God than an infant can choose to be baptized. This does not mean our response to God’s claim on us is insignificant – far from it! We still require a consequent profession of Jesus as Lord on the part of all the baptized, and we further stipulate that all who have owned God’s claim on them in baptism commit themselves to nurture others who are baptized in walking the way of Jesus.

When churches leave our fellowship by naming their relationship with us a “voluntary affiliation” they wish to set aside, they buy into a very different account of what it means to be part of the church in the first place. At the direction of legal counsel, some churches have voted to terminate their “voluntary affiliation” with the PCUSA in order to assume a “voluntary affiliation” with another denomination. Such an action may be legally defensible, and may even seem theologically defensible on grounds of whether we agree with church doctrine and practice. But it also discloses that we have come to consider our place in God’s family something we choose for ourselves.

As we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, let us recall with humility and gratitude that our place in God’s family is determined by God’s choice, not ours. Thank the Lord that, just as our place in God’s household is a sheer gift rather than something we earn or choose, so our place in it is not lost when we stumble along the way!

Yours because of our Lord’s gracious choice,     

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

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