A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
January 28, 2016
America’s first European settlers risked a hazardous cross-Atlantic passage in pursuit of independence. Primarily comprising religious dissenters who felt marginalized by state churches, they sought freedom to worship as they wished. The promise of political, economic, and religious independence led those stalwart souls to leave everything and everyone on which they had depended in their European homelands, in search of something better.
Our attraction to independence has not dimmed. We enshrine it in the name we give to our nation’s birthday. Politicians seeking higher office routinely appeal to resentment among voters against governmental intrusion in their lives, whether through taxes or policies. “Vote for me,” they entreat us, “and you will have more say over your life, your livelihood, your property, and your future.”
Independence from tyranny is certainly a worthy and humane goal. But when our quest for independence leads us to abandon our commitments to support, defend, and depend on one another, it sounds a theme foreign to Christian faith and life.
The apostles teach us that the members of Christ’s church are radically interdependent. Paul reminds us that no part of Christ’s body can say to another, “I have no need of you.” Nor can any part of the body claim it doesn’t belong because it is unlike other members. (1 Corinthians 12:14-26). The church’s health and capacity to carry out Christ’s mission depend on our being interconnected, in all our marvelous variety of gifts and passions.
I cannot be all God calls me to be while being disconnected from you. While our forebears who braved perilous seas in order to achieve religious freedom were heroic in many ways, one of their legacies is our readiness to cut ourselves off from believers with whom we differ in faith or practice. We have bought into the notion that being Christian is so much a personal thing that being cut off from others who name Christ as Lord has little bearing on our spiritual vitality and fruitfulness.
As a pastor, I did not try to make it difficult for people who wanted to leave our congregation. Many left for good reasons, but some left because they simply were out of sorts about something in the church’s programs or leadership. By walking away, they were saying, in effect, “I’m better off without you.” I determined to bless them as they left, yet I felt a deep sadness and loss that we would no longer be walking together as Jesus’ followers.
The central burden of the mission plan our presbytery adopted in 2013 was to strengthen our connections between congregations. A thorough mission study had disclosed that our congregations were isolated from each other all too often. Many pastors and elders knew only their own congregation. Just as members of a particular congregation cannot claim of fellow-members “I have no need of you,” so congregations need each other and pastors need their colleagues in ministry. In Geneva during the Reformation, all pastors met weekly for prayer, study, and mutual encouragement and admonition. Our welfare and our effectiveness in proclaiming the Gospel are hobbled when we cut ourselves off from each other. And so as we discerned together the mission plan to which the Lord was calling us three years ago, we determined that a primary focus for our presbytery life would be nurturing relationships between congregations, and between congregational leaders.
If we are to flourish and be fruitful as the church of Jesus Christ, we must own our interdependence in his Body. Whenever we focus first on what’s good for “me” or for “my congregation” without regard to our interdependence in Christ, we weaken one another and betray the Gospel we proclaim.
Beloved, our Lord has ordered his church in such a way that its members truly need each other. From a biblical perspective, the church is not a voluntary association of like-minded individuals who are free to go their separate ways when disagreements arise. It is not an advocacy group for social causes over which its members share passions. It is the living body of Christ, animated by the Holy Spirit, whose welfare and effectiveness depend on its members’ interdependent differentiation. In a nation founded by a quest for independence and liberty, the biblical understanding of the nature of the church is significantly counter-cultural. The clash between these ideals of independence and interdependence has led to the profoundly jarring reality that a nation that sees itself as uniquely Christian is beset by more church splintering than any other nation.
Could your congregation become a signpost for a better way? Could our presbytery be an example of what it means to walk interdependently as disciples of Jesus, even and especially when our differences are apparent? Could we as Presbyterians further demonstrate our commitment to the radical interdependence of the members of the whole of Christ’s body by demonstrating our need to be in relationship with believers beyond our Presbyterian family, even if their doctrines differ from ours?
Yours in the bonds of our Lord,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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