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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Foundations of Life Together in Christ
January 5, 2017

“Christ is made the sure foundation,” declares an ancient hymn from the sixth or seventh century, echoing Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 3:11. Yet the early church also considered apostles and prophets as foundation-setters (Ephesians 2:20), and Paul characterizes his own work as foundation-laying. (Romans 15:20) If Christ himself is “the church’s one foundation” (to quote another beloved hymn), we are called to secure and to build on that foundation in ways that are faithful to his message and mission. We cannot build up the church for carrying out its apostolic mission apart from staying firmly grounded on a sound foundation.     

For many years our Book of Order contained three sections: 1. “Form of Government,” 2. “Directory for Worship,” and 3. “Rules of Discipline.” In order, these might be described as “how we live together,” “how we worship God,” and “how we resolve our differences.”

About a dozen years ago, the General Assembly appointed a blue-ribbon panel to prepare a revised “Form of Government” that would be substantially smaller and more flexible, while preserving essentials of our polity. As that panel undertook its work, it became convinced that our church needed to distinguish clearly the abiding foundations of our polity (“polity” simply means “rules for living together”) from the particulars of how we flesh out our way of life in our current place and time.

And so they proposed, and our church approved, adding a fourth section to the Book of Order: “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.” The church approved the new form for our Book of Order in 2011, including the new section on Foundations. We have lived with this now for five years, during which I have become very much aware that we have not yet fully grasped the content or the significance of the new Foundations section.

So, in 2017, I plan to engage you in an extended conversation about the Foundations of our life together in Christ, as set forth in our Book of Order section entitled “The Foundations of Presbyterian Polity.” It is not lengthy – just fifteen pages. But it is rich in wisdom rooted in Scripture as explicated by our Confessions. It is a good and faithful foundation for living together and joining in mission as Christ’s church today. With winds of uncertainty blowing hard around us as we enter the new year, solidifying our anchor has never been more important.

I had the great privilege several years ago of representing our denomination in an official ecumenical dialogue with another denomination. One of the things they marveled at was the way in which our polity (remember, “rules for living together”) is theologically based. They said that their denomination polity was approached pragmatically rather than theologically. One of the great gifts of the Presbyterian tradition is that our rules for living together are grounded in theological bedrock.

I am a polity nerd – not because I love polity itself, but because I love Jesus, and I believe that our polity is a wonderful structure for living out that love well together. I also love theology, and our polity is our theology made concrete.

So I invite you to join me in “an adventure in polity” this year. Sound exciting? “Anything but!” I can already hear some of you saying, but I encourage you to give the journey a try. Our polity is our way of ordering our life and work together in Christ’s mission, to God’s glory, for the sake of the world. Without that order, our work would go off the rails. Thank God for our polity! Please join me in examining its foundations with the delight of the psalmist urging us to celebrate the foundations of the holy city. As I write, the daily lectionary (which I follow, and commend to you also) points to Psalm 48, which entreats us to marvel at the “ramparts” and “citadels” of Zion. Without a firm foundation, they are nothing. But when they are well founded, they can withstand any storm.

Storms will come in 2017. Of that we can be sure. They will have an impact on many of us who will wonder whether our place in this world is secure. More than ever, we need to be clear about our foundations, and to anchor ourselves solidly upon them. Not for our own sake, but for the sake of the mission God has given us.

Wishing you a blessed New Year,

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

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