My measure of a pastor is simple: what is their understanding, what is their level of concern for life, and what is their knowledge of God’s will. In talking to Pastor Charles Roberts, Pastor of the Ballston Center Presbyterian Church in the Village of Ballston, NY, I knew early on that all three attributes for a good pastor were met and exceeded in him and that it wasn’t just because I was interviewing him, either. Originally from South Carolina, Roberts was ordained in 1993 and has been pastor in Ballston for 18 years. I asked him questions about his personal calling as well as the role of the church in the community and the world.
Compass: What drew you to becoming a pastor and what drew you to the Presbyterian denomination?
Roberts: I actually entered the seminary at graduate school with the purpose of becoming a teacher, a seminary professor in a college or seminary. But, a number of things coalesced while I was in seminary, my junior and senior year, that led me to conclude my work should be, at least initially, in the church as a pastor. One of those things was just the cost of having to go forward and pursue a PhD. beyond the Masters level, and dealing with the reality of academic life, where you would likely be hired or not get hired. The other was that I realized I could be just as effective teaching in a church pastoral environment as I could in a college or seminary and my wife and I had some experiences which led me to believe God was preparing me for that kind of work instead of, for lack of a better word, a cloistered environment.
Compass: What does your church do for outreach?
Roberts: We have a number of things we do but one of the bigger and more widely known is, twice a year we give away clothing. We have a clothing giveaway where members of our congregation donate clothing to be given away. We wind up with quite a bit of clothing so each year at fall and spring we designate a Saturday from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and we advertise fairly heavily in the community, and we just let people know that if they need clothes they are welcome to come and get them. We don’t charge anything and our purpose is to not only help people who need clothes and to get people into the church and meet them and talk to them. That’s one thing we do. We also have a boys program, similar to the Boy Scouts but with a decidedly christian theme to it. It operates during the school year. We are also in the process of launching a Mother’s Pre-Schoolers program, MOPS for short, and also a grief-recovery program. So this is some of the things that we do.
Compass: Being from the South originally, did you notice any differences in the way denominations are run there versus up North?
Roberts: I suppose in some ways, but not so significant that I could point to anything that would be extremely notable. One of the things that has characterized our denominational churches throughout it’s history, in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, it’s tended to be families, who are all related, smaller, rural congregations. The church that I pastor, Ballston Center, was very much like that, although it was not historically a part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, it did not become a part of the denomination until the mid-1970’s. But, it very much had that profile: a rural area and a lot of the families have been going there for many generations. So, there are some interesting similarities and some cultural differences, just like you would say there are differences in going to a high school football game in South Carolina and one here in upstate New York. There may be some differences but there would probably be more far more similarities.
Compass: What can our society do to end our culture of dependence, particularly regarding government handouts?
Roberts: I’ll answer your question, but I feel like I need to clarify. My answer is based on my understanding as an individual, as somebody who has studied the Bible and it’s teachings, not so much as a representative of my denomination. I know plenty of other clergy in my denomination who would agree with me, some who wouldn’t. So, you’re asking me because I don’t speak for anybody but myself.
I believe the scriptures, as a foundation for culture and society make it very clear that the primary institution according to God’s standard is the family, family is the first government, the first church, it’s the first school a child encounters. So, as society fans out from the family it can establish a variety of types of institutions, but, according to scripture, as I understand it, there really is no place for what we see as government being involved in these types of activities. And here is the reason: in order for government to hand out anything, it has to get something to hand out. And the only means government has for getting something to hand out, whether it be money or aid, is to take it from citizens by means of taxation. If I showed up at your house and said “I know of a friend of mine and he needs some money, would you like to help me?” and you said “I’d like to but I can’t afford to do it right now,” and I turned around and said “You know what? If you don’t help me I’m going to confiscate your property,” that would be considered immoral if not illegal, but when the government does it it’s considered to be okay. So, my answer to your question is that for people who are in need of help, either financially or materially, the two main places that they should seek that help is either the church or the family, not government. Government has no moral empowerment, as I understand scripture, to be involved in that kind of activity. And frankly, the churches and the families would be better equipped to do that sort of thing, had they not imbibed the culture of the government taking more and more of the money away from it’s citizens, by means of taxation, so there is less money in the church to do that, even though the churches aren’t taxed but the members are.
Compass: You believe in tithes and offerings?
Roberts: Yes. In our church we believe in tithing, which is donating ten percent of income, but not only that but your talents, your resources. We don’t enforce that…but we make it clear that we are under obedience to God to give in that way, and despite all the financial difficulties through the years our church has done reasonably well just depending on the people being obedient to God.
Compass: On Friday June 20th, 2014, Presbyterian Church USA voted to divest a portion of it’s investments in companies providing goods to Israel in the occupied territories. Do you feel this was an appropriate move for them or can you comment?
Roberts: Again, I want to clarify that I am answering specifically just for myself. I have a number of close friends in the clergy in PCUSA. I’ve also spent two weeks in Israel on a pilgrimage tour, along with other clergy. I have seen, with my own eyes, the things that go on there, and I think they were absolutely right in what they did. It’s a good decision and I applaud it. I think one of the great tragedies of evangelical Christians is their blind and unquestioning support of the State of Israel as a political entity, which has contributed to the misery of thousands and thousands of Christians in the Holy Land. And if people go there and talk to the Christians, many whose [families] have been there for centuries, they are mostly Arabic speaking people, they’re all Arabs by race, really the only Christians in the Holy Land are people of Palestinian background. They’re Catholic, they’re Greek Orthodox…and they have suffered tremendously because of the actions of the Israeli state.
Compass: Can the full potential of Christ’s edict to “turn the other cheek” ever be fully realized?
Roberts: I think insofar as that statement that is understood in that context, Jesus is talking about interpersonal relations. People dealing with each other on a one on one basis, he’s not talking about the larger principles of political power and those kind of things. It is also not a statement of you should never under any circumstances defend yourself or under any circumstances take an aggressive position. Obviously, when Jesus said that, he said that as a Galilean Jew, who was fully conversant with the teachings of God’s law and God’s law provides for self defense. So yes, I feel like the turning of the cheek can be fully realized in interpersonal relations as far as people make that teaching a priority and seek to practice it.
Compass: How much influence does any church have in either it’s immediate surroundings or nation or world wide?
Roberts: I think it depends on the church. Obviously, the Roman Catholic Church, which is the largest Christian denomination in the world can have a greater influence than a small denomination like mine. And obviously the Roman Catholic Church has had a tremendous impact in the world. If I remember correctly, when the Soviet Union collapsed it was later understood that Pope John Paul 2 had a lot of influence on creating a climate where the Soviet Union had to capitulate to certain things, or something like that. He was behind the scenes working…there was a moral influence there at least. In terms of individual congregations, then yeah, if the congregation takes it seriously to be involved and have an impact, whether it be feeding the hungry in the area or, say, some morally objectionable place of business, a crack house or something, they could be involved in [stopping it]. Here again, in our area one of the biggest churches is the Northway Church. Because of their size and the popularity of their pastor they could wield a little more influence than a much smaller church that is more isolated or not as well known.
Compass: The last two questions are: What lesson in the Bible hits you the hardest and can you give me a favorite verse and tell me why it is?
Roberts: I think the passage or part of the Bible that hits me hardest is the parable of the prodigal son. Simply because it shows the tremendous mercy and forgiveness of God as demonstrated in the son’s father, in a variety of ways that are often overlooked or unknown by people who are quite familiar with the story. As far as a favorite passage, I don’t have one in particular. If I was forced to say it would be Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:18. That’s the whole ball of wax.
Compass: Thank you, Pastor.