Don’t jump to conclusions. The Fellowship of Presbyterians has launched a new denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO), signaling yet another structural divide in the mainline Presbyterian Church family (see pp. 12-16). But it remains to be seen whether this will produce a split or just a splinter. That depends on us. All of us.
Of the original seven pastors who founded this movement, two serve churches that have broken ranks by joining not the ECO but the EPC — the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The Chapel Hill Church in Gig Harbor, Wash., voted in agreement with its pastor, Mark Toone, to make that move. The session of First Church, Orlando, respectfully voted contrary to the wishes of its pastor, David Swanson, to recommend that they go the same route; preference for clarity prevailed over the ambiguities and time-consuming demands that go with inventing something new.
The session of First Church, Colorado Springs, has voted to leave to points undetermined, although pastor Jim Singleton serves as provisional president of the Fellowship – the organization set up mostly to support evangelicals staying in the PC(USA). And John Crosby’s election as provisional president of the new denomination doesn’t mean that his congregation, Christ Church, Edina, Minn., is ready to make the move.
It’s too early to tell what the other three leaders’ churches will do, although proposals to change the definition of marriage, if adopted at the next General Assembly, could provide the tipping point that would lead them out.
To their credit, these seven (plus Tae-Hyung Ko and Dana Allin who now fill the board chairs vacated by Toone and Swanson) have not imposed a one-size-fits-all plan on their constituents.
Then again, most of the options still signal a separation going on in this church family.
Attempts to resist such a separation have been contending with the forces of inevitability. American Protestant history could well be summarized by a modified version of the legend of Hans Brinker, the little Dutch boy holding his finger in the dike. An ever-rising tide of ecclesiastical change has pressed on those seeking to hold it back. However, to amend the story, the dam actually gives way and the surviving thumb-pluggers feel forced to move to higher ground to start anew.
While many of those ecclesiastical changes have advanced our mission – e.g., the end of slavery, the spread of human rights – some changes have not – e.g., the loss of Sunday Sabbath-keeping.
For good and for ill, the forces of change, what historian Lefferts Loetscher called the “Broadening Church” in a book by that title, have relentlessly beaten down the dam of conservative resistance, and every so often conservatives have raised white flags and started anew – in search of higher ground, believing that to be the better path to faithfulness.
In some cases (think: the Pentecostal movement) their departures have launched worldwide movements. In some cases the departures have produced isolated enclaves of agreement.
No one knows what will come of the new denomination, the ECO. But hundreds of our congregations will study its theological and polity documents, prayerfully asking God if they should join. They will be listening to the voices of the rest of us, too.
Will we shun those looking for creative ways to stay in the PC(USA)? Many churches do not want to leave, or cannot. Will they be ostracized for even contemplating a move? Will pastors get blackballed, will sessions get coerced, will congregations get harassed, if they don’t happily go along with changes contrary to their perception of God’s will?
The changes in ordination standards have brought great joy to the many who believe that the church’s complicity in perpetuating injustices against lesbian and gay persons had to end. The changes testify to their persevering determination to change the system, even if that meant overwhelming the little Dutch boy trying to hold back those waters. What remains is the question: Will they require a one-size-fits-all model for those for whom these recent changes have brought heartbreak?
Let’s not jump to conclusions.
And let’s not jump or force others to jump ship.