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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Why General Assemblies?
June 9, 2016

Our presbytery’s monthly prayer focus for June is on our church’s biennial General Assembly (GA), which will take place June 18-25 in Portland, Oregon. Some have wondered why we bother having GAs at all, given that each assembly seems to provoke controversy in the church. This year’s assembly has several items on the docket that are sure to be provocative, no matter which way they are decided. Why not take a break from what seems like a relentless troubling of the waters every two years?

The need for regular assemblies of the church to consider how the Spirit of God may be leading us forward is part of our DNA as children of the Reformation. Our Reformed forebears believed that the church’s Reform was not a one-time thing, but a continuing part of its identity. This sense is captured well in the Latin phrase dating back to the 1600s, Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda est secundum verbum Dei – “the reformed church is always being reformed according to the word of God.” (Book of Order, F-2.02) The discernment of God’s ongoing reformation of the church requires the church to gather regularly in councils.

John Calvin sought repeatedly to gather the whole church in a council about the concerns he and other Reformers were raising. He lobbied Rome regularly for such a council, granting that even the Pope could preside, if he wished. He was confident that a “general assembly” of the church could help the church find its way forward together under the new winds of the Spirit that were blowing.

Reform is always controversial. People who care about the church the most have the most invested in its continuity, and are often therefore especially troubled when something new comes along. Change is inevitably contentious. Reform is never tidy. When we say that we believe that God is always reforming the church by the Holy Spirit, we acknowledge the unavoidability of perennial struggle within the church.

This does not mean we accept all reform proposals willy-nilly. Far from it. We test the spirits through ordered consideration by duly constituted representatives of the church. We trust these representatives to listen carefully and to respond as they believe the Spirit is leading. Many times GA commissioners have reported to me that they went into a particular debate with minds made up, only to have them changed as they heard others share their burdens, and as they prayed for the Lord’s guidance.

Continuing reform is in our DNA as a church of the Reformation. The General Assembly is where the church regularly considers how the Spirit may be calling us into further reform according to the Word of God.

The first “General Assembly” of the Christian church arose in response to a question of great controversy and urgency – must Gentile Christians conform to the provisions of Jewish law? (Acts 15) That council’s process involved individuals telling stories of God stretching them to accept something new, Scripture-grounded discussion, and prayer for divine guidance. Our own General Assembly is remarkably similar. Yes, it also includes lots of advocacy and bonhomie, much like standard business and political conventions. But it always is more – serious, sustained effort by committed followers of Jesus to listen to God’s Word for the church today under the illumination of the Spirit.

Also unlike business and political conventions, GA is populated each time by an entirely new cast of commissioners. Staff may remain the same, but the deliberations and decisions are undertaken by new delegates at each assembly. For them, getting abreast of the procedures and content of GA work is like drinking from a fire hose. It’s the first time – and the last time – that most of them will serve as a GA delegate.

Some imagine “General Assembly” as a sort of “insider’s club” where lobbyists and staffers control everything, and commissioners simply go where and do what they’re told. Reality check – these commissioners are the same people who populate our pews and presbyteries, and we all know that such folk have plenty of independent judgment and resolve. They stand resolutely against being manipulated or railroaded into anything. GA is not a council that imposes from above some alien agenda on the grass-roots; it is grass-roots, salt-of-the-earth Presbyterians from all over, seeking God’s will together, and acting accordingly.

So in summary:

Let us pray that all who are given this responsibility may be empowered by the Holy Spirit both in preparing for and in carrying out the work to which they have been called!

Yours in openness to the Spirit,


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

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