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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Foundations of the Faith We Share, Part III: Always Being Reformed
June 22, 2017

Each person ordained to the office of deacon, ruling elder, or minister of Word and Sacrament, promises at the time of ordination to “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expressions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do.” (Book of Order W-4.4003c) It is a mouthful that cries out for close reflection. Do we really know what we’re saying when we affirm that promise? Or do we treat it more like the “terms of use” box that we check off-hand whenever we launch a new computer program?

First, we promise to receive the church’s faith as taught in our confessions. Picking up a copy of the Book of Confessions and setting it on our shelf is no real reception at all. We begin truly receiving them by reading and studying them. Some of them read more easily than others, to be sure. But all of them matter. We will find much in them with which we resonate, and some things with which we struggle. The church evolves, and with that its expressions of faith and practice adjust as well. Our confessions do not speak with a single voice. In my own lifetime, the church has changed dramatically in style and substance, both in faith and practice. Yet it is still part of the one body of Christ. We learn much about this body’s core identity by seeing the differences in how it expresses its faith and demonstrates its life from place to place and time to time.

Second, we promise to adopt the essential tenets taught by our confessions. I am more concerned in this letter with how we’re doing with our first commitment simply to “receive” them. Only after actually studying them are we in a position to distill them down to their “essential tenets.” A few weeks ago I discussed the importance of distinguishing between essentials and non-essentials. So what do we do once we’ve decided what things are truly “essential” to our faith?

One of the things we’ve often done is to create a list of necessary doctrines. Sometimes we make affirmation of those doctrines a requirement for church leaders. Sometimes such a statement is required of every member. In our own denomination, there have been many efforts to get the church to issue such a doctrinal checklist for those whom it ordains. Each time such a proposal has come to our General Assembly it has been defeated. We have a reflexive aversion to doctrinal “subscriptionism” as a reliable measure for who is qualified to lead God’s people.

This is because confessions function not as standards to which we must assent, but “authentic and reliable guides to what Scripture leads us to believe and do.” They are reading glasses that help us see clearly what Scripture teaches. They equip us to read Scripture in the company of the whole church. The Bible teaches that “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” (2 Peter 1:20) In reading the Bible with others who know and love our Lord, the idiosyncrasies of our own perspective are challenged and corrected.

Reading glasses are necessary, but they are not themselves the point. The church’s confessions are genuinely helpful, but their primary value is not in what they say, but in how they help us understand what the Bible says. To “adopt” the confessions is to read Scripture with our forebears, not just on our own.

Finally, we promise at ordination to be guided by our confessions in understanding what the Scriptures “lead us to believe and do.” Believing and doing are inseparable. Faith without action is useless, according James. (James 2:14-26) The point of our faith is to direct how we live. According to Jesus, the most basic test for authenticity in ministry is not the doctrine we profess, but the fruit we bear. (Matthew 7:15-20)

Our Book of Order rightly designates the church’s confessions as “subordinate standards.” (F-2.02) Only the Word of God is absolute; how we hear it and receive it and act on it in obedience to Jesus is continually subject to reformation, reliant on the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There is always new light to be received, new obedience to be lived. It is foundational to our faith not only that we are reformed by God’s Word, but also that we are continually being further reformed by God’s Word. Who knows what surprising directions we may emerge if we allow ourselves fully to be led by the wind of God’s Spirit?

Yours in shared faith,

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

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