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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

The Offices of the Church, Part I
July 12, 2018

Yes, “offices,” not “officers.” We Presbyterians already know the world of church “officers” by heart. My concern is offices. And I’m not talking about those places in a church building where business is conducted, staff have desks, and so on. I have something very different in mind.

But first, let’s acknowledge how much we love church offices, such as we know them. They are, after all, the public face of our church all week long, except for on Sunday morning. I have known many churches where offices are granted far better care than classrooms. They are often the first of our facilities to get new furniture, new paint, and air conditioning. I have known several pastors who lost their church’s support because they didn’t spend enough time in the office. I was once interviewed by a search committee looking for a pastor, who told me they wanted their pastor in the office pretty much all day Monday through Thursday, plus getting out into the community, participating in civic organizations, visiting the church’s shut-ins, hanging out at local schools, and so on. I wished them well and moved on. We take great pride in running a crisp office.

The word “office” has multiple meanings in the church’s lexicon. In addition to the ordained offices of ministry and the church’s administrative offices, there is a long tradition of daily prayer disciplines being called “offices.” The word “office” itself comes from Latin, combining two words that basically mean “getting the work done.” In the Roman tradition, the “offices” of prayer were developed to get the work of continual prayer done daily, a disciplined response to Paul’s exhortation, “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) The practice of “daily devotions,” with which most Protestants are more familiar, derives from the much more rigorous Roman practice of praying at set hours several times daily.

Yet I want to focus on something else. For the next few weeks, I invite us to consider the church’s “offices” as extensions of the “offices” of Jesus.

The Message renders Ephesians 1:23 evocatively: “The church is Christ’s body, in which he speaks and acts, by which he fills everything with his presence.” The church is Jesus at work in the world. The primary way he continues to fulfill his “offices” in the world is through the church.

So what are these “offices” that Jesus holds? It seems like a long stretch to ascribe “offices” to an itinerant preacher and miracle-worker who opposed institutionalized religion at nearly every turn. There is a formality attached to the concept of “office” that seems fundamentally at odds with the style and substance of Jesus’ ministry.

Yet the church has seen fit to describe his ministry in terms of “offices.” Jesus has particular work to do, and disciplined ways of getting it done. According to the Heidelberg Catechism, Jesus is our “chief prophet,” our “only high priest,” and “our eternal king.” (Book of Confessions 4.031) John Calvin refers to these three roles of Jesus as his divine “offices.” Prophet. Priest. King. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.15) These are the roles by which Jesus accomplishes his divinely appointed work in this world.

And here is what I invite us to explore – what does it mean for the church to exercise these offices as the earthly body of the One who occupies those offices transcendently? What is the church’s prophetic office? Its priestly office? Its royal office?

Recently our great city has joined the gruesome list of communities that have had to grapple with the horror of local police shooting to death an unarmed, unthreatening young African American man. Antwon Rose is his name. We dare not forget it. Among other things, the church’s prophetic office is to cry out for justice when worldly powers perpetrate injustice. Where is the church standing, what is the church saying, in response to Antwon’s killing? We will explore further the church’s prophetic vocation. But for now, let us be clear on this: A church that has nothing to say in the face of public injustice perpetrated by so-called authorities has vacated its prophetic office. The apostolic call to submit to earthly authorities (Romans 13:1-2 ) is never a justification to acquiesce to any injustice they may perpetrate.

Yours in our Lord’s work,

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

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