Holy? Really?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, March 3, 2022

Holy? Really?

 We continue our conversation about the “marks of the church” (Book of Order F-1.0302) by considering what it means to confess “I believe the one holy catholic and apostolic church.” In recent weeks I explored what it means that the church is apostolic and that it is catholic. How is the apostolic and catholic church “holy”?

The word “holy” is widely misunderstood. We don’t use the words “apostolic” and “catholic” except in theology, but “holy” is commonly used by the general population. It is typically understood to describe something or someone especially sacred, extraordinary, or pure. Saints are holy people. Churches are holy places. Holidays are “holy-days” that commemorate extraordinary events.

The literal meaning of “holy” is “set apart.” More specifically in the Bible, it connotes belonging to God, rather than to anyone or anything else claiming ownership. If “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1), then everything is holy. When we acknowledge with the Heidelberg Catechism, “I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to my faithful Savior” (Book of Confessions 4.001), we claim to be holy.

Holiness is about belonging. When we confess the holiness of the church, we affirm that it belongs to the Lord, and to the Lord alone.

It is not my church. It is not mine to govern, not mine to maintain, not mine to make flourish, not mine to impoverish. Yet in God’s economy, I have a role as the Lord’s agent in leading the church. I serve that role rightly only when I do so as a steward of what is not mine.

The credibility of the apostolic catholic church is tested in how its leaders operate. It is a matter of holiness, of acknowledging that the church they serve belongs to God alone. Do its leaders honor it as holy, as belonging fully and only to the Lord? Or do they govern with a spirit of ownership or entitlement rather than stewardship and servanthood?

When church leaders exercise their leadership in clear accountability to the Lord to whom the church belongs, the church becomes publicly credible.

Our polity holds that a church’s property is held in trust for the denomination. That has been affirmed by Pennsylvania courts when congregations have sought to leave our denomination and take the church’s property with them. Contesting whether the church property belongs to “us” or “them” makes all sides lose public credibility. How easily we forget that nothing in the church belongs to us. Nothing.

Who holds title to the property? Who signs the checks and audits the books? These are necessary legal and business concerns. We handle them rightly only when we keep clear that, theologically, the church doesn’t belong to the pastor, to the session, to the deacons, or to its members. It doesn’t belong to the presbytery or the denomination. It belongs to our Lord alone. Every meeting, every action, every judgment about the church’s life and mission, must reflect that ownership, if we are to be truly the holy church.

The practice of church holiness begins with prayer. Prayer is our tangible acknowledgment that we are not our own. Prayer at the heart of how we lead is our practical demonstration of commitment to the church’s holiness.

The church to which I was newly called as pastor had a tradition of long session meetings – two hours at least, often more. Because they were so long, time given to prayer and study was minimal. They just didn’t have time for such “preliminaries.” I begged their indulgence as I instituted a practice of studying the Bible and our Constitution before getting down to business, and prefaced that with a season of prayer.

I reminded our elders that we promise to pray for our members. So let’s do it! I began with a prayer for our congregation, then opened it up for others to add their own prayers, whether aloud or silently. They were all silent. For nine months. Then the dam burst, and it became the most praying session I have known. I had to work hard to get them to stop praying!

Wonder of wonders, session meetings got shorter. A lot shorter. Our prayer and study focused us on what was most important, and small things no longer bred big discussions. And maybe it was not entirely coincidental that church attendance began to grow.

In retrospect, I think we were putting into practice our commitment to the holiness of the church, even though we didn’t frame it that way at the time.  How is it for us today? What are we doing to honor the church’s holiness? In our congregation? In our presbytery? In our denomination and beyond?

Yours in pursuing holiness,

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