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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

First Comes Our Identity
July 31, 2014

Our Book of Order opens by stating the foundations of the church’s life. The section entitled “The Calling of the Church” (F-1.03) reminds us of the Reformed understanding of the church’s identity and its mission – what the church is and what it does.

Until the 2011 revision that added the new “Foundations” unit, the Book of Order began by declaring the church’s mission. Presbyterians have traditionally been folk who do things, so it is understandable for our Constitution to prioritize what the church does. We tend to be more like busy Martha than like contemplative Mary. (Luke 10:38-42)

Who we are and what we do are, of course, inseparable. But it is noteworthy that in the pre-revision Book of Order, which began with the church’s mission, nothing followed regarding the church’s essential identity. Mission matters greatly, but when our action is disconnected from a clear sense of our identity, we eventually lose our mission impetus and focus. Moreover, any individual or organization can engage most of this mission work without being “church” at all. Doing good work, even Gospel work, does not itself make us “church.”

Happily, the “Foundations” section of the revised Book of Order lifts up the church’s inherent identity before it specifies its mission. It begins with the classic creedal “marks” of the church which we discussed last week: it is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. (F-1.0302) These genetic traits mark the true church wherever it exists. Additionally, the Book of Order now lifts up what our Reformed forebears identified as three “notes” or essential practices of the true church:

Variations on this formulation occur in several Reformation-era writings, including John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and The Scots Confession. It shifts the question of what constitutes an authentic church from the identity of its leaders (their relationship to the Bishop of Rome) to its essential corporate practices.

Word, Sacrament, and Discipline in the church assure that the Body of Christ remains vitally connected to its Head. The Word “truly preached and heard” by the church is nothing other than the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Ministry of the Word is not merely transmitting a text; it is setting forth the Savior. In Calvin’s language, the true church is present wherever the Word is “sincerely” (Latin syncere) preached and heard. (Institutes IV.1.9) Rightly engaging the Word is less about achieving purity of doctrine than about having our hearts opened by the Spirit to the Savior whom we encounter in Scripture.

The sacraments to which the Reformers point us are Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism and Communion essentially offer what Scripture offers, but through different means – each offers us Jesus himself. Whether through our understanding (Word) or material reception (Sacrament), Jesus himself is given to us through the ministry of the church. Word and Sacrament are thus “means of grace” through which we, the Body, are united to Jesus Christ, the Head.

Wherever Jesus is present through Word and Sacrament, his church is present. “Two or three” gathered around Word and Sacrament thus constitute the church, just as surely as two or three hundred or thousand or million. (Matthew 18:20)

The third “note” – Discipline – is less about policing than about making room for Word and Sacrament to bear good fruit among the people of God. It is like the discipline that keeps an artist or athlete in top condition. The church’s ruling elders are charged to maintain the good order necessary that the work of teaching elders through Word and Sacrament might flourish.

Finally, I offer a very modest proposal to assist us in being more truly “church” by engaging these essential church practices more fruitfully: Let us gather more and scatter less. Let us put our best energies into drawing together the whole Body rather than in breaking into clusters with folks most like us. If the essential signs of the true church are its actions when it gathers, anything that undercuts our gathering together weakens our ability to be truly “church.” We cannot be the church apart from sharing Word and Sacrament – and the foundational condition for that is that we in fact gather. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25) Beloved, only when we gather can we be authentically the church; and only when we gather are we able to encourage one another in fulfilling the mission to which our Lord is calling us.

Yours in Christ,

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

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