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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

All in the Family
September 11, 2014

The joys and struggles of family life have been staples of storytellers since time immemorial. From lofty literature to tabloid TV, family relations have always been rich fodder for making us laugh and cry. Recent so-called “reality TV” has been obsessed with family things, from the “Real Housewives” series, to “Sister Wives” chronicling a polygamist family, to “19 And Counting” about a family large enough to field two baseball teams. Family foibles have been a sitcom staple since the beginning of television, perhaps none more trenchantly than the iconic “All in the Family” of the 1970s. Moreover, family relations gone wrong is a universal theme of literary and dramatic tragedy.

The Gospel story begins with a family tree in Matthew and Luke. The implication is that apart from his family story, our knowledge of Jesus would be incomplete. Matthew’s genealogy is especially notable for including a number of outliers – women of dubious repute who shouldn’t be part of a good family tree. Yet being family means owning the whole tree, not just part of it.

You don’t have to wander far into my own family tree to find people who were committed against their will to institutions on account of criminal or psychiatric issues. I’m betting it is the same for most families. However, a number of years ago I was delighted to find that a genealogist working on the Sorge family name was able to trace our tree back to Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s right hand man, and a great theologian in his own right. So we have some theological nobility in our blood too!

The primary identity of God’s people throughout Scripture is exactly this: They are first and foremost a family. Israel is a family comprising the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The family tree breaks out into twelve divisions or “tribes,” but that is secondary to their primary identity as Abraham’s offspring. By the Christian era, this sense of family identity among God’s people is expressed in the practice of church members calling each other “brother” and “sister.”

Being family is no bed of roses. It can mean sitting at table with people who irritate us, disagree with us, behave badly toward us, or speak ill of us. Yet healthy families stay together despite such distresses, recognizing that what binds them together is far more durable and important than the squabbles that may temporarily divide them.

Our siblings are given to us, not chosen by us. We remain related to each other even when we are at odds. Estrangement is always a sign of deep disorder, and cries out for healing.

In American Protestantism, a different narrative of what constitutes the church has prevailed. It construes the church as a voluntary association of people who believe the same doctrines, prefer similar governance or styles of being church, hold the same values, or share common cause. As with all other voluntary organizations, participation is both temporary and conditional. Such an understanding of the church has no biblical basis.

As I noted in my just-completed series on Presbyterian Foundations, one of our core Presbyterian values is freedom of conscience, which leads us to maintain freedom of association. It is what led our Puritan forebears to leave the old country and establish new religious communities in the new world. Such freedom is based on the conviction, richly evident in Scripture, that God does not coerce obedience. And so we adopt a “covenant” to remain together as a church community for as long as we agree; one who disagrees with the community promises either to submit to the majority or peaceably to withdraw.

A family covenant is something quite different. It is not a mutual pact between siblings, but a family claim made on us through birth or adoption. Peaceable withdrawal at a time of disagreement makes good sense in a voluntary association, but it is not how healthy families resolve their differences.

Of course, the family of God known as the Christian church has many tribes. What difference does it make whether we belong to this or to that tribe? Not as much as we’d like to think. But tribes are not voluntary associations either, and when quarrels cause them to disown each other, they break faith with their shared family identity.

I do not wish to set aside the commitment to freedom of conscience that is in our Presbyterian DNA. But I pray that in embracing it, and even celebrating it, we remain always mindful that we belong to our Lord and to his church not by virtue of our free association, but because we have been claimed by One who desires that all members of the family gather together at the one Table of heaven, to the glory of God.

Your brother,

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

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