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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

A Place at the Table, Part Two
July 7, 2016

Last week we considered the significance of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s efforts to seat a broader cast of people at the leadership table, a trend especially evident at the recent meeting of our General Assembly. Another significant feature of this Assembly was its multiple efforts to craft actions, policies, and recommendations that reach across the spectrum of the church as widely as possible.

In the Reformed understanding, the church is the company of everyone God calls to be God’s people. Our proper response as a community of Christian faith is to recognize that all who belong to God through faith in Jesus have a place among us. The only faith statement required for inclusion in this community is that Jesus is Lord. (Romans 10:9) The Westminster Confession declares: “By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit all believers being vitally united to Christ, who is the Head, are thus united one to another in the Church, which is his body.” (Book of Confessions 6.054)

At our best, our church rolls reflect the breadth of this “all.” Yet we must acknowledge that we are far from that ideal. Consider whether “all” persons of every racial background are at home among us: According to a Pew Research Poll conducted last year, our denomination is 88% white, 5% African American, 4% Latino, and 3% Asian (other racial ethnic groups together total less than 1%). Another marker of the skewing of our membership table is age: The U.S. Congregational Life Survey indicates that 71% of Presbyterians are over the age of 50, while the same age bracket accounts for just 41% of the general U.S. population.

Other diversity spectrums are also significant indicators of our church’s breadth. Do we honor equally the integrity of those holding various political and theological viewpoints consistent with the Reformed tradition? Are we similarly welcoming to people of all economic, educational, or social levels? Paul puts the matter succinctly. In Christ, he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

More than in any recent General Assembly, last month’s Assembly commissioners sought to craft their actions to include as wide a range of people of good faith as possible. Whether in relation to sexuality, Middle East peace, or fossil fuels, they pursued a middle path that demonstrates our conviction that we all belong together. Through Jesus we are all reconciled to one another, just as we are reconciled to God.

There is only one table for those who belong to Christ. It is the Lord’s table. All who trust in him as Savior are given places at that table, with their own names engraved on them. God so loves us that “while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Our place in God’s household is secured not by our getting things right, but by God’s love reaching out to sinners. The invitation to the king’s table, in Jesus’ parable, is extended to “both good and bad.” (Matthew 22:10)

Making a place at the table for others is not a blanket endorsement of their righteousness or doctrine. Those who are seated together at our table will almost certainly contend with one another about what the church’s commitments to truth and holiness entail. Those convictions matter. What matters more is that we belong together at the table, even when disagree.

When our General Assembly seeks “a middle way” with controversial proposals, it is trying to do more than simply strike the lowest common denominator, or to rock the boat as little as possible. It is seeking a way forward that honors the integrity of people in our community who differ significantly, affording a place at our own table for all who are welcomed at the Lord’s Table. We do not thereby declare that all opinions or manners of living are equally commendable. Rather, we demonstrate our conviction that all who trust in Christ belong together, whether or not we have everything right just yet. At one Table. With one Lord.

How is it with our congregation? Our presbytery? Our denomination?

Yours because we are His,

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

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