A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
May 21, 2020
In my recent weekly letters I have been exploring how the church can fulfill its Great Ends (Book of Order F-1.0304) during this season when COVID-19 has shuttered its doors. The fourth of the six Great Ends is the most succinct: Preservation of the Truth.
Whenever we move from one place to another, we may discard lots of stuff, yet we do all we can to preserve that which we consider irreplaceable. The Great Ends suggest that the church’s most precious commodity, that which above all else must be preserved, is “truth.”
In the Bible, “truth” is not about doctrinal propositions. Rather, it is about honesty, dependability, transparency, fidelity, and diligent inquiry. It is less about getting everything exactly right than about doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
For children of the Reformation, “truth” has always included doctrinal rectitude. Reformed people have long believed that one of the church’s great callings is to maintain orthodoxy and expose heresy, because doctrinal opinions have real-life consequences (Book of Order F-3.0104). The Reformers continued a Roman heritage – the Romans called orthodoxy enforcers the “Inquisition,” while the Reformers looked to Councils to accomplish the same task.
Yet the fourth “Great End” of the church is a call for the church not to “police” the truth, but to “preserve” it.
Truth, in its biblical sense, is about integrity. What you see is what you get. Nothing is hidden, nothing is twisted to the advantage of some. Honesty and humility are its portals, transparency and teachability its hallmarks.
If we ever needed to be people of truth, we need to be that now.
In our current pandemic context, preservation of the truth includes unwavering support of good science in understanding our present danger. We can and should be on the forefront of advocating for public health safety for all, especially those most vulnerable. We must resist every attempt to play down the risks of unhealthy social behavior. We can and should take the lead in assuring that people’s lives are being protected by practices informed by the best of health science. Preservation of truth demands that we be honest about rather than glossing over perilous practices.
Preservation of the truth also requires us to be honest about what we don’t know. Being adamant about risks and remedies that are at best good guesses helps no-one. Acknowledging the partiality of our knowledge and the limitations of our vantage point is all part of essential humility inherent in truthfulness.
Truth transcends politics. When the church is preserving truth, it cannot be a shill for a particular party. If the church begins to sound like an echo chamber for one party or another, it is no longer a community of truth.
If the world ever needed the church to be people of truth, it needs it now.
As a preserve of truth, the church is a reliable counselor not just to its members, but to the surrounding world. If any source should be a trustworthy guide, it should be the church. The church ought always embody honesty and transparency, teachability and humility. If the world knows the church to be such a place, it can and will trust the church’s guidance in perilous times such as the one we are currently navigating.
The Christian church’s distinctive role in bearing witness to truth is that it alone points to Jesus as truth personified. (John 14:6) Jesus is the truth, and thus he always tells the truth by being unconditionally honest, even as he is “gentle and humble in heart.” (Matthew 11:29) He exposes deceit on every side, from religious to political to economic special interests. In so doing, he is living out his identity as Truth itself.
Nowhere is truth more highly prized than amid crisis. Whose word can we count on no matter how much of a price is paid for saying it? Whose heart is always given to honesty in inquiry and relationships? Whose walk stays consistent with their talk? In short, whom can we always trust?
Trust relies on truthfulness. We trust in Jesus because he is the truth. Similarly, the church can be trusted as a faithful beacon and harbor of salvation amid our pandemic, as long as it preserves its commitment to truthfulness. Tenaciously. Humbly. Joyfully. Soli Deo Gloria!
Yours in truth,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister