In 1630 as John Winthrop was sailing across the Atlantic Ocean he preached a sermon filled with the optimistic anticipation of what the Massachusetts Bay colony could be. He said: “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all the people are upon us.” For good or bad, he believed New England could be a universal example to the watching world. In being that city he knew what was at stake, as he went on to preach: “If we deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world; we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God.”
This motto: a city on a hill, has often been repeated especially in contemporary politics. Famously, Ronald Regan used it to give expression to American exceptionalism, and it's been used and adapted by others before and after him. In fact, in 2012 it became a part of the Republican party platform. But it’s not a title that belongs to nations or political platforms in this world. Rather, these words were used by Jesus to describe his disciples — to describe his own church: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14).
There’s a powerful metaphor in those words. The innate nature of light is to not only be seen but to make things visible and seen – by it, we see everything. Of course, the church does this only through its relationship to the God who is light (1 John 1:5). Like the moon that only reflects the brightness of the sun in the nighttime sky, so the singular honor of the church is to be that body that reflects the light of God into a world filled with darkness.
I like to think that as Jesus preached these words he pointed his finger to one of the Judaean hills and the city nestled into it. As his disciples’ eyes might have followed the gesture it could have given extra force to the words, as if to say: “You are like that.” But however he communicated it, the meaning remains. The church is a city on a hill. It cannot be hidden. The eyes of the world are upon it and the church demands universal attention. The church must be seen and it must make all things seen.
Biblically, this is true in so many different ways. For example, Paul reminds us that our identity is that of “saints in light” (Colossians 1:12) and “children of the day” (1 Thessalonians 5:5). Our doctrine is the light of truth (see 1 John 1:6), and our message shines brightly (see 2 Corinthians 4:1-6). Our conduct is characterized as light: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:14-15). Even the Spirit’s agency in our worship is as a torch standing before the throne and illuminating the one who sits upon it (see Revelation 4:5).
Maintaining this high character means that we must also have nothing to do with the darkness whose nature it is to hide and conceal. Paul wrote: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:12-14). Or, as he also exclaimed: "We are not of the night or of the darkness" (1 Thessalonians 5:5).
I’ve been thinking about this lately as the denomination I belong to, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, prepares for our 189th Synod. Within the Presbyterian system, our Synod is the broadest church court — broader than local eldership and regional Presbyteries. When we meet for Synod it’s not simply a time to share updates about what’s going on in the various ministries of the church, or in an advisory capacity. Rather, we understand that the meeting of Synod is an exercise of the power and authority Jesus has given to the church (see Westminster Confession of Faith 31.3).
This year’s Synod is going to be difficult and challenging on many levels. Aside from yearly reports and budgets, our time will be dominated by a number of petitions, complaints, and a discipline case. All these will have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. One retired pastor (with more experience than years I’ve been alive) said we are at a crossroads unlike anything he has witnessed before — and he isn’t a man given to exaggeration. Next week we will have to labor to bring the light of God’s truth to bear on all of of the petitions, complaints, and discipline.
This meeting will be difficult. And, I’ll admit, it’s tempting to want to do everything quietly and in hushed tones; to untie the challenging knots in secret and behind closed doors. But we are a city on a hill, and what we do, we do as those seen by a watching world. In fact, this is why our Directory for Church Government, requires “[That] the sessions of Synod shall ordinarily be open to the public.” All the work of the church — unless biblical sensitivity and sensibility absolutely demands it — is done in the open, and all decisions and actions are recorded and available to the public.
With new appreciation I’ve been struck by the pattern set by the Holy Spirit in Acts 15 at the Jerusalem Council. It was there that the apostles and elders from a number of regions gathered to determine a difficult question. The Spirit has given an inspired record of the difficult debates and decisions of the church, and he has preserved it through the ages in the Bible. It’s a pattern that reminds us that openness and visibility are the ordinary helpmates to the work of the church and not a liability to our public image, and secrecy and concealment have no regular part in our labors.
When those difficulties are understood in relation to our identity as a city on a hill, they actually become opportunities. We live in a society filled with the darkness of division, politics, bitterness, rivalries, fits of anger, and dissensions. Into that darkness, even in our small way, we can shine the light of truth, love, charity, wisdom, understanding, decency, and order. We get to live up to the privilege of being that city on a hill. As we shine our light before men we do so with the prayer that others would give glory to the Father who is in heaven. As Winthrop said: “We must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all the people are upon us.”