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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

People of the Word
November 8, 2018

Words matter. It has been so from eternity. “In the beginning was the Word.” This eternal Word became flesh among us in the person of Jesus. (John 1:1-14) No Word, no Incarnation.

Presbyterians mark our devotion to the divine Word as delivered in Holy Scripture by requiring that pastors study the languages in which Scriptural words were first penned. Before one may be ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one must pass national standardized exams in biblical languages.

John Calvin taught that the words of worship – prayers, hymns, sermons – were far too important to make up on the spot. Liturgical language was all carefully scripted under his watch. The American Protestant penchant for spontaneity in public prayers and sermons would have been unthinkable to him.

When words are cheapened, the fabric of covenant community unravels. When it is claimed that words mean little, that only actions truly matter, we are in dangerous territory. Any attempt to disconnect words from actions must be resisted tooth and nail.

James contends that actions matter more than our words in expressing our faith. (James 2:14-26) Yet immediately after eloquently arguing that actions matter more than mere words, he contends just as forcefully that our words do matter, that one cannot at the same time bless God and curse a fellow human being made in God’s image. (James 3:1-12 )

The Westminster Confession enjoins us to avoid speaking ill of others, because such speech both unjustly injures them and poisons our own souls. According to Westminster, God’s law requires us to be eager to receive a good report of our neighbor, and to be unwilling to receive an evil report. It mandates that we “stop our ears” against negative words about others. (Book of Confessions 7.254-255) Words that tear down others pave the way to physical violence.

Would the Tree of Life killer have executed the horrific massacre of October 27 had he not been fueled by a torrent of hateful words flooding the internet? We cannot know the answer to that rhetorical question, but we do know that he ingested and spread malevolent words about whole categories of people, notably Jews and immigrants. Those words ended up being far more than “mere words.” They spilled into horrific destructive violence.

How we speak to each other and of each other matters. Freedom of speech does not grant license for spiteful speech. Christian liberty is not unbridled. In his greatest defense of Christian liberty, Paul warns against using our liberty to say and do things that are harmful to others. As he extols the liberty of the Christian, Paul cautions that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-15) Christian freedom is freedom for love, not from it.

Jesus tells his disciples that we are defiled not by what we physically ingest, but by what we express in our speech. (Matthew 15:10-20) Speech that belittles others corrodes the soul of the speaker just as much as it damages the object of its spite.

Beloved, we must guard our lips and our ears from words that degrade. It has been nigh impossible to avoid hearing the words of personal aspersion being cast about during the election campaign season, where speaking ill of opponents has become standard operational procedure for political candidates. Election contests have turned into gladiatorial combats, and we all suffer the soul-numbing effects of exposure to them.

I offer a modest proposal, that as people who follow Jesus we covenant not to speak ill of others who seek to follow him.  It begins at home. If we speak ill of those with whom we worship, we cannot be effective in our Gospel proclamation. It extends from there to a commitment to speak well of our sister churches, as well as of our regional and national faith leaders. From there it can spread to how we speak of those in other faith communities. And finally, as James says, it shapes how we speak of any human being made in the image of God.

I am often reminded of a saying I learned from one of my professors, “You don’t have to deny someone else’s integrity in order to establish your own.” As people of God, we of all people ought to be devoted to speaking words that build up rather than tear down. Let it be so!

Your fellow-servant of the Word,

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

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