A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
A COOL Identity Recovery
July 24, 2014
The opening section of our Book of Order outlines the foundations of our life together. “The Calling of the Church” (F-1.03) reminds us of the Reformed theological understanding of the church’s identity and its mission – what the church is and what it does.
First and foremost, the church is the “Body of Christ” (F-1.0301), the visible and tangible manifestation of the living Lord Jesus in the world. As a living organism, the church includes a broad diversity of members, all connected to the one Head for their viability and all mutually interdependent for their vitality. According to F-1.0301, the key indicators of the church’s bodily integrity are its faith, hope, love, and witness. As a community of faith, it maintains a right relation to God through trusting God’s Word. As a community of hope, it maintains a right relation to the Kingdom proclaimed and inaugurated by Jesus. As a community of love, its members maintain right relations to one another as the indispensable sign that it belongs to Jesus. And as a community of witness it maintains a right relation to the world as a beacon beaming God’s light into darkness.
Alas, too often we construe the church’s identity socially or politically rather than theologically, considering the church a voluntary association of like-minded people who gather to promote member satisfaction and a shared social agenda. Such an understanding of the church leads us to imagine that when disagreement in our congregation or denomination persists, we ought to go separate ways. That makes sense if the church is constituted by the voluntary association of its constituents; but such a notion is nowhere to be found in Scripture, and our Book of Order rightly reminds us that the church is established by God’s call to us, rather than by our initiative to gather. The Greek word for “church” – ecclesia – literally means “those called out” by someone else. Theologically, attending the “church of my choice” is incomprehensible. That we would consider church membership a voluntary affiliation itself discloses how deeply secular our understanding of “church” has become.
As noted above, our Book of Order’s Foundations section lifts up both what the church is and what it does. First, it considers the essence of what the church is. The church is, in the classic words of the Nicene Creed one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. (F-1.0302) These “marks” of the church constitute the church’s core DNA. Unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity are not the church’s goals, but its foundation and essence.
In a time and place in which church fragmentation is rife, how can we seriously claim that the church is “one” and “catholic”? And in a time and place in which churches often seem more shaped by the values of the surrounding culture than by fidelity to God’s call, how can we seriously claim that the church is “holy” and “apostolic”?
Like the human beings that constitute it, the church is marred by sin that obscures and distorts its God-given identity, but does not destroy it. Recovery of our identity as the church is a process of rediscovering who we really are, not of becoming something other than we are. The essential marks of the church are already present, hidden as they may be. And so I offer a few very modest proposals for beginning to uncover our true identity as the church.
Let us encourage and celebrate any movement toward owning and displaying more openly our unity with our Colleagues in Our Own Location (COOL friends) – first of all, our own congregation and presbytery
Let us acknowledge and repent of our various ways of distancing or disowning any of our COOL friends, whatever justification we may have made for doing so
Let us encourage and celebrate cessation of church behaviors that follow the ways of our broken world, especially party spirit and wanton self-gratification
Let us acknowledge and repent of the many ways we participate in the world’s captivity to me-first thought and action before we finger unholiness in others
Let us encourage and celebrate every acknowledgement that we belong to the same Body as our COOL friends do (the literal meaning of the Greek katholos)
Let us acknowledge and repent of all we say and do that denies the churchly authenticity of any of our COOL friends
Let us encourage and celebrate closer devotion to the apostolic witness (in Scripture and in the heritage of the saints)
Let us acknowledge and repent of our refusal to be genuinely open to learn from our COOL friends who engage our beloved Scriptures and traditions differently from us
These counsels apply equally to our relationships with the larger church – but any renewal of the church’s true identity begins first at home.
Yours in shared identity,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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