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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Presbyterian Distinctives, Part III:  For the Sake of the World
February 6, 2014

Having considered what is distinctively Presbyterian about our understanding of God and of God’s way with us, we now turn to the question of what God asks of us. Is there a distinctively Presbyterian account of what it means to live out Christian faith? Our faith leads us to bear witness to the Gospel in many ways, but I will highlight a single aspect of that witness that is particularly and distinctively Presbyterian in character.  

Some churches understand their relation to the world primarily in terms of separation – they form alternative communities to help preserve their sense of holiness. Other churches have sought more direct engagement with the surrounding world, though with a variety of motivations, from pursuing the world’s conversion to seeking its acceptance. Presbyterians believe that just as God has blessed us with the transformative gift of salvation apart from anything we have earned, we are called to bless the world around us by seeking its transformation according to the Word of God.

Presbyterians have characteristically understood themselves to be in close continuity with Israel of old. John Calvin would mark the birth of the church not with Christian Pentecost, but with the call of Abraham. Israel’s sense of its place in the wider world grew from Abraham’s calling that through him “all families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:3, etc.) Presbyterians stress that we are likewise called to be God’s people for the sake of the world.

I was privileged to visit Geneva a few years ago, where much of the old town remains intact from the days of the Reformation. One of the Genevan Reformers’ great projects was the establishment of a comprehensive school offering what we would today called public education – you can still visit the school grounds today. Calvin preached in the grand old cathedral each Lord’s Day, but spent far more time in the lecture hall next door, where he taught Bible, history, and doctrine several days a week. (It now houses an English-speaking Presbyterian church.) But his personal office was in neither the church nor the education building, but in City Hall. There he kept tabs on civic affairs, and arranged for the church elders to participate in adjudicating small claims brought before the magistrate. Public justice should be shaped by Christian ideals, he maintained.

Calvin’s magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ends with its longest chapter of all – and it has little to do with doctrine or church order. Rather, its title is “The Civil Magistrate.” The culmination of his greatest project is a vision for a social order that spells out the ramifications of the Gospel for public civic life.  

Presbyterians’ historic engagement with public justice advocacy is in our very DNA. It’s no accident that Presbyterians have led the way in such social justice movements as emancipation, civil rights, women’s suffrage, and educational reform. From Town Hall to Capitol Hill, Presbyterians have been far more involved in government than their numbers would predict. Presbyterians believe that we are called to live out our faith in the rough and tumble of public politics, economics, social advocacy, and criminal justice, as well as sciences and the arts. It is no accident that many of our hospitals – including the UPMC system – began as Presbyterian projects to aid the general population.

We engage in works of justice and mercy for the world around us simply because all of God’s creatures are equally deserving of being blessed. We don’t bait and switch, giving bread with one hand in order to hook folk into church membership with the other.

The challenge for us has been to stay clear on why we engage such work. In our care to avoid parading public piety, we run the risk of forgetting why we are seeking to bless the world around us. We birth wonderful public service institutions, then pass them along to others who have no faith basis invested in the work, glad enough that the work is being carried forward. Any connection of this good work to the life and mission of Jesus is soon forgotten. Who in Pittsburgh today would know of UPMC’s Presbyterian roots, except for the name on their central hospital?

We are true to our distinctively Presbyterian identity when we engage deeply and broadly with institutions of public justice and welfare. Indeed, Presbyterians seem unable not to do so! But we need be diligent to remember the why behind what we do in the world – we do it as an act of grateful stewardship of the abundant gifts God has bestowed on us. We pour out ourselves for others because Jesus poured himself out for us. Thanks be to God!

Yours in ministry for the sake of the world,

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

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