Decently and in Order?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, February 4, 2021

No Bible text warms Presbyterian hearts more than 1 Corinthians 14:40 – “… all things should be done decently and in order.” Methodists are guided by their “Book of Discipline.” Catholics are governed under their “Code of Canon Law.” Anglicans were organized around their “Thirty-Nine Articles.” Discipline. Law. Articles. All necessary. We Presbyterians stake out our distinctive ground by having a “Book of Order.”

Order. It’s the first act of Creation – God harnessing primeval chaos. Order is a necessary condition for life to exist. It is more than functional; it is beautiful.

Our commitment to good order has deep, sturdy roots. It has stood us well over the centuries. Yet it does not by itself assure that all shall be well with the church. Our order may be technically solid and genuinely wise, yet we dare not forget that God’s work is a matter of Spirit as well as of Word. Good management is not itself sufficient for accomplishing the mission of Jesus.

A pandemic that has disrupted the entirety of our social world has wreaked havoc with good Presbyterian order. Large meetings with votes are a logistical nightmare when we can’t all be in the same room. The 2020 General Assembly met virtually, restricting its actions to things it deemed most urgent, since debating and voting were so difficult online. Unsurprisingly, most of the business items the Assembly deemed urgent had to do with keeping the church’s governing order up and running.

A smaller version of that large-scale triage has been underway in most congregations. What do we deem most essential at a time when our ability to do “the usual” is curtailed? It is impossible to hew to our long-established orderly pathways in the midst of pandemic chaos.

Yet what appears as a crisis of constitutional consequences may also be a gift. It is certainly true that we have received something we didn’t ask for or seek out – and that is the fundamental definition of “gift,” isn’t it!

Winston Churchill is credited with first saying, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” As a community that carefully guards our good order, our best chance for doing and becoming something new is when we are forced to abandon our well-worn much-loved paths. What is the new order into which we are being cast by the Spirit? How can we embrace it rather than resist it?

The emerging order is far from clear, and it may well look very different from one congregation to the next. Its timetable is variable – some congregations are already meeting again in person, while others are still meeting remotely, unsure when they will be able to convene again.

We have no roadmap for this, because there are no roads yet built across this territory. We are more like ships at sea than like vehicles on land – instead of maps, we follow the heavens. But even ships can see the guiding lighthouse once they get close enough to shore. We have no idea where we should or even can land. All we can do is keep our eyes heavenward. For followers of Jesus, is that such a bad place to be?

One of my favorite “throw-away” lines in the Bible comes from Paul, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) It’s a parenthetical statement in a longer discussion about whether it would be better to continue living amid our distress or going home to be with the Lord. No matter what comes, Paul contends, all shall be well. We don’t chart our course, but receive it as a gift from God. Talk about a challenge for Presbyterians with all their penchant for planning!

Proverbs 19 declares, “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.” God’s order, not ours, is what matters in the end. I am not against good order – it’s one of the things that attracted me to the Presbyterian Church. I want only to put it into its proper perspective.

When we are ordained and installed as church officers, we make grand promises to follow our church’s order faithfully, to be guided by our Confessions, to follow Jesus faithfully, and (perhaps most daunting of all) to pray for and serve God’s people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

Energy. Intelligence. Imagination. Love. These characteristics are ineffable and transcendent. Impossible fully to conceptualize, yet necessary to embrace. How can we possibly make such a promise with a straight face? When I lead those promises, I ask the respondents to answer, “I will, with God’s help.”

When they are ordained, church officers aren’t asked questions that have orderly answers, such as, “Will you attend all the meetings? Will you pledge a certain amount to the church? Will you serve on committees when asked?” Our ordination promises require us to commit ourselves to pathways we can’t fully map out.

And so I make a small proposal. At this time of uncertainty about how to order our next steps, let us return to consider anew our ordination promises. (Book of Order [sic!] W-4.4003)

Your partner in the journey,

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