A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
August 25, 2016
Over the summer, a group of more than forty people committed to changing the course of church and society has been meeting at the presbytery center most Thursday evenings. Their burden? The scourge of racism among us and around us. The meeting agenda thus far? Study our new addition to the Book of Confessions, the Confession of Belhar. That Confession played a critical role in changing South Africa’s long-time apartheid policy. In our study we have learned that the South African practice of apartheid actually began in the church, and was deeply rooted in the church when the Belhar Confession was first developed.
Change is difficult not only for us; it was difficult for the South African church in the 1980s, just as it has been difficult for the church in every other time and place. In our Thursday evening study session last week, we focused on the account in Acts 15 of the church addressing an urgent matter that required significant change. The question was whether the Christian church, which until then had been a subset of the Jewish faith community, would require its converts to adopt the requisite standards of diet and circumcision for Jewish proselytes. The steps taken in Acts 15 are significant signposts for any lasting change in the life and practice of the church.
There was vigorous open debate. People with contrary convictions aired their views candidly. They neither gave in to each other nor walked away from each other. They were committed to both truth and unity.
The church leaders listened. They opened their ears and hearts to people who had seen God at work in ways that were outside established norms. They were receptive to stories of encountering God that did not fit the historic paradigms of their faith community.
Their deliberation was anchored in Scripture. The felt need for change began with new experiences, but the rationale for those changes was founded on Scripture.
A leader stepped forward. Decisions were made together by the apostles and elders, with the consent of the whole church. But someone had to gather up all that had been said, to declare and take ownership for the new pathway forward.
The change was communicated to all stakeholders. A team was formed to go to the rest of the churches to tell them of the decisions affecting them that had been made in Jerusalem.
Prayer played a critical role in shaping change. In their letter to the churches telling of the change they had adopted, the leaders report that it “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” (Acts 15:28) The order is significant – they listened to God before they made up their minds.
The change required compromise. Neither those who wanted to throw out the old entirely nor those who wanted to hang on to it entirely got everything they wanted, something I unpacked in last week’s letter.
This recipe for change is no easy pathway. Change in the church requires great work, flexibility, and resilience. And once a change has finally been agreed upon, implementing it is even more difficult than adopting it. Arguments about whether to require circumcision for Gentile believers continued to reverberate through the church. It took generations for this change to be fully embraced by the whole church.
It is also important to note that, once this change had been officially adopted, revisions followed. The council’s decision to prohibit eating food that had been offered to idols was subsequently overturned by Paul. (1 Corinthians 8) Change begets further change.
Change is inherent to Christian life. The Greek word translated in English as “repent” forms the core of the Gospel, according to Jesus. (Mark 1:15) It means literally “change of thinking.” A better translation would be “convert.” The Gospel demands that we change how we think, which inevitably changes how we live. It is a daily, ongoing requirement for us individually, as well as corporately.1 Unwillingness to change our minds is fundamentally at odds with the Gospel.
Belhar challenges us as Jesus’ followers to change our thinking about race. As we do, we will also change how we act. It will be hard work over a long haul. It will require of us immense faith, hope, and love. And the same is true for any change in the life of the church.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
1 For a deep theological exploration of the church’s constant call to change for the sake of the Gospel, see Darrell Guder, The Continuing Conversion of the Church.
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