Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Today in the Mission Yearbook

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s advocacy director talks up religious freedom during Synod School’s initial convocation


Follow your conscience, says the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, which is always subject to the Spirit of God

September 25, 2023

The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, the PC(USA)’s advocacy director, speaks Monday to those attending the 69th Synod School. (Photo by Mike Ferguson)

As the keynoter for the 69th Annual Synod School at Buena Vista University, it was the job of the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins to remind the more than 500 people gathered what Presbyterians believe.

Hawkins, advocacy director for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in both the Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, also explored what we don’t believe, what are the symbols of our faith, what we value and what we stand for.

Synod School, the last of its kind in the denomination, is put on each year by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies. It’s described as “a learning and personal enrichment experience for people of all ages.” The theme this year is “Our Family Story,” and those gathered during the keynote had fun singing along with one of the most beloved Presbyterians of all time, Fred Rogers, who via videotape led attendees singing “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and “It’s Such a Good Feeling.” The Rev. Dr. Matt Sauer, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, donned a red zip-up cardigan to help pump up the crowd.

Here’s the question Sauer invited Synod School attendees to ponder: How will you be a neighbor today in the Synod School story?

God alone is Lord of the conscience

Hawkins said among the many things Presbyterians believe is that God alone is Lord of the conscience. “We tell commissioners at General Assembly to follow your conscience, which is subject to the Spirit of God,” he said.

He touched on the implications of recent rulings on religious freedom by the U.S. Supreme Court, including Burwell v. Hobby Lobby StoresMasterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Bostock v. Clayton County, all of which “should be a great concern to each one of us as people of faith,” Hawkins said.

The General Assembly has approved many policies on religious freedom, Hawkins noted, most recently “Religious Freedom Without Discrimination” by the 223rd General Assembly in 2018.  “Not even the Church can tell me how to feel about certain issues,” said Hawkins, who pastored churches in Virginia and North Carolina before joining the PC(USA)’s national staff. “We don’t have unlimited religious freedom. We believe [our religious freedom] should not impinge on others.”

As we follow God, “it has to be loving and compassionate and in line with Jesus’ teachings,” Hawkins said. Among those is John’s account of the scribes and Pharisees bringing a woman to Jesus who had been caught in adultery. “Women, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” Jesus asks her once the accusers drop their stones and shuffle off. She tells him, “No one, sir.” Jesus tells her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

“Church, that’s where we are. It doesn’t matter how much we think we are right,” Hawkins said. “We have to be careful, because we are all imperfect. We are all worthy of God’s punishment. When we condemn for what we consider their lawlessness, we cannot ignore our own.”

“God has a plan, and it’s oftentimes to our objection,” he said. “God is doing a new thing today. Thanks be to God, we are a people willing to say that even in areas of disagreement, I will do my best to follow God.”

While we have religious freedom in this country, “it’s not the freedom to say, ‘You are wrong and sinful,’” Hawkins said. “It doesn’t matter if I have purple hair or no hair. It doesn’t matter who I love. The church has to be an open door so we can love people and show them God loves us.”

“God will never go on the journey without us,” Hawkins told the more than 500 people attending Synod School, “because God has called us to go on this journey.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Rev. Jimmie Hawkins talks up religious freedom at Synod School

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
John McCall, Mission co-worker serving in Taiwan, World Mission, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Doris McCray, Director, Employer Services, Board of Pensions

Let us pray

God of all generations, open us to your call to love you and our neighbor no matter what our age, no matter what our talent, no matter what else we may have to do. May those who serve and those who are served feel like partners in your church, which hopes for the shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God. Amen.