A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Learning the Way of Christ Together
May 9, 2019
I closed last week’s letter by noting that key to nourishing vigorous Easter faith and mission is listening to Scripture together – together with each other locally, together with others beyond our immediate congregation, and together with those who have encountered the Gospel story from its beginnings and throughout the storied history of Christianity.
The practice of communal listening to Scripture is evident among the earliest Christians, who faced daunting challenges in biblical interpretation. One classic example is the church’s reconsideration of the faith community’s long-established understanding that proselytes must be circumcised. This reconsideration began with Peter’s experience in one house as described in Acts 10, his response to the wider church that criticized his experience in Acts 11, and the eventual call of a general assembly to take up this question in Acts 15. Once the whole church had come together to discern what the Spirit was saying, emissaries were sent from the assembly to communicate its decision to all the congregations. Here we see the threads that bind together individual, congregational, and church-wide discernment of what the Spirit is teaching us through the witness of Scripture.
This inter-community mutuality was also expressed in the care congregations exercised toward one another, granting each other aid as needs arose. In one instance, believers from abroad contributed offerings to the churches in Judea suffering from famine. (Acts 11:28-30) Paul commends the churches of Macedonia for contributing generously to the needs of others despite their own poverty, and asks the church in Corinth to do the same. (2 Corinthians 8:1-7; 9:1-5)
We concretely acknowledge our need to read Scripture and practice our faith with those beyond our particular community by promising to be guided by confessions of faith from other times and places as we seek to understand Scripture. Our Book of Confessions is a small catalog of such statements, comprising faithful biblical responses to select crises in the history of the church. These Confessions are subordinate to Scripture, yet they offer us important guidance in how we read Scripture.
One of our Confessions, “The Theological Declaration of Barmen” (Book of Confessions 8), was published at a time when many German Christians were aligning with the National Socialism advocated by the Third Reich, in the years prior to World War II. One of its primary political support bases was the German church, much to the alarm of a minority who called themselves “confessing Christians” – Christians committed to keeping faith with historic Christianity rather than riding current political tides that had swept the majority of the church into their flow. I was reminded this week of Barmen’s central claim that the church has only one Lord, whom alone it can obey, when I read a tweet from a current presidential campaign manager saying of his candidate, “Only God could deliver such a savior to our nation.” Sometimes it is not only helpful, but critically important to be guided by those beyond our immediate context in discerning what the Spirit is saying to the church in our place and time through the witness of Scripture.
The writers of the Barmen Declaration challenged their readers, “If you find that we are speaking contrary to Scripture, then do not listen to us! But if you find that we are taking our stand upon Scripture, then let no fear or temptation keep you from treading with us the path of faith and obedience to the Word of God.” (Book of Confessions 8.04) They sought to ground their claim of loyalty to one Lord Jesus and resistance to any other putative savior in their reading of Scripture in solidarity with the church’s confessional heritage, rather than in their day’s political terms.
The political noise around us today is fraught with clamoring rhetoric – often purportedly religious – that easily drowns out the voice of the Spirit through the Word of God. We get swept into partisan wars of words to the peril of the faith into which we were baptized. The best defense against such currents that seek both to woo us and to overpower us is the faithful reading of Scripture together. Together as believers in study groups and congregations. Together with other regional congregations with whom we share covenant bonds. Together with faith communities from around the globe. Together with saints from all times and places who themselves have relied on the same Spirit to open up the same Scriptures that are before us today. May God help us hear a clear word from the Lord in a time when many words claiming divine warrant swirl around us.
Listening to God’s Word with you,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister