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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Presbyterian Distinctives, Part VII:  Always Being Reformed
March 6, 2014

Presbyterians have long held that as a reformed church we are “always to be reformed according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit.” (Book of Order F-2.02) God is always at work in the church to shake us out of our comfort zones in order that we may engage our world in new ways with the changeless Gospel. In every time and place, we believe, God calls us to new forms and emphases in our witness. That is why our church subscribes to a Book of Confessions, and not just a single Confession from one place and time. We always hear God’s Word in new ways when our situation changes.

This places us in the delicate balance of being responsive to, but not conformed to the world. (Romans 12:2) Swiss theologian Karl Barth aptly said that we are a people with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. For Presbyterians, neither can be dismissed at the expense of the other.

One manifestation of this is that Presbyterian worship, while having a number of distinctive features, varies significantly from place to place, even in our own presbytery. Other traditions have fixed worship forms that are consistent from church to church, but not so with Presbyterians. Our “Directory for Worship” commends a bare-bones order for worship, but it is only suggested, not required. And each congregation continually re-evaluates its liturgy to assure that it remains both engaged with our changing culture and faithful to our established tradition.

Because Presbyterian commitment to Scripture always engages us with what’s in the newspaper, we are often in the forefront of addressing new issues that emerge in the world around us. For instance, Presbyterians have recently led the way in lifting up the plight of migrant farmworkers on whose backs we eat cheaply at fast food restaurants or get bargains on produce at our supermarkets. Closer to home, a local rabbi and I recently wrote a newspaper article together, addressing the crisis between Israel and Palestine.

Sometimes Presbyterians characterize their public witness against injustice or oppression as “prophetic” ministry, much as ancient Israel’s prophets challenged those who misused their power. Such work may indeed be “prophetic,” so long as we remember that the biblical tradition of “prophetic” ministry shows the prophets engaging their ministry only reluctantly, driven not by personal zeal but by the Spirit of God. When the church is being reformed by God’s Word, it is God’s Spirit that calls it to new forms of witness. We engage God’s mission in Christ because God calls us to it, not because we seek to advance our own economic or political advocacy passions. In the Bible, reluctance to proclaim a prophetic word is one of the most consistent markers of prophetic authenticity.

Because we believe that God is always at work reforming the church, Presbyterians have always made room for non-conformists among us. We are constitutionally committed to “freedom of conscience with respect to interpretation of Scripture” within broad bounds. (Book of Order G-2.0105) An ever-reforming church and freedom of conscience in biblical interpretation are inseparable.

Presbyterians are always at our best when we hold the Bible and the newspaper together. Jesus is the embodiment of the truth that God’s Word always engages us in the middle of life’s rough and tumble – Emmanuel, God with us. Presbyterians engage the big issues in the world today – social, political, economic, environmental – precisely we believe that is where God’s Word shows up in Jesus. The world’s big issues are our church’s big issues, because we believe that God speaks not in abstraction from but to the very heart of where people live. Wanting a church that is a haven of safe refuge amid a restless world is an understandable desire, but it is not Presbyterian.

The church lives at the junction of “here and now” and “always and everywhere.” It is far easier to be devoted to one or the other than it is to live in the tension of commitment to both. Living in the world of the Bible alone is comforting because it shields us from having to deal with the changes rampant around us. Living in the world of the newspaper alone gives us the freedom to invent our engagement with the world as seems best to us without being accountable to a transcendent Word from God. When we hold firmly to both the newspaper and the Bible, to the passing and to the abiding, to the earthy and to the cosmic, we cannot avoid being continually reformed. This is what Presbyterians seek to be and to do. By God’s grace, let it be so!

Your partner in this journey,

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

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