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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Distinctive Presbyterian Struggles
March 27, 2014

We have been considering “Presbyterian Distinctives” for the past several weeks, exploring characteristics of Presbyterian life and witness that particularly distinguish our church. Honesty requires that we acknowledge that, in addition to many strengths and gifts, we also have inherited some distinctive struggles that have come to mark Presbyterianism, especially in North America.

First, in our zeal for truth we tend to consider mutual love as less important. Among Presbyterians, Jesus’ great plea in his final prayer in John 17 that we be one in love and mission is all too easily forgotten when we find ourselves with real differences in faith and practice. We take our theology with great seriousness – as one who has earned a Ph.D. in Theology and Ethics, I stand at the front of that line. Theology matters so dearly to us that when our theologies collide we are far too ready to break fellowship in favor of new like-minded alignments. Presbyterians have, alas, been among the most fractious of the Reformers’ children. We know well that Paul says that faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest is love (1 Corinthians 13:13) – yet our faith confession has all too often trumped the love command.

Second, in a similar vein, we sometimes take our social witness so seriously that we disregard our crusade’s ramifications for the church’s health and welfare. In our passion to promote justice we have often discounted how disruptive our advocacy may be to the church’s unity. We pursue justice with such urgency that we forget about the necessary corresponding urgency to do so in a way that builds up rather than tears down the church.

Third, we have all too often considered ourselves better than others, despite Paul’s admonition, “In humility consider others as better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3) Genuine virtues of our heritage – the rigor of our preparation for ministry, the richness of our confessional heritage, the breadth of our mission outreach, our devotion to learning, our insistence on good order, our leadership in ecumenical ventures, our deep engagement in civic affairs, our advocacy for public justice – become stumbling blocks when we deem our commitments and engagements superior to those of others.

Fourth, in our zeal for diversity and inclusiveness we often diminish the importance of discerning the particular gifts needed for specific components of the church’s mission. In our passion to assure that all voices may be heard in the church, we have sometimes abandoned the hard work of seeking out for leadership those whose gifts are most needed for particular tasks at hand.

Fifth, we are so devoted to fairness and transparency in governance that we have come to allow all important things to be decided by voting, even when victory is by the slimmest of margins. Rather than seeking consensus through persistent prayerful spiritual discernment over difficult issues, we seek resolution through parliamentary process and majority rule.

Finally, we have too often leaned on our own understanding and too seldom sought the mind of the Lord as we have set our way forward. While we claim to be committed equally to study and prayer, we tend to rely more on study than upon prayer to direct us. Like Samuel of old, we are inclined to make judgments based on outward appearances rather than spiritual discernment. (1 Samuel 16:7)

Pray more. Listen more. Love more. As we keep these correctives ever in view, we will find ourselves less prone to make the mistakes that have too often caused Presbyterians to stumble. With the Spirit’s help, let it be so for us today!

Yours in the bonds of the Spirit,

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

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