A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
August 21, 2014
Our Book of Order begins by outlining the Foundations of the church’s life. In section F-1.04 it reminds us that, as Reformed Christians, “Openness to the Guidance of the Holy Spirit” is essential to our identity and authenticity.
The section begins with underscoring that our living Lord is at work in the world today, and the church is called to go with him into the world even as it resists being conformed to the world. We must always be open to new things he is doing by the Spirit, even as we honor the treasured traditions that have long sustained us.
F-1.04 points out how easily we settle into established routines of ordering our life together. We need to remember that Presbyterian governance, wonderful as it is, is not the only way to be authentically “church.” A truly Reformed church is always open to the wisdom of those who order church and do mission in ways different from our own, and seeks to learn from them and with them how to grow in Christian faith and witness. A healthy openness to others crosses both traditions and geography – for instance, in Pittsburgh we have learned a lot about cultivating church vitality from our Malawian mission partners.
The theological basis for maintaining openness to new possibilities is God’s sovereign freedom. If there is a single bedrock claim that suffuses Reformed theology, it may be this: “God is God, and we are not.” This is why we can never boil down authentic Christian faith and practice to a fixed list of essential affirmations or denials.
Chapter One of the Book of Order closes by specifying four domains of openness that are foundational to vital church life and witness:
Openness to God. We acknowledge God’s freedom to work in ways that we may scarcely understand, let alone construct ourselves. We open ourselves to being ever more obedient to the claims of Christ. And we open ourselves to ever-increasing joy in worship and work.
Openness to all our members. Each one has a gift that is needed for the sake of the whole. All who acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord are welcomed into full participation in the life and ministry of the church.
Openness to both the promise and the perils of our particular church order. Our tradition is a marvelous gift, yet we must never let it become for us a straitjacket that prevents us from seeking out new ways of sharing the Gospel that can be better heard by those who do not yet know Jesus as Lord.
Openness to church reformation. God is always at work to reshape the church as it engages new challenges. We dare never close our hearts to new ways of living, praying, and bearing witness that might more faithfully and fully glorify God.
Recently I read a critique of someone who has been a public figure in the life of the church. It laid on him a charge meant to be truly grave: “He’s changed his position!” Changeability was cast as tantamount to infidelity. Worst of all, it continued, he changed his position at least in part because of changes happening in the world around us. This was taken to indicate that he was letting himself be conformed to the world. (Romans 12:2)
Yet Paul indicates that he always adapted his methods and message to the culture in which he was ministering. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) The core of the message was constant – “Jesus is Lord!” – yet he was always open to new ways to engage the world around him with that message. He spoke and acted very differently in Athens (Acts 17) than in Jerusalem (Acts 21).
While we struggle more with being too tightly closed than with being too wide open, we need to remember that the openness to which we are called is not without restraint. Openness does not entail disregard for Scripture, but engages us in the hard work of reading Scripture anew in each time and place with the help of the Spirit. Moreover, we read it in company with our forebears just as diligently as we do so in company with our contemporaries. One of my college professors used to say, “An open mind is like an open window; you need a screen to keep the bugs out.” Openness to God’s Spirit does not mean that anything goes.
Where is God working to open us up? Might we need to reconsider some things we had deemed settled? If in so doing we become better equipped to engage a world that needs desperately to hear the Good News, let it be so!
Open to the Spirit,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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