A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
February 8, 2018
At today’s presbytery meeting I deliver my annual “state of the presbytery” report. Yes, it is a shameless riff on the annual “state of the…” reports delivered by governors, presidents, and CEOs early each year. And like such reports, it is tempting to make it about numbers, success stories, and big future plans. Frequently the church tells its story by the numbers too, celebrating or grieving depending on the direction those numbers are headed. But do such things get to what really matters for the church?
What are the criteria that truly mark success or failure for the church? When Paul writes to churches, he never uses metrics of membership or contributions as a gauge of their vitality. Rather, he speaks to their love for one another, the strength of their faith in the Lord Jesus, their fidelity to the Gospel, and their public reputation.
Most of the time Paul commends the churches for doing well in these matters, but sometimes he gives a negative assessment. He hits the Corinthian church hard about the divisions that are emerging in its ranks. (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:1-23) It all began, he says, with their letting quarreling go unchecked. He doesn’t specify the initial topics of their quarrels; if they were anything like us it probably began over something like who’s bringing what to the potluck dinner or the temperature in the room. But soon it became something deeper, causing the church to divide into separate camps.
The word “quarrel” appears more than thirty times in the Bible, and it is always used pejoratively. Disagreements can be honestly expressed, but they must never degenerate into quarreling. “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kindly to everyone.” (2 Timothy 2:24) The opposite of quarrelsomeness is kindliness. It is fundamental to Christian faithfulness. Does kindliness rule in our congregation? Our session? Our presbytery? Kindliness is tested not in how we relate to those with whom we agree, but how we treat those with whom we disagree.
In The Godfather, Michael Corleone reports that his father taught him, “Keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” For him, it was to minimize their threat. For Christians, it is for the sake of our Lord’s command to love our enemies. If we are obligated to love our enemies, how can we possibly justify being unkind to brothers and sisters who hold some opinion or value different from ours?
Equally sharp to Paul’s rebuke of Corinthian quarrels is his indictment of the Galatian church for infidelity to the Gospel. At least Paul begins the letter to the Corinthians with thanksgiving to God for their faith and witness, just as he does in all his letters. Except for Galatians. After his opening salutation, he immediately erupts in alarm that they have strayed from the Gospel. How? They have begun to add requirements for membership beyond the confession of Jesus as Lord. Yes, they still proclaim him as Savior, but they hold that faith in him is not enough. They teach that observance of the Law is also required, and it unhinges Paul. “By grace alone, through faith alone!” Paul fairly shouts. Even our faith is a gift from God. Salvation can only be received; it can never be earned.
Grace alone. Faith alone. Love always. Kindliness always. When the church fails to maintain these standards, Paul is quick to correct. Yet even then, he is full of kindness and love for his straying sheep. Just read the rest of the books of Corinthians and Galatians.
As we contemplate the state of our congregation, or presbytery, or denomination, how do we measure up? We know well all kinds of other measurements: membership, attendance, contributions, and the like. We’re Presbyterian after all, and Presbyterians are especially fastidious about keeping tabs on such things. Reporting them is a good thing; it keeps us honest. But the true measure of our vitality cannot be quantified. Increasing numbers may signal church vitality, but growing crowds and coffers are easy to achieve for figures who prey effectively on fears or prejudices. By some accounts, in the apostolic era the Corinthian church grew more quickly than in any other city, yet they were off course. Decreasing numbers are certainly cause for concern, but they do not signal divine judgment or abandonment. Jesus himself lost followers by staying true to his mission. (John 6:66)
These, however, remain constant measures of our vitality as a church: Grace alone. Faith alone. Love always. Kindliness always.
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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