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Is Good Self-Esteem Important for a Christian, and How Is It Developed?

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Is Good Self-Esteem Important for a Christian, and How Is It Developed?

David J. Engelsma

The following article appeared in "Perspectives in Covenant Education," Fall, 1990. Readers will find a striking contrast presented between that which is commonly emphasized today: "self-esteem" with the Christian's reason for a proper and different "self-esteem" in Christ.

Self-esteem is an intriguing subject. On the one hand, the gospel passes the judgment upon all men that we are guilty sinners, inclined by nature to hate God and to hate the neighbor. To that judgment of the gospel, the proper response is not self-esteem but self-abasement. On the other hand, this gospel makes us who believe in Jesus Christ new creatures in Christ. Believers, therefore, are glorious creatures who cannot be esteemed highly enough.

This is also a subject concerning which it is of the utmost importance that Reformed people have a clear understanding today. This is especially because of the error, I do not hesitate to say, heresy, that is bedeviling this topic at the present time. Because our people must have no misunderstanding on the matter, I make plain at the outset what my answer is to the question, "Is good self-esteem important for a Christian?" My answer is that good self-esteem is proper for the Christian, and that, in fact, it is necessary that the Christian have a high self-esteem.

Whoever drew up this topic must have assumed that this would be my position because the topic continues, "and how is it developed?" I only want to suggest that that was a risky assumption. It is conceivable that a Reformed preacher would give another answer to the question of this topic, in which case he would urge the audience to prevent self-esteem and to destroy self-esteem wherever they saw it cropping up. However, my answer to the questions is "yes." I will also say something, therefore, about developing self-esteem in Christians. We may not, however, simply accept what unbelieving psychology and popular religious thinking are spouting on this subject today. As I will show, this includes religious thinking that is supposedly Christian, and religious thinking that is even allegedly Reformed.

UNBIBLICAL SELF-ESTEEM

Today there is a message about self-esteem, both powerful and prevalent, which constitutes nothing less than an attack upon the biblical gospel and an assault upon genuine Christian self-esteem. I intend to draw the line sharply that differentiates the self-esteem that is rooted in the gospel from the self-esteem that arises from the pride of the natural heart of man.

There is a modern gospel, a false gospel, of self-esteem that is unchristian. What is meant by self-esteem in this sense, we will let some of the promoters of this self-esteem themselves tell us. The psychologist, Stanley Coopersmith, describes a good, positive self-image as one's evaluation of himself with approval because he regards himself as capable, significant, successful, and worthy. The Christian psychologist, H. Norman Wright, describes self-esteem as one's sense of personal worthiness, as the feeling of "I am good." And one of the most influential purveyors of the unchristian message of self-esteem, the television preacher, Robert Schuller, describes self-esteem this way: "Self-esteem is the human hunger for the divine dignity that God intended to be our emotional birthright as children created in His image." Again, from Schuller: "Self-esteem is pride in being a human being." Yet again, "Self-esteem is feeling good about one's self because one has been working hard and well." Yet, once again, from the Crystal Cathedral: "Since the opposite of good self-esteem is that in a person which caused him to say 'I am unworthy,' (which, says Schuller, is the worst sin that a man or woman can commit), self-esteem is the feeling, 'I am worthy.'" (These quotations are taken from Schuller's book, Self-esteem: The New Reformation, Word Books, 1982.)

All of these descriptions and definitions of self-esteem are basically the same. Therefore, we may sum up self-esteem as it is popularly understood today as follows: "The proper and healthy self-esteem that every person should have and can have is the feeling about himself that he is good, worthy, and capable simply by virtue of the fact that he is a human being. Self-esteem is feeling good about one's self as a human being." The opposite of self-esteem, then, for these men is the conviction that one is bad, unworthy, and lacking in ability. This kind of self-image, or self-esteem, we are told, is a psychological disorder, indeed, a theological and spiritual weakness. In fact, they do not hesitate to say that the feeling or the conviction about one's self that one is not good but unworthy is the worst theological and spiritual sin that one can possibly commit. A negative self-image must be overcome.

The advocates of good self-esteem in this sense are convinced that a bad self-esteem is a very serious problem in American society, if not the most serious problem of all. Their promotion of good self-esteem, therefore, takes on all the fervor of a crusade. Robert Schuller, for example, suggests that poor self-esteem is the cause of all the world's problems. And he states that it is the core of sin, indeed the core of all sin.

Another popular advocate of self-esteem is the religious psychologist, James Dobson. Now in order to escape being excoriated, I want to make it clear that I did not just say that there is nothing to be learned from James Dobson. I have only said that James Dobson also advocates self-esteem. And he stresses the seriousness of what he sees as the problem in American society today. I quote now from his book Hide or Seek: "An epidemic of inferiority is raging throughout our society." Also, "lack of self-esteem produces more symptoms of psychiatric disorder than any other factor yet identified."

This, then, is what is meant by self-esteem popularly today. And this is the urgency of it, according to many who espouse it.

The view of self-esteem that is popularized in our society is thoroughly unbiblical. It is nothing less than a denial of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I want to demonstrate this now by analyzing briefly the teaching on self-esteem of three influential teachers of self-esteem. Each of these teachers is drawn from a different category of psychological and religious thought so that the three taken together will give a broad overview of the unbiblical character of much that is proclaimed in the name of self-esteem today.

First, there is the humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers. He represents a certain prominent and influential branch of psychology and psychiatry in North America and in western society at large. Rogers simply holds that human nature is basically good. Every human, therefore, may and should feel good about himself, and accept himself as he is. And he should also fight off any sense of unworthiness. A sense of unworthiness is unhealthy; it is sickness. At the very least, it is a psychological disorder. This view of self-esteem, surely, stands in diametrical opposition to the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That message begins with the truth that "there is none righteous, no not one. They are altogether become unprofitable, there is none that doeth good, no not one" (Rom. 3:10ff.). This is to say that humanistic psychology rejects the truth of the Fall, which includes original sin and total depravity.

A second representative of an unbiblical teaching of self-esteem is Robert Schuller. Although he is, as a matter of fact, an ordained preacher in the Reformed Church in America, he is, in reality, no preacher of the gospel at all, but a religious psychologist. And, therefore, his thinking represents religious psychology today. Schuller wholeheartedly agrees with humanist-secular psychology that every human being may and should esteem himself as fundamentally good, worthy, and capable. Schuller, therefore, explicitly denies that there is any such thing as original sin. Quoting from Schuller now, "Adam's sin should not be charged to his children." Schuller states that "the doctrine of sin is the reason why Christians have behaved so badly for the past two thousand years." If I had not read this line with my own eyes, and if I had not re-read this line a second time, I would not have believed that anyone in his right mind, much less a Reformed preacher of the gospel, could have written such atrocious garbage. But he wrote that "the doctrine of sin is the reason why Christians have behaved so badly for the past two thousand years." Of course, the man is a nominally Christian preacher. And, therefore, he must do something with the basic doctrines of Christianity. What he does is to re-define them. According to his re-definition, the truth of inherited sin becomes this, that everyone is born with a negative self-image, an inferiority complex that must be overcome. According to his re-definition of the cross of Jesus Christ, the truth about the cross is that the cross shows us how worthy every man is, for Jesus died for every man. And He would not have died for unworthy people; therefore, everyone is shown, by the cross of Jesus Christ, to be good and worthy. The cross, of course, was not Jesus' satisfaction for sin, but it was only intended to show you and me that if we have a dream, as Jesus had a dream, we must be willing to pay a certain cost in order to attain our dream. The good news, according to the gospel of Robert Schuller, the message that he hopes will become the heart of the new reformation, is this message: Every man and woman is good. You only have to realize this and you only have to exercise your inherent ability.

Schuller is crass. This good self-image, as you know if you have ever listened to him, leads directly to possibility-thinking. You can be all you want to be because you are good and capable. You can even be as rich and famous and successful as Robert Schuller.

Certainly, this stands in conflict with the first of the three basic elements of the gospel according to the Heidelberg Catechism, in the opening Lord's Day. The very first thing that is necessary for anyone to know, to enjoy the only comfort in life and death, is the knowledge of his misery as the guilt and total depravity of sin. So much for Schuller.

The third representative of popular thinking on self-esteem today is Anthony A. Hoekema. I choose him because he represents the intrusion of the unchristian view of self-esteem into conservative, Reformed circles. Anthony Hoekema was professor of theology at Calvin Theological Seminary. He did not have the reputation of being "liberal," but rather the reputation of being a more conservative theologian. In his book titled, The Christian Looks at Himself, Hoekema taught that the proper self-image for Christians is one in which we do not suppose that we any longer have an old man with which we must strive. We no longer have an old man of sin to contend with. A proper self-image, according to him, is one in which we no longer view ourselves as totally depraved, or even depraved. And a proper self-image is one in which we do not loathe and abhor ourselves. This, he says, was the destructive self-image that Reformed Christians were taught to have in the past. But this was a mistake. A Christian must look at himself differently from this. In proposing this new Reformed self-image, Hoekema denies that Romans 7:14ff. applies to a regenerated, converted Christian. Rather, he writes, "This is the experience of the unregenerated man." In Romans 7:14, the apostle says, "We know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.," It is an unregenerated man who is speaking there. The apostle goes on in verse 15: "that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I." In verse 18, the apostle writes, "To will is present with me," that is, the will to do the good and to please God, "but how to perform that which is good I find not." Then follows the familiar words of verse 19, "For the good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do." This, he says, is not the experience of the Christian. This is the experience of the unbeliever. And the apostle cries out in verse 24, "O wretched man that I am!" That is the unregenerated person speaking. And again, in verse 25, in answer to the question that this supposedly unregenerated person has raised, "Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" Paul writes, "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin." All this, says Hoekema, is the experience of the unregenerate sinner.

This is an error. This is a deadly serious, theological error. For Romans 7 now teaches that an unregenerated person is able to will the good. The unregenerated does have, after all then, a free will. This opens up the door wide to Arminianism. But this view is deadly serious in its error also practically. For, in fact, this view, adopted in the interests of a good self-image, exposes the Christian to the most dreadful threat of a bad self-image of all, namely, the danger that I will come to the conclusion that I am not a regenerated and saved person at all. For the fact is that every true Christian will have, and does have, in the depths of his soul, the experience that Paul expresses in Romans 7, "I will to do the good, but I do not perform it; and there is in me a mighty principle and power of opposition to the law of God." If, now, this is not the experience of a Christian, I am no Christian. On this view, the Christian will doubt his very salvation. And, surely, this is not a healthy self-image.

All three of these representatives of unChristian self-esteem err grievously against the gospel of Christ in these respects, at least. First, they all derive a positive self-image, or self-esteem, from creation. And, therefore, they conclude that every human being, unbeliever as well as believer, ought to have a positive self-image.

This comes out in the slogan that you may have heard. A little boy, usually a little black boy, says, "I am me. And I am good. 'Cause God don't make no junk!" Well, God didn't "make no junk," to be sure. But creation is not the whole story in the history of mankind. There is also a fall. And in the Fall, although man did not become junk, man became a depraved sinner. And that's worse than junk. These people ignore the Fall.

Second, they err against the gospel in this way, that, if they pay any attention to the cross of Jesus Christ at all, they explain the cross as indicating how worthy all men are. So worthy are all men, they say, that we deserve to be died for. But this is to destroy the grace of the cross. This turns the gospel of the cross upside down and stands the cross on its head. Christ did not die for men because they deserved it. Christ did not give Himself because we were good, but because we were unworthy, so unworthy that only the Son of God in human flesh could redeem us.

And, third, these representatives of an unChristian view of self-esteem have as their good news, their gospel to all men, "You are good. You only have to believe it and act on it." They preach self-esteem instead of repentance. They preach self instead of Christ. Our opposition to this kind of self-esteem is radical, This kind of self-esteem destroys the gospel. Such self-esteem is self-deification, the sin of the natural man. And the gospel demolishes this pride and self-deification.

PROPER CHRISTIAN SELF-ESTEEM

The alternative to this kind of self-esteem is not that we deny a proper self-esteem altogether. There is a proper, positive, Christian self-esteem. The gospel of Jesus Christ graces us, every one who believes the gospel, with a positive self-esteem that far outstrips the self-esteem of a Robert Schuller.

These are the aspects of a proper, positive, Christian self-esteem. First, as a believer, I may and must know myself to be chosen by God and, therefore, as precious to God. God has loved me from eternity. Second, as a believer, I may and must know myself as redeemed, not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of God's own Son in our flesh, and, therefore, as precious to the Lord Jesus Christ. Third, as a believer, I know myself as regenerated and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. I am, therefore, a new creature in Christ. I possess the life of the risen Jesus Christ Himself. I am the temple of God.

The image of God bas been restored in me. Nothing less than this belongs to the proper Christian self-image. Fourth, as a believer, I am justified by faith and, therefore, am accepted of God. I am not guilty; and I am not worthy of hell or of any condemnation. Fifth, as a believer, I have been adopted by God and, therefore, am a son of the God of heaven and earth and am heir of all things. I am no child of the devil. Sixth, as a believer, I am sanctified and, therefore, am actually good with the pure, spotless goodness of the Holy Spirit. And my walk, my life, as the apostle says so plainly in the first couple of chapters of I Peter, is an excellent, noble walk and life in the world. Seventh, as a believer, I am destined for glory, soul, but also body. A proper self-esteem extends to the body of a Christian as well as the soul. Besides that, as a believer, I know that God in His sovereignty has so arranged my life in all its circumstances that all that I am and everything that belongs to my place and circumstances has been determined in that love of God for me so that I need not be discontented about any aspect of my circumstances. Every believer must know or evaluate himself or herself this way. You may not deny these things. Believing the gospel, you must believe these things about yourself. And this is why we may and must love ourselves. When Jesus says that the second commandment of the law, like to the first, is this, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," clearly He implies that we do love and esteem ourselves.

This proper Christian self-esteem makes the self-esteem of a Rogers or a Schuller ridiculous in comparison. I reject the self-esteem of Robert Schuller because that does not exalt me nearly highly enough. That is miserably poor in comparison with the honor and the excellency that are the believer's in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But this proper self-esteem comes out of the gospel. This self-esteem, then, is not pride, but humble, thankful acceptance in faith of the goodness of God to us. This self-esteem is not natural, but that which is ours in Christ. This self-esteem is not a self-esteem that denies sin, but a self-esteem that is rooted in Christ's victory over sin and in Christ's covering of sin. Because this self-esteem comes out of the gospel, I prefer not to define proper Christian self-esteem as my own regard of myself as good and as my own affirmation of myself. Rather, I would define proper Christian self-esteem this way: Proper Christian self-esteem is God's regard of me as good and beloved. It is God's judgment of me in the gospel as forgiven and as adopted as His son. It is God's acceptance of me in mercy. And it is my thankful, humble reception of that verdict and acceptance and esteem of God in a true faith.

Is self-esteem proper for a Christian? Yes. And it is important. But it must be the self-esteem that the gospel gives. And the way to have this self-esteem is always to be believing the gospel.

This self-esteem, then, is proper only for the Christian. The topic that was given me puts it exactly correctly, "Is good self-esteem proper for Christians?" And it is proper for Christians only because of what Christians are by grace, and not by nature.

Proper self-esteem is important. The Bible gives us this self-esteem. The Bible calls us elect. The Bible assures us of our redemption. The Bible reminds us that we are children of God with an excellent walk in the midst of the ugliness and shamefulness of the world. The Bible wants us to know that we are different from the corrupt and God-denying world and that our walk is different from that dark walk. Besides, if one lacks this proper self-esteem, he or she will be swallowed up in doubt, in self-hatred, and in fear, so that his or her Christian life is crippled, if it is not hindered altogether. With this proper, positive self-esteem obtained from the gospel, the believer even has a proper "possibility-thinking." The apostle writes inPhilippians 4 (and this holds true for every Christian) "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me," referring, of course, to all of those things that belong to the Christian calling and life.

There can be an improper self-esteem among Christians in the church. Sometimes, for example, there are church members who despise and hate themselves for their sins, or for some particular sin in the past, or for some especially vile passion that is working within them. They despise and hate themselves for these sins as though these sins were not forgiven and as though the cross of Christ was not sufficient to blot out those sins. Then these poor, miserable people live without the peace and the comfort of the gospel. Or there may be members in the church who have a contempt for themselves because they are earthly failures - failures as human beings count failures. They are down on themselves because they are not smart enough, or because they are not rich enough, or because they are not handsome enough, or because they are not athletic enough. This is not true, Christian humility. This is not the self-abasement that is proper and healthy. Theirs is a definitely improper self-image.

This points out that the church must be very careful to teach a proper self-esteem. The church must preach sin; but it must also preach pardon and the overcoming of sin by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is not only the pulpit that can make serious mistakes here, with destructive consequences in the lives of certain members of the church. But also the saints themselves can be at fault here. God's people, we, the members of the congregation, must be careful not to inculcate upon other members of the church a destructive, improper self-image by our attitudes. We must not leave the impression with each other that what really counts, even in the Christian life, is earthly success. Nor may we show the attitude that some who have fallen into even a gross, public sin have to carry the stigma of that gross, public sin forever, even when they have repented and been forgiven. There is still, sometimes, the tendency to pin the scarlet letter on the Hester Prynnes in the fellowship of the church.

Parents must guard against leaving the impression with our children that what really matters with us is their intelligence, their looks, their popularity, their athletic prowess, and their earthly success. What we are teaching them then is something that is contradicted by the gospel we believe. We are teaching them that we accept them on the basis of their works. This is contrary to the gospel of justification and acceptance by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Then we are busy raising proud children who can perform these works, or despairing children who find themselves unable to accomplish these works. We must be clear in our own minds, and we must clearly show to our children, that what ultimately matters with us is that they are covenant children in very deed, adopted children of God who believe in Jesus Christ for salvation and who walk, imperfectly, but victoriously in obedience to the commandments of God.

Also when we discipline our children, we must be very careful to show them that our anger is against their sin or against them on account of their sin and not against their person as such. Then we do not say such things to them, even under extreme provocation, as, "You rotten, evil child, you." And when we are disciplining, we are also showing the way out from sin and shame, which is the way of repentance, so that immediately we receive them back again into our fellowship.

I only mention in passing, that it is also possible that husbands and wives, even in the church, rather than to build each other up, can live with each other wickedly so that, I will not say they destroy the other's self-esteem (you cannot do that to a child of God - God's word is victorious) nevertheless, they can tear at each other's self-esteem and damage it dreadfully.

THE CHRISTIAN EXPERIENCE OF SELF-ESTEEM

In this Christian, proper self-esteem, there is still place for the consciousness of sin and for the consciousness of unworthiness because of sin. Daily, as long as I live, although I am a born-again, converted believer, I must deeply and thoroughly know my misery as a sinner. I come short of God's glory in all my deeds, even the best of them. I have, still, a depraved nature. I have, still, a nature that is totally depraved. Romans 7, in fact, is describing the regenerated child of God; indeed, it is describing one of the holiest of the children of God. It is the description by himself of the apostle Paul and that, towards the end of his Christian life and ministry. Of him, it was true, he found it to be true by living experience, that he was carnal, sold under sin, that the good that he did will to do he did not perform, that there was in him two men, as it were, an old man that was opposed to the law of God and the new man that delighted in the law of God. As our Heidelberg Catechism says, "The holiest of the saints have only a small beginning of the new obedience" (Question 114).

Because I come short of the glory of God and because I still have a depraved nature, I abhor, loathe, and hate myself as I am by nature. This is what we confess with the Reformed "Form for the Administration of the Lord's Supper" every time we are about to celebrate the Lord's Supper. One of the requirements for a worthy celebration of the Supper is that I loathe and abhor myself on account of my sin. Because of my sin I cry out to my dying day, "O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me?" I can sing, without my tongue in my cheek, "Amazing Grace," which speaks of Christ's grace that saves a wretch like me. This belongs to my self-image. After all, this sinful nature is mine. These wicked deeds are my own. I am carnal, sold under sin as regards my corrupt nature.

This is a good self-image. Rogers does not think so. Schuller does not think so. Hoekema does not think so. But Christ thinks so. This is a very good aspect of the self-image of the Christian because it is humbling and because it is realistic. This is a healthy aspect of a Christian self-image. It is healthy because it causes me to despair of myself and to turn to Jesus Christ. This is a highly necessary aspect of the Christian self-image because in the end the greatest danger for us is not that we are going to think too little of ourselves. I ask you, who know the Bible thoroughly, "What is the great evil against which the Scriptures are warning us everywhere? Is it indeed that we tend to think too little of ourselves, or is it, on the contrary, that we are always inclined to think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think?" This surely is the great danger that the Scriptures see in the life of Christians. And against this great danger now, the consciousness of our own sinfulness guards us. And just exactly by this consciousness of our sinfulness that causes us to despair of ourselves, we are turned to Jesus Christ daily for our salvation. Daily, as long as I live, then, I deeply and thoroughly also know my salvation in Jesus Christ so that I am comforted in my misery and I am given the assurance of my high status as an adopted son of God in Jesus Christ.

Self-knowledge of sinfulness and self-esteem as a forgiven, sanctified, elect child of God go together in the Bible. Read the Scriptures from that point of view yourselves. And see whether it is not true that time and time again the strongest statement of self-abasement is linked closely with the most exultant shout of self-esteem in Christ. I offer one example. In II Corinthians 12:9, Paul says this, "I am not behind the chiefest of the apostles, though I am nothing." And there you have it. Self-abasement - I am nothing in myself. And yet, no false modesty, but the claim that he is not behind the chiefest of the apostles because that is what he is by the grace of Jesus Christ. And he knows it. He is not afraid to say it. And always this acceptance in faith of God's exaltation of us in Christ prevails. This is triumphant always over our sense of sinfulness. What follows Romans 7? Romans 8! Romans 8 with its assured confidence of the child of God, with its victorious life of the child of God walking in the Spirit.

This is the Christian life; and yet in this life the Christian does not concentrate on his own worth and dignity. This is not the main thing for the Christian. In fact, usually the child of God is living quite oblivious to his own dignity and to his own worth. For, first of all, if you are living the Christian life as you ought to live it, and if I am, we are always esteeming each other better than ourselves, as Paul writes in Philippians 2. And, second, the Christian who is living the Christian life as he should is always concentrating, not on his own goodness, not on his own worth, not on his own ability, not even the ability that he has by grace, but he is concentrating on the goodness and the worth and the ability of his God and of his Savior Jesus Christ. I freely confess that there is something about the emphasis on self-esteem to day, even in good Christian circles, that makes me apprehensive. No, the Christian does not doubt his worthiness in Christ. But neither does he spend much of his time asserting it. C.S. Lewis wrote this:

The real test of being in the presence of God is that you either forget about yourself altogether or you see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.

We live in the presence of God. There our attention and our energies are turned, not to self, but to God. The great concern of our lives is not self-esteem, but God-esteem. The sin that troubles us most is not that we think too little of ourselves, but that we fail to think highly enough about God.

Engelsma, David J.

Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)

Ordained: September 1963

Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008

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