Love Incognito?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
October 17, 2019


For followers of Jesus, some forms of love require that they be exercised incognito. Alas, we often seek to make obvious our forms of love that should remain hidden, and we fail to make explicit the sort of love that calls for it. One of the most necessarily public forms of our love is our expression of fidelity to Jesus as Lord.

Our church requires that all members proclaim publicly their intention to renounce sin and follow Jesus. Alas, that is sometimes a one-and-done declaration, after which many who claim to be Christian keep that commitment shuttered in private. Our tendency to cease publicly declaring our faith in Jesus is one reason why every time we ordain and/or install deacons, elders, and pastors, we require that they state once again publicly their fidelity to Jesus as Lord and trust in him as Savior.

Yet some expressions of Christian love need to be exercised secretly. Jesus tells his followers in Matthew 25:31-46 that our love of Christ revealed in our care for those in need is often unknown, even to ourselves. To parade such actions publicly in order to be perceived as pious or praiseworthy warps that love from being a love for Christ to a love for our own self.

Jesus teaches that our personal expressions of love for God through prayer ought ordinarily be something nobody else witnesses. (Matthew 6:6) I grew up in a tradition where people were encouraged to pray aloud extemporaneously in church, and sometimes it became a contest to see who could pray up the biggest storm of “Amens.” John Calvin taught that public prayer in church is far too important to produce on the spot without careful preparation. For him, scripted prayers assure that they are more theologically faithful and pastorally appropriate, and less likely to puff up those who offer them. Of course, the danger of following scripted prayers is that they can become rote and we can deliver them with little real engagement. The problem in such cases is usually not with the prayers but with the pray-ers.

October is widely observed in churches as “Clergy Appreciation Month,” with the second Sunday of the month designated “Pastor Appreciation Day.” I am tempted to be cynical about this observance, since it was started by publishers of Christian paraphernalia, who stood to gain from having yet another occasion for people to purchase their products, this time for their pastor. Yet the idea of showing our love for our pastor is a good one. Such love should emphatically not be incognito, yet all too often that is where it stays.

1 Timothy 5:17 urges that special honor be shown to those who labor among us in preaching and teaching. This is specifically linked to financial remuneration in the text, but that is only one form of showing honor. Verbal expressions of appreciation go a long way to providing pastors the encouragement they need to continue fulfilling their calling. I experience the blessing of this encouragement as I travel around presbytery and encounter people who tell me they appreciate this weekly letter, and I am especially grateful for direct responses by email, which can be launched with one click at the bottom of the message each week.

Sometimes the most loving response to a pastor is to challenge the pastor about something she or he says or does. Love is not just sweetness and sugar; in fact, it rarely is. In the classic language of the King James Version, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (Proverbs 27:6) The point is that if we want to love our pastor well, we cannot do so silently or with intent to gain benefit from it.

The same is true for the way pastors are called to love their flock. When I taught seminarians, I told them that Job One for a pastor is to love their congregation in such a way that they know their pastor loves them. A good pastor does not leave the flock guessing about whether their pastor cares for them.

The reason for this is that the way a pastor loves the flock functions as a tangible expression of how the Great Shepherd loves them. And it is vitally important that the people of God know beyond a shadow of doubt that God loves them.

This is why it is never appropriate for a pastor to speak ill of or do harm to a church member. Especially egregious are misrepresentations of the Good Shepherd through pastoral sexual predation. In all manner of contact, a pastor’s relationship to the flock of God ought to reinforce their sense of the great love God has for each and all of them.

Yours in the vast love of Jesus,

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