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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Staying in Balance: Essentials, Variables, & the Rule of Love
May 14, 2015

Today I conclude our brief four-part series on matters about which Presbyterians have struggled to stay in balance. In earlier installments, we considered first balancing liberty and equality, then freedom and order; last week we looked at how we balance our commitments to the Word and the World. Other critical balance points could well be probed, such as balancing between local discernment and church-wide standards. But rather than addressing other specific balance points, let us wrap up the conversation by looking at a larger underlying question: How do we maintain our balance over what is truly essential and what is variable for our faith and life as the church of Jesus Christ?

A long-standing Reformed slogan offers three rules related to this question:

“Denominations” typically coalesce around differences over matters that are non-essential to the Gospel. Consider some of the issues over which Reformed groups have left their parent church to join or to form other denominations:

None is essential to the Gospel, yet we divide over them. Different strokes for different folks, some might say. Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Shall We Dance,” whether we say toMAYto or toMAHto might seem like reason enough to “call the whole thing off.”

Much of the church has lost its sense of the scandal of its visible divisions. Those outside the church look on our willingness to separate from each other over things not central to our faith, and rightly wonder about how such division squares with the Gospel of reconciliation that we proclaim. The evangelical damage of our divisions is beyond calculation.

So, what are the essentials for which we must insist on unity? John Calvin lists three: 1. God is one. 2. Christ is God. 3. God is merciful. (Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.1.12) Who is God? How does God reach out to us? These questions are so central to our faith that unity on them is indispensable. For Calvin, everything else falls into the category of variables or non-essentials. He has strong opinions about many such non-essentials, but they are not things over which the church may justifiably divide.

We may feel great passion over what constitutes proper worship, music, governance, and education. I happen to have some pretty strong opinions on those things myself. But our differences on such matters are far from sufficient to warrant separation.

In most cases, church divisions are occasioned by a refusal to grant liberty and charity on non-essentials. Sometimes the divisions result in denominational realignment; but often they are less highly formalized, manifest as warring parties within a particular church. We may address those who differ from us officially through processes of censure, or informally through disdain or shame. Whether our divisions over non-essentials elicit formal church realignment or informal factions within a church, they betray the Gospel we proclaim. 

We need more than increased resilience in tolerating those who differ from us in non-essentials. What would it look like for us to be a fellowship that, in regard to such matters is marked by the apostolic practices of “not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought” (Romans 12:3) and “in humility regarding others as better than ourselves”? (Philippians 2:3) What if we lived by the rule of “looking not to our own interests, but to those of others”? (Philippians 2:4) What we need is more than increased passive tolerance; we need to make active commitments to know and love one another across lines that have all too often divided us.

People of good will and good faith may well disagree on what is truly essential to the Gospel. Yet even if we have differing lists of essentials and non-essentials, we are still subject to the third rule listed at the beginning: In all things charity. Whether we consider this or that doctrine or practice essential or non-essential, we are called to be charitable with one another in all things. More important than the faith we hold or the hope we proclaim – as important as they are – is the love that binds us together in and through all things. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Yours in the bonds of love,

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

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