The Power of Being Together
When Jesus left his disciples at his ascension, he gave them one assignment: Wait together in Jerusalem. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost came when “they were all together in one place.” (Acts 2:1) The King James Version says they were gathered “with one accord,” but that qualifier is not in the Greek text. Agreement was not the main thing; togetherness was. [i]
We have seen “one accord” redefined in recent national politics. Liz Cheney was removed from her position of leadership among House Republicans, who gave the position instead to Elise Stefanik. Cheney’s voting record aligns much more closely with the Republican platform than does Stefanik’s, but Cheney is opposed to Donald Trump’s leadership, while Stefanik supports it. In our current socio-political climate, “one accord” is often less about shared ideas than about unqualified support for a particular leader.
We have flipped the Acts 2 pattern in the church. For us, far too often, agreement matters more than togetherness. Sometimes our dividing disagreement is over doctrine, but often it is over non-essential practices. One Baptist denomination split in two over the question of whether baptism should be administered with three immersions or just one. Not to be outdone, a Reformed denomination once split in two over the question of whether communion requires the use of a common cup. Much closer to home for us, congregations have divided during the pandemic over particular social distancing measures.
Pentecost teaches us that the most important thing for followers of Jesus is that they are together. Period. The rest is up to the Holy Spirit.
Due to the pandemic, it has now been more than a year since our presbytery has gathered together. One of the primary benefits of presbytery is the power of being together. When we are together, we put ourselves in position to receive new outpourings of the Holy Spirit. In non-pandemic times, our presbytery gathers four times a year – enough to maintain friendly acquaintance with each other, but hardly enough to nurture deep friendships or ministry partnerships.
For church polity geeks, here’s a question: What does The Book of Order require us to do four times a year, at minimum? Presbyteries are required to meet just twice a year. General Assemblies only every two years. Congregations are to meet weekly for worship. One thing that the Book of Order stipulates we must do quarterly is celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Most of our congregations have communion much more frequently, some every Lord’s Day.
John Calvin thought it should be celebrated every Lord’s Day, but he couldn’t convince his colleagues to do so. Eventually a pattern of celebrating the Lord’s Table quarterly emerged, because the churches required that elders examine everyone in the parish before they could come to the Table. Those examinations took months to conduct.[ii] The less frequently that the Lord’s Supper took place, the less essential it felt to the church’s worship.
In the earliest days of the Reformed movement, the pastors and elders in each region gathered every Friday to pray, study, and consider the ministry needs in their bounds. Even though it included both elders and pastors, it was called the “Company of Pastors.” It became a lifeline for nurturing faithful, fruitful, and fulfilling ministry. Attendance was mandatory for pastors, and encouraged for elders as they were able.
We now have so many committees that need to do their work to prepare for presbytery meetings that it would be impossible for us to meet much more often than quarterly. But in moving from weekly meetings to quarterly meetings, we have lost all sense of how essential presbytery gathering are for nurturing vital ministry.
We need more than brief quarterly connections with each other to do vital ministry together.
And so I ask us – how are we supplementing our presbytery meetings by gathering with other church leaders between presbytery meetings, to study, pray, strategize for, and engage our common ministry? We need each other, friends. We need each other’s encouragement and admonition. We need each other’s company.
Ministry in Jesus’ name is far too important and demanding for us to do it on our own. Jesus didn’t do ministry on his own. The apostles didn’t do ministry on their own. We cannot follow their footsteps in ministry without being in regular company with our colleagues in ministry. Only in companionship with each other do we put ourselves in position to receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to equip and empower us to do the work of the Gospel in our place and time.
Keeping company with you,
[i] This letter is an expanded version of the cover letter for the May 20, 2021 Presbytery meeting packet.
[ii] This may be why Session meetings, like the Lord’s Supper, are required to take place quarterly. See Book of Order G-3.0203 and W-3.0409.