A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
What Does Presbytery Have to Do with Proclaiming the Gospel?
September 24, 2015
What is the role of the presbytery in helping the church fulfill its mission? This question immediately leads to two prior questions: 1. What is the church’s mission? 2. What is a presbytery? Last week I pointed us to the “Great Ends of the Church” (Book of Order F-1.0304) as a working summary of the church’s mission, and asked us how presbytery might play a critical role in helping the church fulfill them. Before we begin engaging that question directly, we need to be sure we understand what we mean by “presbytery.”
For the purpose of this series at least, let us define “presbytery” as a regional group of congregations and church leaders covenanted to live and work together in Christ’s mission to God’s glory. How important is it for fulfilling the church’s mission that its congregations and leaders be joined in such covenantal partnerships?
The first of the church’s Great Ends is “the proclamation of the Gospel for the salvation of humankind.” The word “Gospel” means literally “good news.” It is the word Jesus chose to describe his own message. (Luke 4:18) In Mark’s version of the Great Commission, Jesus directs his disciples to “preach the Gospel” everywhere (Mark 16:15). The “good news” of God’s reconciling love revealed in Jesus Christ lies at the heart of Paul’s message. (Romans 1:16)
Telling God’s good news is an essential part of the mission Jesus gave to his followers. It is too important to leave in the hands of solitary spokespersons, so Jesus sent out the apostles in groups. He modeled that pattern himself, ministering almost always with several of his disciples at his side. So after his departure, his followers naturally continued the same pattern of proclaiming the Gospel in companionship with one another. Wherever Paul journeyed in Christian mission, he took companions.
New Testament proclamation of the Gospel is a collegial enterprise. The reason for this is not just so that we have each other’s back, though that is good too. More pointedly, the Gospel is a message of the reconciliation accomplished by the work and witness of Jesus of Nazareth, declaring that through Jesus we have been reconciled to God, and that this reconciliation is embodied in our being reconciled to each other. It is impossible for us to proclaim the Gospel credibly if we who proclaim it disown or distance ourselves from each other. Declaring the good news of the Gospel in company with others tangibly embodies the reconciliation that we say Jesus has accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection.
The presbytery is a community of visible reconciliation between groups of people who would, apart from the Gospel, be unlikely allies. Each congregation tends to be a self-selected group of people with similar views and demographics. For such a group to testify to the reconciling power of the Gospel is certainly good, but the true power of the message is revealed only when Christian congregations with very different views and demographics walk together in reconciliation across these lines of difference. Because they have been reconciled to God through Jesus, congregations that are very different from each other fully affirm one another’s integrity, and fully engage together in mission for the healing of the world.
Being in covenant relationship with congregations significantly different from our own – i.e., being “presbytery” – renders publicly credible the Good News we proclaim. When we join with congregations that are obviously very different from our own in declaring that we have been reconciled to God and thereby to one another through the cross of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:14-16), and that we who would ordinarily be polarized are in fact covenant partners in life and mission – now THAT is a Gospel proclamation with real teeth!
Your partner in the Gospel,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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