A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
A Church Truly Trustworthy
September 10, 2015
Recently I invited us to accept a challenge: to choose to trust one another’s goodwill and integrity, assuming the best of each other rather than suspecting the worst, especially across social, racial ethnic, and ideological lines over which the world is bitterly polarized. I contended that sowing trust can yield a wonderful harvest of peace and fruitfulness in our life and witness.
This week I turn the tables by asking us to consider how we can better show ourselves trustworthy. My primary concern here is not merely to increase our trust for each other (although I certainly hope for that too), but to demonstrate ourselves worthy of the world’s trust. How can we strengthen our public credibility as witnesses to the Good News of God’s reign proclaimed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus?
Jesus fingered hypocrisy as the greatest single problem of established religion in his place and time. Religious leaders routinely said one thing while doing another, laying heavy burdens on others while refusing to carry anything themselves. They ordered strict observance of laws from which they exempted themselves through contrived technical loopholes. (Matthew 23:13-36) By saying one thing while living another, those who claimed to point people nearer to God were in fact turning people away from God.
Numerous polls testify that many people outside the church believe it lacks integrity. They consider us hypocrites; like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, we are perceived as saying one thing but doing another. Younger generations are especially revolted by the inauthenticity they perceive running rampant through the church. Today I invite us to consider two criteria for showing ourselves publicly authentic and trustworthy – congruence and competence.
Congruence is the opposite of hypocrisy. It mandates that our walk match our talk, that we live what we proclaim. I am persuaded that the single greatest blockade to effective public evangelism by the church is the disconnect others observe between our message and our manner of life. We proclaim a God who, in Jesus Christ, breaks down all dividing walls of hostility, reconciling us both to our Creator and to our fellow-creatures. (Ephesians 2; 2 Corinthians 5) We rejoice in testifying that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8), all the while nursing animosities between ourselves, refusing to give an inch. Polarization in the church undercuts our evangelization of the world. Why should anyone believe what we say about the God’s unconditional love for the world when we refuse to walk in unconditional love with our fellow-believers?
The ancient church father Tertullian reported that one of the secrets of Christianity’s explosive growth against all odds in the ancient Roman world was that unbelievers marveled at the love believers showed each other, even to the point of dying for one another. (Apology 39.7, c. 200 C.E.) The church’s evangelism was effective because of the congruence of its message of God’s love in Christ with its members’ way of living together.
Another condition for showing ourselves trustworthy is competence. We do what we say (congruence), and we give our best in doing so (competence). Jesus does not despise modest offerings (see his parable of the widow’s penny, praising the widow for giving the best she could – Mark 12:44). Nor does he despise modest churches. Whether we have abundant or modest resources, we face the same question: Are we giving the best we can for the sake of God’s kingdom? If not, we show ourselves untrustworthy. Jesus says that those who handle competently the small things given to their care can be trusted to handle larger things as well. (Matthew 25:14-30)
The church is far more likely to draw others to faith in Jesus if we give our very best to caring well for each other, presenting our best in service to God, communicating in winsome and accessible language, and meeting the needs in our community at the highest level. Our public worship – the best we can offer! The meals we give to the hungry – the tastiest and most abundant in town! The houses we build for those with no home to call their own – sound and handsome as any! The care we give to the needy – the deepest they have ever known! The welcome we extend to the stranger – the warmest anywhere!
Congruence. Competence. When these are manifest in us and through us consistently, we will show that our proclamation of the Gospel is trustworthy indeed. For the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the world, for the sake of our Lord – let us prove ourselves truly trustworthy.
That we may be and do our best,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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