A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Presbyterian Distinctives, Part X: Stewards of True Treasures
April 3, 2014
Until Gutenberg came along in the 15th Century, most stories were transmitted orally rather than in writing. We would know neither the salvation stories of ancient Israel nor the Christian apostolic witness were it not for people who faithfully told the next generation what they learned from their forebears. Because oral transmission is so prone to error, they took great pains to tell the most important stories as accurately as possible, so the hearers would not get them wrong.
Thus the Psalms repeatedly urge us to declare our salvation stories so that future generations will know God’s marvelous deeds of delivering the distressed. (See, for example, Psalms 22:31, 102:18, 145:4) God’s good gifts of salvation are not merely for our own benefit; far more significantly, we are to share them with others so that they can draw strength from them for their own journeys.
I bring this up as I draw this series on “Presbyterian Distinctives” to its conclusion. Why lift up what makes Presbyterians distinctive when we are committed to breaking down the walls that divide Christians from one another? Why indeed, when one of the distinctives we highlighted several weeks ago is the way Presbyterians are characteristically at the forefront of efforts to break down church divisions and forge ecumenical fellowship and witness?
For sure, it’s not to declare our heritage superior to those of other faith traditions. Still, we do need to remember and celebrate our heritage of particular emphases that have proven of great value to many generations in their hours of need, and constitute some of our most important gifts to the larger family of God.
By owning and telling the Presbyterian story well, we pass along both to our own children and to the larger church a set of treasures that are of benefit to all. Some of the things that Presbyterians have especially emphasized can be of great value far beyond Presbyterian precincts. For that benefit to accrue to others, we need first to lift them up robustly within our own fold.
How can our members live and tell this story well if they don’t even know it? Truthfully, many of our members would have a hard time articulating what is distinctive about Presbyterian identity, if asked to do so.
And so one more time let’s enumerate the distinctive emphases of Presbyterian faith and witness that we have lifted up in this series (for their detail, see my weekly letters for January through March 2014):
A fundamental generosity to those who differ from us, anchored in a good hope for God’s sovereign mercy being as rich toward them as it is toward us
A constant comfort in life and death rooted in God’s gracious unmerited election of us for salvation and service
A faith-based public engagement in our world’s civic, cultural, economic, educational, relief, and justice concerns
A deep commitment to serious reading of Holy Scripture together with the faithful of every time and place
A principled passion for transparency, good order, and equal opportunity for all in the way we make decisions and engage Christ’s mission
A conviction that God’s covenant with us binds us to one another in Christ, enabling us to live and work together amid our many very real differences
An abiding awareness that God is always reforming us by the same Word through which God has reformed the church in other places and times
A resolute commitment to study and prayer as equally necessary for faithfully understanding and following God’s word and will for us
Much more could be added, but we’ll stop here. None of these features is exclusively “Presbyterian,” but taken together, these emphases are unparalleled elsewhere. These commitments are just as commendable to non-Presbyterians as they are to Presbyterians – but how shall others know of these treasures from our tradition if we ourselves are ignorant of them?
Jesus says that stewards of divine things are like “the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:52) Sometimes we are so taken with the new that we forget the old treasures that have proven of enduring value. And sometimes we are so beholden to the “tried and true” that we find all innovation threatening. Either path threatens peril to us and loss to those who will follow us.
Many sociologists of religion claim we are entering a post-denominational era. They may be right. But the treasures particular to our denomination must not be discarded. Own them, celebrate them, teach them well, “that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and rise up and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God.” (Psalm 78:6-7)
Yours in divine hope,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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