A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Foundations of the Faith We Share, Part II: Being, Believing, Doing
June 15, 2017
“The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) states its faith and bears witness to God’s grace in Jesus Christ in the creeds and confessions in the Book of Confessions. In these statements, the church declares to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do.” (Book of Order F-2.01)
While our faith is founded first and foremost in Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures, our Confessions play a critical role in shaping and expressing that faith. Taken together, they cover great expanses of time and geography, witnessing not only to questions about faith and practice that arise from time to time, but also to the bedrock that lies beneath the church always and everywhere.
To be a confessing church is to make public declarations about our identity, faith, and mission, in whatever time and place we inhabit. Over the course of church history, some such declarations have been produced in the crucible of adversity and contention, borne of urgency in times of great travail. At such times, the church is often clearest about its life and work under the Word of God. Our Book of Confessions contains twelve creeds and confessions, most of which arose in response to controversy and contest about the church’s core identity and purpose.
The Book of Order’s opening sentences to the section on our faith foundations, quoted above, reminds us that our faith is not merely or mainly a matter of assent or denial regarding particular doctrinal propositions. The core of our faith is not subscription to ideas, but a way of living. It is about who we are and what we are called to do, as well as what we believe.
Who and what we are precedes what we believe. We acknowledge that we are first and foremost God’s beloved children. We are not our own; we have been “bought with a price” by the One who reached from heaven to salvage us from death’s grasp. (1 Corinthians 6:20) In the words of one of our Confessions, “In life and in death we belong to God.” (Book of Confessions 11.1) Everything begins here for us and follows from that.
We are not our own. The church is not our church, its assets and liabilities are not our own to dispose of as we see fit. Our lives, our relationships, our bodies – they belong not to us, but to our Lord. Who and what are we, then? People chosen by God for no reason other than God’s goodness, to bear witness to God’s grace revealed in Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.
Our creeds and connections declare also what we believe. Doctrine does matter – but not as a test for who’s in and who’s out. Rather, it is the rule by which our lives individually and together are trained for the work to which we have been called as Christ’s ambassadors. “Belief” in this sense is less about affirmations and denials of abstract ideas, than about where we place our trust and why.
This leads to what we resolve to do. To belong to God and to trust in God’s saving mercy revealed in Jesus Christ leads us to action in the world, in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are called to a task that is captured well by the Hebrew term tikkun olam, which means literally “repair of the world.” We meet the world’s brokenness, wherever we may find it, with acts of mercy and justice that reveal the reign of God. This way of life is captured well in the prophetic word of Micah: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Our confessions are far from monolithic in what they teach. Their emphases vary significantly, depending on the place and time of their origin. The Book of Order notes wisely, “They affirm a common faith tradition, while also from time to time standing in tension with each other.” (F-2.01) To ground our faith in our confessional heritage is to enter a world of lively interchange between believers of many times, places, and circumstances, who are bound together less by their particular claims than by their foundational commitment to following faithfully the Savior who always calls us to new life, deeper trust, and inspired action.
Yours in shared faith,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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