Wishing the ECO Well: Another Turning Point in Presbyterian Church History

While you were winding down for the weekend, a group of Presbyterians were winding up in Orlando.  This past weekend, a new Presbyterian denomination was formed.  From January 18-20 approximately 2,100 Presbyterians gathered at the Fellowship of Presbyterians Covenanting Conference.  Over 500 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations were represented (of the 10,600  congregations in that denomination).  Most of those in the room covenanted to form a “new reformed body” and  join the new denomination called The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO for short).   This is not to say that all who attended immediately joined.  While many were resolved to leave, some are still deciding, and some will stay within the PC (USA) and maintain a joint affiliation.

The distinctive of the ECO will be a commitment to growing and planting flourishing churches and nurturing leaders for gospel ministry.  They will have a flatter polity system than the PC (USA) to promote this mission.

The following were listed in materials distributed as a brief summary of the values of the ECO:
1          Jesus-shaped identity (in which the essential question has to do with whether one is actually a disciple of Jesus).
2        Biblical integrity (in which the essential issue is whether the unique and absolutely authoritative Scriptures actually define our identity).
3          Thoughtful theology (in which Reformed theological education is treasured).
4     Accountable community (in which churches are communities where guidance is actually a corporate spiritual experience).
5       Egalitarian Ministry (in which the spiritual gift of both genders and all racial and ethnic groups are “unleashed”).
6     Missional Centrality (in which the church “lives out” the whole of the Great Commission, “including evangelism, spiritual formation, compassion and redemptive justice”).
7         Center-focused spirituality (in which the church calls people to the core of what it means to follow Jesus and “does not fixate on the boundaries”).
8          Kingdom vitality (by which the church actively reproduces missional communities).

Why now?
Not wanting to emphasize the negative, opening plenary speaker John Ortberg said that “the problem is not that our denomination is dying, but that people are going to hell.”  So he called the crowd to put more emphasis on what they are moving “to” than what they are moving “from.”   The leaders tried to speak well of the PC(USA) in its deliberations.  But under the surface everyone knew that profound issues were tearing the denomination apart and that the liberalizing PC(USA )was moving in a direction that made it impossible for many to stay. The recent move in the PC(USA) to change ordination standards allowing the ordaining of gay pastors, deacons and elders was the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.”  Beyond this, ECO leaders want to reaffirm the truthfulness of the Bible and belief in Christ as the only way of salvation.

Talking to the average attendee, you could hear the longing for simple Christian orthodoxy. They were not always sure of the reformed part, but they longed for a denomination that reaffirmed Christian basics.   Many pastors I spoke with said that the PC(USA) has been  too consumed with internal conflict and bureaucracy to nurture healthy congregations.  They said they are tired of fighting battles which distract them from the ministry and mission of the church.

Some admitted that they believe their old domination is slowly dying.  Though still the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States, the PC(USA) lost more than 500,000 members between 1998 and 2009).

Another turning point in Presbyterian history
Allow me to shed some historical light on yet another turning point in Presbyterian history. First, we can now add another P to the famous “split P’s of American Presbyterianism.”   We have the PCUSA, the PCA, the EPC, the OPC, the ARP, and now we have ECO, (but in truth it is ECOP!).   My Egyptian Presbyterian friend said, “my job just got harder, the more you guys split, the more meetings I have to attend when I come to America.”  Another conference goer said to me, “they’ve adopted a curiously unmissional name with an extremely trendy acronym.”

Name aside, the formation of ECO is yet another indication that Machen was right long ago.  There seemed to be a strange unawareness at the Fellowship gathering of how this fits into the wider picture of Presbyterian history.

Back in 1923, J. Gresham Machen, Professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary wrote his famous book Christianity and Liberalism. Machen wrote as an orthodox Christian and a confessional Presbyterian. Machen’s classic defense of Biblical Christianity established the importance of Scriptural doctrine and contrasts the teachings of liberalism and orthodoxy on– God, man, the Bible, Christ, salvation and the church.  He criticized those who embraced tolerance more than truth, and Jesus as example more than his redeeming work.  He contrasted the popular non-doctrinal, non-supernatural religion with historic Christianity.

That same year, the Auburn Affirmation came out, a document signed by 1274 of the denomination’s leaders. Appearing at the height of the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, the affirmation denied the Bible’s inerrancy.  It declared that five  fundamental doctrines, previously declared by the General Assembly to be “necessary and essential” were now non-essentials.  They were “theories” that should not be used as tests of ordination.  Those five doctrines included—the inerrancy of the Bible (in the originals), the virgin birth of Christ, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, and the historical reality of Christ’s miracles.   The Auburn Affirmation was affirmed by the General Assembly in 1926.  Many believe it was a decisive moment in the mainline denomination that accelerated a decline in membership and a lethal slide away from orthodox Christianity.

Machen knew what was brewing in this controversy, and so became a catalytic leader for starting a new seminary (Westminster Theological Seminary founded in 1929) and a new denomination (the Orthodox Presbyterian church founded in 1936).

Machen understood the consequences of abandoning the truthfulness and supreme authority of the Bible.  When you downgrade the Bible, the door is open to go anywhere.  Churches drift and become deformed.  Unless they become reformed, they fade away.

The story of American Presbyterianism since that time is one of the groups in the mainline gradually coming to the realization that Machen was right.  The OPC did in 1936.  The PCA did in 1973.  The EPC did in 1980.  And now the ECO follows the same path.  They too have had enough.

Before those of us who are not in the ECO get too picky about this feature or that feature of this emerging denomination, we all need to consider the state of American Presbyterianism.

Statistically, all is not well. As John R. Muether and D.G. Hart point out in Turning Points in American Presbyterian History, statistically the history of American Presbyterianism is a narrative of decline (http://www.opc.org/nh.html?article_id=326). In 1776, Presbyterians were roughly 25% of the American population.  Now, some 236 years later, Presbyterians make up less than 2% of the American population.

More than ever, all franchises of Presbyterians need to get their house in order, reevaluate the health of their churches and the effectiveness of their denominational machinery.  In a new post Christian climate, we need to be both missional and confessional.  We need to engage in evangelization, church planting, church revitalization as never before.  And…..we need to make sure we are teaching and guiding our own covenant children so that we do not lose them on the way.

Right now, the ECO is in the early, messy stage of being born.  But when you realize the context of where we are as a church, you might want to pause, and give thanks for a new group that says it desires to faithfully proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, and take evangelism, theology, discipleship, church planting,  and missional living seriously.

The ECO is not for everyone, but watching those pastors stand with courage and covenant together, I can only wish them well.

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35 Responses to Wishing the ECO Well: Another Turning Point in Presbyterian Church History

  1. All I can say is AMEN :)

    • Thanks Don. Good to discover you and your work. You may remember we spent some time together in DC around 1976 or 1978. I think we met through the fellowship. Below is my take on our recent GA.

      By The Skin Of Our Teeth
      A Review of the Actions and Ethos of the 220th General Assembly – Presbyterian Church USA
      Pittsburgh, PA  – June 30-July 7, 2012
      Dr. Edwin G. Hurley
      ​I want to say at the outset that, in the words of Marj Carpenter, “I am sinfully proud to be a Presbyterian.  And I have been and still am, sinfully proud to be a Presbyterian.”  Our Church has problems and many divergent opinions.  So what else is new?  But we still have the best news in all the world to share, the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Our Church, like many, is giving witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a difficult time and place, early 21st century North America.   We are seeing the end of the greatest generation, the aging of baby boomers, like yours truly, the coming to age of a new generation who encode information differently, in many ways think of reality differently and understand technology in ways that makes many of us dizzy.  In this time Congregations are struggling.  Memberships are in places declining.  But God is at work in the lives of real people, here at South Highland, and through the Presbyterian Church USA.  I saw God at work among us recently at our General Assembly in Pittsburgh, and I believe God is still at work among us, often in spite of ourselves.  
      Kenneth Clark, Art Historian, Author and Narrator of the famed PBS series Civilization, in describing the preservation of classical ideas in the midst of the Dark Ages, writes, “In so far as we are the heirs of Greece and Rome, we got through by the skin of our teeth.”  Having recently attended the now every two years biannual General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church meeting June 30 to July 7 in Pittsburgh, I want to say that is true of our great church. “We got through by the skin of our teeth.”  
      By our official actions we maintained our official standards of Orthodoxy.  Although we are being asked to consider again a new confession, the Belhar Confession from South Africa that was rejected by the Presbyteries following the last General Assembly, and to clean up the translation from the German in the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, ostensibly and justifiably to improve the translation and put us in conformity with several other Reformed Churches who use this Catechism, and actually to remove reference to “sodomy” from the text under the argument that it was not there in the original German.  Yet this General Assembly did not put into play any more major changes in our standards of belief and practice, at this time.   But it was by the skin of our teeth that we got through in Pittsburgh.”  
      Parenthetically I lift up the recent work of Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court John Roberts, a good Roman Catholic, as a model for us and a sign of hope for Presbyterians.  In my view, his rulings bringing a strong majority on the Supreme’ Court’s recent Immigration Ruling and a simple one vote majority on the Affordable Health Care Bill, is a sign of hope. If a thoughtful conservative judge can step across the aisle in certain places and in limited ways, as he did in bringing a Solomonic wisdom to play in these two areas, I think there is hope for decisions of Presbyterians!  
      I want to say too, that while I certainly have my viewpoints, and for purposes of location I consider myself a moderate conservative, and a part of the Evangelical Wing of the Presbyterian Church USA, I am glad to be a part of a Church where many people do not look like nor think like me.  I based my doctoral dissertation on the thesis that each Presbyterian congregation is to be fully catholic, fully reformed, fully evangelical, part of the whole Church.  I actually think we do this pretty well here at South Highland.   I need the witness of others who look differently and see things differently from me.  I need others to help me appreciate the breadth of Christ’s Body, in order for us to not be a schismatic separatist partial cult, but to live fully into what we affirm in the most ancient and universal of our Creeds, the Nicene Creed’s terms of us as believing in “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”  I need the witness of those who see things differently from me, even as together we aim unapologetically at Christ as our Center, the One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
      Since the Protestant Reformation in 16th Century Europe, when the Christian Church under Medieval Roman Catholic papacy was in serious disrepair and need of reorganization and renewal, we Protestants have been quick to be known as those who protest.  “Protestare.”  That has been our identity card.  But today the world cries out for an authentic expression of Christianity that loving and gracious and uniting.  The Assembly’s action calling for launching 1001 new worshipping communities within 10 years is, if anything, the one action I think virtually everyone was unanimously behind.  New communities that may look quite different from South Highland, may worship in a bar or a restaurant, may have a motor cycle enthusiasts small group.  But all will be finding fresh ways to sound forth the Good News of Jesus.  What we are as Presbyterians together is greater than what we are separately.  
      That said, the Presbyterian Church is seriously fractured and polarized on the same sort of issues that divide American society as a whole.  There’s the far right and the far left.  But most people live at neither pole but move back and forth somewhere in between.  Yet these extremes seem to be what define us and divide us. Nevertheless, in spite of what divides, I believe the Spirit of the Living God is at work, and in Pittsburgh blew through and changed people.  I believe the Church, listened to the many voices and viewpoints presented at Pittsburgh, and in a rather remarkable way, that I can only say is the work of the Holy Spirit which was constantly prayed for and sought, stepped back from the brink.  Perhaps the mainline middle, the often quiet quiet center, where most Presbyterians live, will rise up.  
      By a 2 vote margin the Assembly voted, in agreement with other Mainline Denominations, the United Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, not to pass a controversial action mandating divestment of stock in 3 US companies held by the Presbyterian Foundation and Pension Fund portfolios, Caterpillar, Hewett Packer, and Motorola, for allegedly doing business with Israel,  allegedly selling them materials used for non-peaceful purposes against the Palestinians, as the denominational MRTI agency and the Middle East Committee recommended.  Instead, by the two votes margin, and then the follow-up vote, passing by a large margin, the Assembly voted to make positive investments in companies located in the Palestinian Territories that will strengthen the livelihood of the Palestinians.  
      Then, most remarkably, after a Committee Recommendation asking the church to change the definition of Christian Marriage by amending all references in the Book of Order from terminology speaking of a man and a woman to language speaking of two people, after the defeat of two minority recommendations that would have in one case strengthened the present standards, and in a second case maintained the present standards while calling for a two year period of study across the church at the grass roots level, after both of these were soundly defeated, and after on the main motion to make these changes, the Theological Students voted by an 80% margin and the Youth Advisory Delegates voted by a 75% margin to do so, and then it seemed a done deal, and as I watched I prognosticated on whether this change would be by a 60-40% or a 70-30% margin.  
      But the Assembly voted 338 to 308 not to change the present definition of Marriage, a 30 vote margin, reflecting a 52-48% majority.  Later the Assembly defeated other amendments which, while not changing the official language, would have given wink and nod permission for Pastors serving in states which permit same-sex civil marriage to perform same-sex religious marriages. The Church said No to all of that.   All of it was turned back, while the church will be encouraged to undergo a period of studies on these issues over the next two years.  
      ​The votes on both marriage definition and divestment were only by a few votes.  We are a church that is sharply divided on some key matters.  But, as I have told a few people, somewhat, but only somewhat, tongue-in-cheek, we stepped up to the edge of the cliff and decided not to jump – yet!  
      Some have said we are moving inexorably toward a change, it is coming, it cannot be stopped, referring to changes in the definition of Christian marriage from being between one man and one woman to between two people.  And no doubt culture has changed.  To some degree the church has changed, at least in particular locations and congregations.  Certainly one thing that has changed is we in general do not trust big institutions, be they government, corporations, church bureaucracies.  Church is more and more local.  The Congregation is at the center. Right here is where the action is.  Right here is where the Church is prepared, taught, fed, equipped, and sent out for Mission.  We cannot simply say the bad guys are those liberals or those conservatives over there.  The bad guys are us and the sin that festers in each one of us.  
      And the degree to which the Church reflects the culture, as contrasted to points the way for the culture, the degree to which, to paraphrase the words of Martin Luther King in his famous Letter From A Birmingham Jail, the Church declines to become the tail lights for culture and instead becomes the head lights to point the way for culture, in a period of rapid cultural dis-establishment, this is the tough new challenge before us.  A hard new place to be reality for Presbyterians, who have always been such key movers and shakers, makers and shapers of culture.  Of course, people on both sides of contentious issues claim that ours is the headlight way.  The other side is the tail lights.   How we move forward from here will be key.  
      ​Many are wondering, does the PCUSA have a future as One Church?   I believe we do.  Of course the fact is, as Martin Luther said,  “The story of the church is the story of many resurrections.”  The whole account of the Bible is about God showing his people a way where there was no way; Abraham in a pagan society, Moses and the Israelites backed up against the Red Sea, Jesus Crucified and his body sealed in a tomb, the early Church spreading miraculously across the Mediterranean region, all of it a story of impossible possibilities.  In the words of famed micro biologist Rene’ Dubos, “Trend is not destiny.”  Things in many ways look bleak for the Presbyterian Church USA.   And for Christianity in general in North America. But trend is not destiny because God is alive and God is at work and God is sovereign and God will have his way.  In the words of Isaiah, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
      I attended three days of the deliberations of the General Assembly, and was able after leaving Wednesday, like many of you, to watch the plenary general sessions via live streaming on the Web.  The marvels of technology are transforming the way we live our lives and conduct our business. Now by way instantaneous means we instantly project deliberations round the world that used to be heard only by those present in the hall, and then later reported in summaries like this one weeks later.  Now we can hear the actual proceedings and make our own observations in real time.  It makes for a certain more transparent democratization of the process, a good thing for our Church that was founded on democratic principles of representation of the people.  So again, I have hope.
      ​Let me first of all review with you, what is General Assembly?  It is the highest broadest Court, or as it is now called Council, of the Presbyterian Church USA. Although we have declined dramatically, from almost 4 million members at the time of Reunion in 1983 to 1.9 million today, we are still the largest body of Presbyterians in the Unites States.  Our General Assembly is made up of equal numbers of Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders, as we ministers of Word and Sacrament are now officially once again called.  This sense of parity, representation by both members of congregations and pastors in equal number is a key aspect of Presbyterian Polity coming from our origins in Geneva in the system of Church Government devised by John Calvin, one that was radical for its day when the medieval Catholic Church was extremely hierarchical with its up and down system of priests and bishops and the head bishop in Rome, the Pope who had the final say.  
      Our General Assembly now meets every other year to act on issues before the Church.  Most issues must percolate up from the local congregations through Overtures, passed by local congregational Sessions, then also by the regional Presbyteries, although there is certainly a lot of networking that goes on, now facilitated by the internet, among those who wish to further particular changes.  
      ​The model for overseeing councils of the Church making decisions on matters upon which various churches disagree goes back to the Book of Acts, where in Chapter 15 a great Council was convened in Jerusalem in the earliest years of the Church.  The issue was over the way native Jews and upstart Gentiles related to the Gospel.  The Jews said followers of Christ must follow fully the Law of the Old or First Covenant.  Of particular and sensitive concern was the Law of male circumcision, always a hallmark, a painful hallmark, of Jews.  The Gentiles who had been converted to Christianity without benefit of Judaism as their tutor were unaccustomed to this intricate Law and certainly were not eager in their adulthood to undergo the ritual.    As Acts tells us,
      “The apostles and the elders met together to consider the matter.  After there was much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.  And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.  Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?  On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
      ​The decision of the Jerusalem Council was a compromise, the first of many across the years of the Christian Church.  It was decided the Gentiles did not have to follow all the jots and tittles of Jewish Law, but only a four-fold core of Laws.   The message that was taken around in a letter to the congregations said,
      “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials:  that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.  If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.  Farewell.”
      ​The Westminister Confession of 1647, upon which the core of our system of Presbyterian belief and government is built, states in Chapter 33, “Of Synods and Councils”
      “For the better government and further edification of the Church, there ought to be such assemblies as are commonly called synods or councils; and it belongeth to the overseers and other rulers of the particular churches, by virtue of their office, and the power which Christ hath given them for edification, and not for destruction, to appoint such assemblies; and to convene together in them, as often as they shall judge it expedient for the good of the Church.”  
      “It belongeth to synods and  councils, ministerially, to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his Church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the Word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission, not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word.”
      And then this, take heart in this insight of the Westminster Divines,
      “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice, but to be used as a help in both.”
      ​In this age of independent , unconnected, stand-alone churches and independent minds, where people are sharply polarized on issues, it is difficult for collective bodies to converge on just what all can agree on.  Actually there are more Independent Protestants in the United States today than there are Mainline Protestants.  Our place in the culture is definitely changing.  To go back to the Supreme Court again – the fact that there is not a single Mainline Protestant justice on the United States Supreme Court is a significant cultural indicator.   Our impact on our society has diminished.  
      Now some think the way to turn things around is to keep making accomodations, minimize the differences between church and culture, reflect the culture more and more, lower the divide.  Minimize the differences.  Actually statistically this is not playing out in growing churches.  The churches that are growing are clearly and distinctly Christian and strong in their relationships with God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, and in their relationships with one another.  South Highland is committed to being such a Congregation.
      This year the Assembly acted in one way or another on over 800 pieces of business.  In many cases similar overtures coming from Presbyteries are bundled together and sent to particular Committees which exist to handle the business presented to them.  Some committees had little of substance before them, such the one on which Commissioner Cody Watson served.  He was placed on the Ecumenical Relations Committee.  He told me it was a pretty light agenda.  Others like the Committee on Middle East Relations and Committee on Marriage were overloaded with emotion and actions.  
      Let me first give you a quick thumb nail summary of the over 800 actions to which the 688 General Assembly Commissioners responded,
      ​First, Rev. Grady Parsons, the Stated Clerk, was unanimously re-elected for a second four year term.  Rev. Dr. Neil Presa, a 35 year old native of Guam, graduate of Princeton Seminary and pastor of Middlesex NJ Presbyterian Church was elected Moderator on the 4th ballot.  He said in a luncheon address just before the election that the General Assembly “is a time to have a family gathering, a time for discussion, gathering at the table, sharing our common story.”   Unity, gathering parts together were common themes in his election and his leadership style.  He ran a good meeting. He was fair and open in his decisions from the chair.  He strikes me as a capable young bridge builder.  By contrast one of the other 3 candidates who did not win, Rev. Susan Davis Krummel, a presbytery executive said, that it is time for the PCUSA to decide which part of the body of Christ we want to be.  “Right now we resemble the appendix.  It is a part that was once useful but now is only noticed if it causes pain and nausea,”  she said.  I feel good about her not becoming our Moderator.  
      ​Second, one further side show that again came in relation to the hot button same sex marriage issue arose when it was revealed by media that the person Moderator Presa selected as his Vice-Moderator, the Rev. Tara McCabe, an associate pastor at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C., had participated in and, against church law, signed a marriage license within the District of Columbia, where same sex marriage is legal.  After several days of criticism of her for accepting this leadership position while violated the Constitution, she resigned.  A Colorado pastor, Tom Trinidad replaced her, and did a superb job as Vice-Moderator.
      ​Third, the Church declined to divest from Caterpillar, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard, and instead chose to make positive investments in the Palestinian Territories.  Coalitions of church leaders that transcended the usual liberal-conservative divide, the virtually unison voice of the American Jewish Community, well-placed full page ads in USA Today, a key July 4th editorial piece in the Pittsburgh Gazette by former Moderator and Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago and editor of “The Christian Century” John Buchanan, entitled “Investment Not Divestment – By Making Palestinians Prosperous is A Surer Path To Peace Than Hobbling Israel”, all coalesced to bring a two vote majority overturning the recommendation for divestment.  One more vote for divestment would have won the day.  Skin of our teeth!
      ​Fourth, as noted, changes in the definition of marriage were rejected, as I said, by a surprising 30 vote majority, after what seemed would be a done deal.  The advisory votes of Youth and Seminary Students does tell you attitudes are changing in the society toward homosexuality.  Perhaps especially significant was the report from Hunter Farrell, Director of World Mission for the PCUSA, who has preached here, that their quiet conversations with world wide mission partner churches indicated that a large number of them, perhaps half, would immediately rebuke the PCUSA for any change in the definition of marriage and many of them would break all relations and ties with us.  Talk about the third world instructing the Western World!  Skin of our teeth!
      Certainly we should rejoice that ostracism and prejudice against homosexuals no longer has cultural acceptance. South Highland strives to and is committed to welcome all people in the name of Jesus Christ.   I personally think we are wise to support same sex civil unions and allow people to give their insurance benefits to whomever they desire.   That is a matter of civil justice. But changing the universally ascribed biblical definition of marriage from God’ created intention is something the Church cannot do.  
      The core issue in all this is the nature of biblical authority and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Will we continue to be a Church that takes Scripture seriously?   A Church that is not only guided by but under the authority of Scripture?  As our ordination vows require of all officers, “Will you fulfill your ministry in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and be continually guided by our confessions?”  This time, at least, commissioners recognized we will.  Now come two years of study, and I say let’s be about it and recover what the Bible and the Christian Tradition through the centuries says about the nature of marriage.  
      ​Fifth, Mid-Councils, a special committee assigned to study the creation of non-geographic-presbyteries was rejected by the Assembly, in essence voting to maintain current bureaucratic structures.  It was hoped by the Mid-Council’s recommendation that such non-geographic presbyteries might offer a way for a church who found itself in a Presbytery that was hostile to their core beliefs to remain within the PCUSA family.  
      ​Sixth, changes to Special Offerings like Joy Gift and  One Great Hour of Sharing were rejected.  Proposed changes were an attempt, so it has been argued, to pull in more funds for struggling efforts where funding is decreasing.  Instead the traditional purposes of these special offerings was maintained.  
      ​Seventh, the Assembly declined to change the constitutional language that church property is “held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit” of the denomination.  Changes here were sought to lighten the burden of those congregations that may choose to leave the PCUSA with their property.  I should say that in our Presbytery, Sheppards and Lapsley, where SHPC has good cordial relations, we have basically adopted a gracious separation approach toward those few churches who have felt the need to leave the PCUSA for other bodies.  
      ​And let me take just a moment to say that our Session and I personally, do not envision the possibility of leaving the parent denomination an option we feel led to pursue.  Yes there are many things wrong with the church.   But God is still at work.  And to further divide and fragment does not seem a wise or appropriate course for this congregation at this time.  
      Rather let’s be about helping this struggling mainline Protestant denomination re-connect with the worldwide one holy catholic and apostolic church.  Let’s listen to the voice of our Mission Partners round the world.  If we can hear them and the voice of the vast majority of world Christians, including the unified voice of Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians hwo make up the vast majority of worldwide Christians, then maybe we can turn the battleship ever so slightly and continue in good, effective, faithful ministry.  And most of all, we here, South Highland, can continue the biblically faithful, confessional authentic Christian Witness God has called us to for 124 years so far as we reach out to a hurting and broken community and world with the glorious Good News of God’s Saving Grace, our future is bright.  
      ​I said as we began I am filled with hope, mostly because of the faithfulness of our God.  But I am also hopeful because of the quality of the young leaders that are emerging, such as our new Moderator, Neal Presa.  Such as young local leaders familiar to us, Jim Truesdell, Doug and Rachel Barr, April Harrell, Catherine Bonner and Drew Bonner.  
      ​General Assembly has many side bar breakfast and dinners events.  At one for the entire Assembly, Brian McLaren, well known author, theologian, proponent of what he calls “a generous orthodoxy”, was speaker at the Monday General Assembly Breakfast.  He used the image of ascent and descent, saying,
      “All true change involves a descent where things fall apart.  It seems all hope is lost.  And then comes the climb to new life.  It turns out the landscape of change is like a forest, where new growth is dependent upon fire.  After a fire, the landscape looks beyond recovery.  But a few days later, diverse new life starts to spring up.  Crisis brings the release of new seeds and nutrients.  The change you are enduring is already bringing new seeds and new nutrients to the soil.”  
      He said, “we need to be stewards of a new identity.  Our previous Protestant identity had been focused on protest, what we’re against. What’s emerging is a pro-testifying identity.  What are we for?  What do we love and value?  How do we network to everyone?  How do we live in fidelity in relationships?  What difference do we make?”
      ​Well many more issues were acted upon than those I have highlighted.  I invite you to read them all on the denominational web site at http://www.pc-biz.org or the Presbyterian Outlook or Layman sites.   Most of all, I invite you to join me in being about God’s Kingdom work in and from South Highland Presbyterian Church.  I believe that because of you, of what you stand for, of what you model to our children and youth, to our neighborhood, we can all still be sinfully proud, still proud to be a Presbyterian.  A South Highland Presbyterian.  And when we go out these doors, remember “You are entering the Mission Field.”

      • dwsweeting says:

        I believe it was 1976. Were you staying in College Park doing an internship on the hill, as I was?
        Did you go sky diving with us? A great summer, a few years back.
        Thanks for your reflections.
        Fight the good fight.

  2. Pingback: A New Presbyterian Denomination Is Formed – Justin Taylor

  3. Todd Baucum says:

    The Auburn Affirmation was signed by many self-identified conservatives who believed it was wrong to “fixate on the boundaries”. I hope this new denomination is not a repeat of what we have seen historically. I do hope they faithfully proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, but boundaries are gracious markers revealing the danger spots of doctrinal cliffs.

  4. Pingback: ECO: the latest Presbyterian denomination « After Existentialism, Light

  5. Pingback: About the Fellowship and ECO

  6. David George says:

    Thanks, Don. Very thoughtful and encouraging response and report on the ECO.

    • dwsweeting says:

      David……great to hear from you. Hope you and the church are well. If there is any way we can be a blessing to you, let us know. Don

  7. Jim Ottaway says:

    I have familiarity only with PCUSA, OPC, and PCA. I would be interested in a summary of why the ECO founders felt that none of the present alternatives to PCUSA were satisfactory.

    • dwsweeting says:

      That is a good question. I can only speculate. I think 1) there is the adventure of starting something new that is shaped in 2012 and not 1980, 1973, or 1036. Something new has the added value of being structured for today’s ministry and mission realities; and 2) they have lived with the ordination of women longer, and so most would have a harder time with the OPC, or the PCA, position on that. Some of them even have a hard time with the EPC position (which leaves these questions to the local church); and 3) they have lived with The Book of Confessions so long that it is hard for them to go back to one main confession. No one articulated this from the speaker’s stand. This is just my best guess.

      • Don,

        I think you’ve captured my sense of why they wanted to start something “new” as well. I have been uncomfortable with the idea of -yet another- Presbyterian denomination. But, at least on paper right now, what they’re doing is very unique and different. It’ll be interesting and exciting to see how they move forward.


      • Stephen says:


        I was at the gathering in Orlando and I believe that your assessment of why they felt the need to create a new Reformed body is accurate. Thanks for a well-written and charitable article.


      • Tom Mirabella says:

        I have long felt that after things shook out there would be another Presbyterian denomination in the “spectrum.” For the most part you can show a progression from PCUSA to EPC to PCA and to OPC (we can argue where the ARP might fit, and I certainly acknowledge that there is rarely a bright line between the denominations. Many EPC churches could fit in the PCA and vice versa, many PCA churches could fit in the OPC and vice versa, still I doubt any OPC churches could jump into the EPC) Increasingly there has been no place for the churches that are strongly egalitarian, but still somewhat orthodox/conservative in their faith and practice. For the most part, this defines the churches that have been hanging on in the PCUSA for the last 30 years fighting a delaying action against the liberals. Hardcore conservatives left a long time ago. The ones who have remained have mostly made their way into the EPC, since it gave them some freedom on the egalitarian issue, but there seem to be some tensions there (my view from the outside) which makes sense when you bring a new group into a denomination that has the potential to dwarf the existing membership. My question was if the PCUSA refugees would essentially take over the EPC and cause the more conservative EPC folks to jump ship to the PCA and/or form another denomination in between, or if they would create a new denomination to the right of the PCUSA – thus ECO is born.

        As you say, sir: best wishes to them. But I fear that one day they will find that the scriptural tension on the issue of innerancy that is created by their egalitarian theology will be their downfall. In my opinion, there is no argument that can be made for egalitarianism that cannot be brought in to loosen standards on fidelity and chastity. I fear they will eventually collapse from irrelevance, or realize their differences are not so great after all and rejoin the PCUSA.

      • dwsweeting says:

        Well, we will see. We do know that these things are not static. I was talking to a reporter from The Layman who made the point that the PC(USA) has moved alot. But the PCA and the EPC have also moved. I can’t speak to the PCA. I do know that many who formed the EPC left mainly to just get back to a basic Christian orthodoxy. But in the process some discovered their confessional heritage. Thanks for your comments

  8. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    “Egalitarian Ministry (in which the spiritual gift of both genders and all racial and ethnic groups are “unleashed”).”

    Why is this a fundamental value of ECO? If a Presbyterian was Complementarian and advocated Complementarianism would he/she be disciplined out of ECO?

    • dwsweeting says:

      Because it has been a part of the PC(USA) for quite a while now, and they have lived with it longer than those who left for the PCA or the EPC did. There are Complementarians in the ECO, but probably not in their leadership. I have yet to see what their equivalent of the Book of Discipline will be. My guess is that they would not discipline anyone for this. That their focus for discipline would be on more fundamental issues. But then…….I am just guessing at this point. I am not in the ECO, nor ordained in the PC(USA). I just attended as an observer.

      • Dana Allin says:

        Hey Don, Thanks for the article and the additional information! The book of discipline is part of the polity document that was released (it is the last 5 pages). Regarding that discipline, it would be in matters that are in the essentials tenets of the faith which was also produced.

      • dwsweeting says:

        Thanks for filling us in

  9. I’m fairly sure that the requirement for ordination of women as ruling & teaching elders and deacons was not even discussed as having to be written as such into the Polity. The Polity says that ALL covenant members can be called into ordained ministry, which covers that subject nicely.

  10. patricia says:

    Glad to hear of their stand against gay ordination; so sick of seeing churches ignore clear scriptural teaching and kowtowing to culture by pretending the bible is vauge where it is not and therefore open to “interpretation”. Not sure what is meant by egalitarian leadership re genders; if they are going to ordain women to leadership roles that defy scripture, that’s like saying we got rid of the altars of baal but have kept the high places of ashtoreth…what meaneth then this bleating of sheep and lowing of oxen? Disobedience is the same sin in one form as it is in another.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides says:

      Patricia: “if they are going to ordain women to leadership roles that defy scripture, that’s like saying we got rid of the altars of baal but have kept the high places of ashtoreth”

      Genuine Thanks for this comment Patricia.

    • Nate Johnson says:

      Hi Patricia:
      I think you’re sentiments reflect one very important notion. Evangelicals have not come to a resting point as to what constitutes ‘faithful adherence’ to Scripture’s authority. On the women’s ordination issue, the EPC forged a path for conscience sake when it decided to leave it up to the individual church.. I’m not clear what the motivation was, i.e., they could have determined it to be a ‘non essential’ or ‘not clear’ or ‘both’ (maybe Don can address this). As to its clarity, it seems to me they felt either 1) the exegetical work was not finished, and therefore should be left to the individual church (implying some day it may be clear) or 2) the exegetical work had shown it to be ‘unclear’ and therefore leaving it to the individual church was and always will be a part of the ethos of the EPC. You seem to say that it is both clear and essential. The purview of the ECO would suggest some social issues are still ‘essential’ and ‘clear’, e.g., homosexuality, while others are not, or at least not ‘essential’ e.g., women’s ordination. The ECO’s stance affirms that Machen got it right in principle, but he missed its application. On the other hand the OPC, PCA et al, show that maybe he got it right on both.

  11. Gary Ware says:

    Reblogged this on mgpcpastor's blog and commented:
    Don Sweeting, president of Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, Florida, USA offers his thoughts on the historical precursors to the recent formation of a new Presbyterian denomination in the US. An interesting background perspective.

  12. Paul says:

    Yes, there are a few ‘P’ churches; Unfortunately there are too many different ‘E’ churches, right?

  13. Evan C. Hock says:

    Thanks Don! I am glad they at least drew a clear line on the basics and made the necessary break. I also think your speculation on why they took this new course of Presbyterian identity, rather than join ranks with the EPC, is well-reasoned. They have many questions to ponder and answer down the road, of course, like what it will mean for them to be confessional, given how they still ended up at this juncture with their Book of Confessions). Again, that is the “boundary” question. Perhaps this is too specific a question, but do you recall how 1st Presbyterian Church, in Colorado Springs, came out in the vote?

  14. Cathy says:

    Like the egalitarian part as well as the stand against ordaining homosexuals, but not the name!

  15. Kevin T. Smith says:

    I read Jerry Andrew’s quote about why they are using the entire Book of Confessions (Ref http://www.pcusa.org/news/2012/1/23/fellowships-theology-document-may-remain-work-prog/):

    “Theological consensus among us can be built, but it has not been built,” Andrews said. To use only the Westminster Confession “we thought would lack integrity,” as “I doubt that 10 percent among us are Westminster Calvinists.” In the past, Andrews said, he has sometimes accused Presbyterian colleagues “of saying their creeds with a wink and a nod,” and he doesn’t want that to happen in the Evangelical Covenant Order, as might happen if just one creed were selected. Stating theological belief is important, he said, because “before, we assumed a common truth when the truth was not held in common” in the PC(USA).

    Do you think that problems can be caused by the theological ambiguity brought about by so many of these confessions that are sometimes in conflict with each other (The Confession of 1967 being a glaring example)?

    • dwsweeting says:

      Yes I do think it causes problems. There is the problem of consistency. But there are also the practical problems of teachability and accountability. The Book of Confessions consists of the Nicene Creed, The Apostles’ Creed, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the Westminster Larger Catechism, the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the Confession of 1967, and A Brief Statement of Faith 1991. I am not familiar with the last two and do not have a copy in front of me. But I can say that as an EPC ordained pastor, our church affirms the Westminster Standards, yet at the same time, we approve and commend other reformed confessions, as well as those two early creeds. So it is not as if….. you choose the Westminister Confession and then cannot affirm these others. Of course we do. It is just that we have a confession that is squarely within our heritage that we affirm and highlight and teach. Along with that, we have a list of essentials, and they are essentials!

      When you begin to affirm all the confessions, it sometimes ends up that you practically affirm none of them. And then you teach none of them consistently–which means that the congregation becomes unformed and undiscipled, and then the witness of the church becomes very diluted. Then busy lay leaders who become elders and oversee the church do not really know what confession we really believe. It is then hard to hold anyone accountable. I know you see the challenge.

      The formation of a new denomination tends to be messy. They will need time to get all these things straight. I hope they will come to realize the importance of boundaries, as the historic church has. If they adopt a booklet of essential tenets, I hope they will treat them as essentials.

  16. Pingback: My Thoughts on The Fellowship and The Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians | Bruce Reyes-Chow

  17. Lou. S. Nowasielski, MA, D.Min. says:

    Don. Sweeting needs to include Dr. Carl McIntire former pastor of the Bible Presbyterian Chruch, Collingswood, N.J, former President of Faith Theological Seminary who fought the fight during those turbulent years when the PCUSA was raging. I would urge Don. Sweeting to write about the GARBC, and leadership fighting alonside the Conservative Presbyterians. I would suggest Don. Sweeting write a comprehensive article on the Fundamentalist Modernist Controversy.

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