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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Foundations of the Faith We Share, Part I: Introduction
June 8, 2017

From January through March we explored the “Foundations for our Life Together” as they are set forth in the first chapter of our Book of Order. Chapter two continues the “foundations” theme, but shifts from the foundations of how we live together to foundations of the faith we share. What beliefs are essential to being Presbyterian, and even more basically, to being Christian?

A few years ago, United Methodist pastor Martin Thielen published a provocatively titled book that became a best-seller, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? Its subtitle is critically important: “A Guide to What Matters Most.” Thielen was trying to answer a question that has been with us since the days of the Bible itself – what things are truly essential to our faith, and on what matters are differences permissible, perhaps even helpful?

Following the Protestant Reformation, with the collapse of Rome’s singular authority to define orthodoxy, Reformers sought to develop principles for determining essential beliefs, and differentiating them from non-essentials. “Non-essentials” are sometimes termed adiaphora by theologians, a Greek word meaning “non-differentiable.” Not that we don’t care about such matters, but that varying convictions on such things do not lead us do go different ways.

One mark of maturity is the capacity to distinguish the truly essential from the non-essential, the necessary from the good. To insist in church on uniformity in non-essentials leads to church division. The Nicene Creed emerged as a statement of faith meant to condense Christian belief down to its essentials, and thus to unify the church. From its origins in the fourth century until now, it has remained virtually intact worldwide as a statement of core Christianity.

The urge to distill the essence of authentic faith and practice goes back even further, to the time of the Hebrew prophets. Micah tells the people that God’s concern is not that they demonstrate a robust religious ceremonial life, but that they hold fast to three essential things: Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8) Similarly Hosea denounces ritual religion, advocating instead for a changed heart: “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6) Jesus quotes Hosea with approval (Matthew 9:13, 12:7), and declares that “all the law and the prophets” are summed up in the commandments to love God and neighbor. (Matthew 22:36-40) Paul contends, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14)

Back to the Reformers. Soon their followers developed a pithy saying that expressed their way of handling essential things:

In essentials, unity.
In non-essentials, liberty.
In all things, charity.

This saying has been adopted as a motto by many Protestant groups. We struggle the most with the third of these commitments – that is, with remaining charitable to those who differ from us, whether the matters of disagreement are essential or not. Often, we raise non-essentials to the level of functional essentials simply because we are unwilling to tolerate difference of opinion on those matters.

Presbyterians aspire to be a “big tent” church that honors the integrity of individuals and communities who have varying views on adiaphora. We don’t require uniformity in worship styles, modes of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, eschatology, biblical exegesis, and much more.

Yet despite this noble intent, do we yet raise lesser things to the level of “essential,” and justify being uncharitable toward those who differ from us on such things? Would we rather fight and divide over small things than be content to remain united on the big things?

John Calvin listed only three beliefs as so essential that they are worth dividing over:

God is One.
Christ is God.
Salvation rests in God’s mercy. (Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.1.12)

Calvin did not lack for opinions about the truth or error of other theological claims or church practices. But these are the only three he specified as so important that we cannot differ on them and remain united in Christ.

As we unpack the foundations of our shared faith, as presented in the Book of Order, let us never forget the importance of differentiating essentials from non-essentials. Only then can we explore fruitfully the beliefs and practices that mark us as Christians first and Presbyterians second.

Yours in living faith,

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

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