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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Bearing False Witness
August 29, 2013

It happened again this week – I received a presentation that is being circulated among churches contemplating leaving the PCUSA, and it reiterated accusations against the PCUSA that are simply untrue. I am loath to react defensively, but am reminded by the Westminster Confession that part of my obligation in keeping the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” is to defend those who have been unjustly slandered, including ourselves. (See Book of Confessions 7.254) When we hear slander repeated often enough, we can easily begin to assume it true simply because it is oft repeated. The internet is a wonderful tool for circulating nonsense enough to make it seem believable to those who want to believe it. But I digress.

I want to address simply one point that is repeatedly made by people wanting to leave the PCUSA – they allege that the PCUSA has abandoned its confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They support this allegation on the one hand by quoting isolated statements by a few Presbyterians who have said things about the Lordship of Jesus they find outrageous. Of course, some Presbyterians hold Christologies different from the majority. More tellingly, they point to a 2008 survey of Presbyterians as evidence that we have abandoned the Lordship of Jesus, and they point to a 2001 General Assembly action in which (they say) GA rejected the proposition that Jesus is the only Lord and Savior.

It is easy to believe that there is a groundswell somewhere “out there” of folk who deny that Jesus is the Savior of the world, if one is to believe all one reads. Alas, most of us do not have enough experience of circulating beyond our own congregation (and perhaps a small circle of like-minded congregations) to get a sense of the larger lay of the land in the PCUSA. One of the great blessings of my own work is that I have the privilege of worshiping in scores of different congregations, from all across every imaginable spectrum. And I can testify that without exception, in every church I have visited in Pittsburgh Presbytery Jesus Christ has been proclaimed boldly and clearly as the Savior of the world. The Bible has been read and preached faithfully – I have not seen a single instance of the Bible being ignored or misused.

The charge about General Assembly denying the Lordship of Jesus is false. I was at that Assembly. Great agitation was raised in the wake of a recent sermon by one Presbyterian minister in which he said, rhetorically, “So, what’s the big deal about Jesus?” The press got hold of the quote, and had a field day with it. GA was called upon to form on the spot an unequivocal response, and several folk faithfully tried to offer good suggestions. Nearly all of them were set aside as GA struggled to affirm two very important cornerstones of Reformed Theology, namely that Jesus is Savior of the world and that God is fully free to choose those who will be saved. Various folk tried in vain to offer statements that balance both concerns, but GA is not a good venue for crafting doctrine. The statement it hurriedly adopted amid much struggle was far from satisfying to almost anyone.

At the time, I worked in the Office of Theology and Worship, and we took it upon ourselves to prepare a statement of what our church believes about Jesus, seeking carefully to affirm both the church’s commitment to the saving Lordship of Jesus and the freedom of God. We wrote it together over a period of six weeks, and it was received by the church enthusiastically. At the next GA, my colleagues and I were summoned to stand before GA and we were offered an unprecedented standing ovation, with shouts of acclamation even, as GA roundly affirmed its approval of the statement, “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is what GA approved – it is very different from what many are currently alleging.

It is the same delicate doctrinal balance that makes the 2008 Presbyterian Panel survey something that needs to be read without concluding that just because Presbyterians affirm that God can save anyone he wants doesn’t mean that we thereby deny that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

I grieve that some folk are so eager to leave the PCUSA. The reasons for that are complex, and their dismay with our denomination has in most cases been brewing for a long time. I take seriously their distress, and wish I could enter extended dialogue with each of them. We are doubtless guilty of many of the failures with which we are charged. But I don’t believe that they constitute sufficient grounds for breaking our covenant of union, yet that is certainly their right. However, I must declare as “false witness” the attempt to justify departure by claiming that the Presbyterian Church has chosen to abandon Scripture as normative or to deny that, as “Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ” boldly affirms, “Jesus Christ is the only Savior and Lord, and all people everywhere are called to place their faith, hope, and love in him.” This is precisely the statement to which GA literally shouted its approval.

For Jesus’ sake,

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

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