A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Great Ends of the Church, Part IV: Preserving Truthfulness
March 30, 2017
The current TIME magazine cover shouts out in crimson block letters against a black background, “Is Truth Dead?” The lead article points out that the apocryphal story of young George Washington bravely admitting to his father that he’d chopped down the cherry tree seems utterly anachronistic today. Truthfulness entails the willingness to admit to error, something rapidly vanishing from our halls of power.
Lest we place all the blame for this on current powers, let us acknowledge our own complicity in this state of affairs. Consider our refusal to acknowledge how our children err or fall short – everyone receives a ribbon at sports day, everyone gets a certificate of commendation simply for showing up to class. This goes on well past grade school. A graduate student of mine who failed to submit one-third of the class assignments accosted me angrily after receiving her term grade of a C – had not the two-thirds of the papers she had submitted been B to A work? Didn’t she deserve at least a B for the course? She remonstrated that she had been ill when the missing work was due. I had granted her generous deadline extension, which she blew off. She thought she should be graded by what she did well, without reference to what she failed to do.
Our theological tradition is well aware of our unwillingness to take responsibility for our failures or errors. This is why we include corporate confession of sin in each Lord’s Day service. In John Calvin’s liturgy, confession of sin was the very first item in the liturgy; today we start with happier things. All too often, our so-called confession of sin is smoothed into a statement of mild regret. Some of our churches abandon confession of sin altogether. Worship (they say) should encourage us rather than accuse us - so why not eliminate the confession of sin altogether?
Calvin taught that we cannot rightly esteem God’s glory and goodness until we admit our own sinfulness. Only when we acknowledge who we really are can we recognize who God really is. The root of our sinfulness is that we think too highly of ourselves, thereby diminishing both God’s majesty and necessity for us. Do we really need a Savior if we are already basically fine?
Truth-telling begins with telling the truth about who we are and who God is. According to the fourth of the six Great Ends of the Church, “Preservation of the Truth” (Book of Order F-1.0304), truthfulness is foundational to our life together. Apart from honesty and transparency, the church is sure to fail.
But more is at stake than the church’s welfare. As a truthful community, the church witnesses against the deceitfulness and dishonesty prevalent in the world around us. It is called to shine its light publicly, to tell truth when the surrounding world prefers lies.
When our forebears included “Preservation of the Truth” among the church’s six Great Ends, they were concerned first to guard orthodoxy. Our confessional tradition teaches that sound doctrine matters, and it is the church’s responsibility to hew to it and to preserve it. But more is at stake than doctrinal purity. In fact, it derives from something more basic.
Foundational to sound doctrine is our resistance to untruthfulness in all its forms, whether in the church or in the world. The Westminster Catechism brilliantly shows how the commandment against bearing false witness is first of all a command to speak truthfully about ourselves and each other. (Book of Confessions 7.254) It urges us toward “a charitable esteem of our neighbors, loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; … studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.” This allusion to Philippians 4:8 leads us to ask ourselves: Where do our thoughts about one another lie – in thinking the worst, or the best of each other?
Genuine truthfulness is always an act of love. Ephesians 4:15 admonishes us to live by “speaking the truth in love.” Genuine love for God and for one another are our first and foundational acts of truthfulness.
The signs of our times demonstrate a growing tendency to use words less to speak the truth in love than to gain advantage over others. Words in the public square are used as tools to gain desired outcomes, rather than as vessels to convey that which is right and true and good. “Fact-checkers” matter little, either to those in power or to those who vote for them. The church’s very life depends on our using words to illuminate rather than to obscure, to bless rather than to curse, to reveal rather than to manipulate. Truthfulness always. It is the Jesus way that leads to life. (John 14:6)
Yours in truth’s light,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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