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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Foundations of Life Together in Christ, Part VI: The Words & Ways of the Apostles
February 9, 2017

In its description of how each of the four marks of the church – one, holy, catholic, apostolic – is foundational for our life together, the Book of Order uses a total of 34 lines to comment on the first three, and 26 to comment on the last. Central to the “apostolicity” section is its claim that the church is “Christ’s faithful evangelist,” called to make disciples of all peoples. (F-1.0302d)

This does not mean being apostolic is more important than the church’s unity, holiness, and catholicity, but it underscores that it is foundational to them. Apart from its apostolic foundation, we would not even know that the church is one, holy, and catholic.

What does it mean that the church is “apostolic”? The word comes from the Greek apostello which means “sent out.” A more common word that means the same thing is “ambassador.” Some churches consider ordination to ministry the visible sign of the church’s apostolic character, holding that all ordinations to ministry must be traced in a direct line back to the apostles originally sent out by Jesus. Reformed churches hold that the church’s apostolic identity inheres not in the apostolic succession of its ministers, but in the church’s relationship to the message and mandate of the apostles.

Jesus commissioned his original apostles to be his ambassadors to the world, doing what he did and teaching what he taught everywhere they went. They got their first practice at this under his scrutiny. First he sent out the original twelve to carry his ministry to nearby regions, then he sent out a wider circle of seventy to do the same thing. (Mark 6:7-13; Luke 10:1-20) When he left them later at his ascension, he broadened their commission to cover the whole world. (Matthew 28:16-20) Jesus commissioned them to prepare other ambassadors, who would in turn do the same. This pattern of the church as an ever-expanding circle of mission agents is reflected in 2 Timothy 2:2, where the apostle instructs his protégé to train others, who can in turn train still others, in doing the work of the Gospel.

In a nutshell, the apostolic commission is to extend Jesus’ ministry in word and deed to those beyond our current circle. This is foundational for the church. The church of Jesus Christ is always reaching beyond its own member base to minister in Jesus’ name to the wider world. It does not ignore the needs of its own members, but caring for its members is not its goal or foundation. When the church focuses itself on the well-being of its members and assets, at the expense of reaching beyond itself with the words and ways of Jesus, it betrays its identity.

What are some indicators that the church may be drifting from its foundational identity as Christ’s ambassador to the world?

Our surest way to strengthen our apostolic identity is robust ongoing engagement with the witness of the apostles, as preserved in our Scriptures. Wrestle with the Scriptures, search them diligently. One mission-driven congregation in our presbytery calls one of its study groups “Bible Fight Club.” I love it! The apostles who bequeathed on us the writings of the New Testament fought tooth and nail over the nature and delivery of the Gospel to which they dedicated their lives. If all we do is simply repeat their words, without wrestling deeply over what they lead us to believe and to do in our own place and time, we miss the apostolic juice we need to energize us for our work as Christ’s ambassadors.

Your fellow-ambassador,

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

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