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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Presbyterian Distinctives, Part 6: A Particular Order of Governance
February 27, 2014

Nothing gladdens a good Presbyterian’s heart like 1 Corinthians 14:40 – “All things should be done decently and in order.” How could one not be thrilled with that?!

In that text Paul is dealing with a situation where church gatherings have become a free-for-all where everyone speaks up as they feel inspired, with no concern whether someone else may also have something to contribute. Paul seeks to preserve everyone’s right to contribute, but directs that they should do so in an orderly way, taking turns, with nobody monopolizing the floor. This is the way God’s Spirit works, Paul contends, giving each member of the body something important to contribute, and giving none the right to dominate.

Various forms of church order have emerged across the miles and centuries. Scripture privileges no particular order for worship or ministry, but neither does it condone disorder. Three major streams of the Reformation identify themselves by their form of governmental order: Episcopal, Congregational, and Presbyterian. “Presbyterian” means literally “governed by elders,” or in other words, “representative government.” Representatives elected by all the people make decisions on how the church should understand and accomplish its ministry, much as our secular government functions.

Every member has the right and responsibility to elect wise and godly leaders for the church. Just as everyone is called to participate in electing officers to lead the church, so everyone is expected to consider prayerfully whether to serve in leadership when called upon to do so. For a church to thrive, it must choose leaders well; I have long believed that no work is more important for a church’s future welfare than the work of its nominating committee!

It should be no surprise that Presbyterian churches, given the great responsibility they invest in those elected to leadership, should be especially susceptible to tension around the question of who should be elected to office. Many Presbyterian splits over the centuries have emerged from disagreement over who may be elected to serve as a church leader. Should persons without seminary education be permitted to serve as pastors? Are women eligible to be ordained to service? Shall persons of all ethnicities be considered equally for leadership? How about married or single clergy, or LGBT persons, or divorcees? Each of these questions has occasioned one or more splits in our family tree.

For all our emphasis on good order, we have found it impossible to reach a settled position on who should or should not be eligible to serve as church officers. As soon as we think we have settled some particular question on who may be eligible to serve, another issue arises. Such constant renegotiating is sometimes precipitated by changes in the larger world around us, but it also arises due to the rotation of representatives who lead the church. With each new set of officers and commissioners we elect, the church brings new eyes and hearts to the leadership table.

Paul understands leadership rotation in the church as normal and necessary – one plants, another waters, but God is the one who makes the church grow. One lays a foundation, another builds on it, but it is always God’s temple. (See 1 Corinthians 3:5-10)

So here are the touchstones of Presbyterian governance that create both the possibilities and difficulties that are so characteristically “ours” – 1. God’s people elect from their own body representatives to govern the church; and 2. The cast of representative leaders is always changing. The great benefit of this system of rotational representation is that new perspectives and capabilities in its leadership optimize conditions for the church to grow. The great challenge is that each new leader selected comes with the risk of not turning out to be very effective. The “safe” path of sticking with proven leadership can result in stagnancy.

Presbyterians are at our best when we elect a strong combination of proven leaders and new folk who will draw us in fresh directions. In so doing we cooperate with God’s design as articulated by the ancient prophet Joel and reiterated by Peter at Pentecost: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18)

Thankful for all who lead us,

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

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