In It Together

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, September 17, 2020

When we embrace the call to serve the church as a pastor, elder, or deacon, we take a big breath, then dive into the abyss of the unknown – promising at our ordination to be a friend in ministry to our colleagues, maintaining always the peace, unity, and purity of the church. (Book of Order, W-4.04) We make those commitments with scant idea of what that may require of us. In promising this way of living with each other as leaders, we commit ourselves to set an example for the whole flock of God, especially when differences arise among us.

Our current pandemic crisis is testing these commitments to their core. Differences within congregations that have long simmered have erupted into blazes. We are encountering more significant congregational conflict right now than at any time in recent memory. Questions that divide us abound: When should we return to the sanctuary? Must we wear masks and practice social distancing? Should we have singing and communion? What do we do when pastors or employees or members are unwilling to take risks that others think they should? Differences of conviction over these and related questions are fanning flames of conflict that go far beyond COVID-related concerns.

How we live and serve together is an essential mark of our authenticity as Jesus’ followers. If we can’t live peaceably with each other, how can we claim to be at peace with God? (1 John 4:20-21)

Paul pleads, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27) The “you” in “your life” is plural, not singular. Paul is asking us to live together in a way that is worthy of the Gospel. Respect each other. Defer to each other. Defend each other. Encourage each other. The credibility of our claim that Jesus has reconciled us to God is proven in our being reconciled to each other.

The tendency to schism has been present from the outset of the Christian movement. Paul addresses it in letter after letter, frequently repeating the command to love one another, because it is so easily forgotten. Human beings have fought against their siblings from time immemorial, a pattern of hostility that Jesus came to break. (Ephesians 2:14) For us to continue to replay the age-old scripts of divide-and-conquer or fight-or-flight is to reject the message and work of Jesus.

When church officers promise to be friends in ministry to their colleagues, and to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church, they promise to embody in their relationships the way of Jesus. They promise to love one another without condition, to refrain from judging each other’s motives. They promise in their relationships to be living examples of the Christian Gospel, both to the rest of the church and to those beyond its doors.

Amid the myriad conflicts currently flaring up around and among us, I offer a modest proposal: That those who have made ordination promises refuse to speak negatively or to assume ill of their colleagues in ordered ministry.

Pastors, elders, and deacons: Assume the best of each other. Have each other’s backs. Refuse to be drawn into taking sides against each other.

Just as with Moses, Aaron, and Israel in the desert, most congregational conflict soon focuses on the leaders, regardless of whether they are really to blame. (Exodus 16:2-3) When leaders are non-defensive, and have each other’s backs, full-blown conflict is usually avoidable.

It is not only the church’s officers who should seek the peace, unity, and purity of the church. The call to mutual love and forbearance applies equally to all followers of Jesus. But it is an official responsibility of the church’s officers, and it is something they have promised before the whole church to pursue.

The church will rarely go where its officers are not already headed. If there is dissension among the leaders, it will spread into the congregation. But if the church’s leaders are living peaceably with each other, even when they disagree among themselves, their example will ripple throughout the congregation and into the world.

Promoting the church’s peace, unity, and purity is no easy task. Division is the path of least resistance, but its fruits are bitter. Mutual forbearance is a hard way, but its fruits are sweet, and they spread abundantly to the world around us. How shall it be with us?

Your colleague in ministry,

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