There is a split coming in the Presbyterian Church USA. The new denomination, which calls itself the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) was established last month in Orlando as a “new Reformed body” to which disgruntled member churches of the PCUSA might be dismissed. The denominational rollout was beautiful, thoughtful, even gracious, in that the fire-breathers of the movement did not seem overtly on display. But as smooth as that presentation was, for those who intend to stay in the PCUSA, there needs to be a frank discussion about what is going on here that foregoes the usual presbyspeak which avoids confrontation at all costs. Usually, that’s a strength of our system. But not now.
I was surprised when learning of the denomination’s name. It is fascinating that the organization includes the word “covenant” in its name, even as it invites PCUSA members, elders and churches to lay aside those which they have already made. It is their intent to take their talents, gifts and resources away from us and leave the rest of us to manage mission projects both locally, nationally and around the world which they helped to start and which heretofore, in covenant, had maintained. One would think that, if covenant was of such importance that these folks would set themselves to keep theirs, rather than constructing newer, easier ones for themselves in the wake of a vote that didn’t go their way. Not surprisingly, ECO has very little to say about their past covenants and is instead focusing its energies on constructing the next ones, which they swear they will keep this time. I’m deeply grateful for the hundreds of thousands of faithful evangelical Presbyterians who were grieved by the results of the vote on ordination standards last summer but who nonetheless have remained and will remain true to their covenants and who thus will work for change the way we always have as Presbyterians. It is such people who understand what it is to be a Presbyterian and who grasp the real meaning of what a covenanted life is all about. For them, covenant isn’t about whether their side wins or loses. They have been called to a life “in the harness” with others with whom they often disagree and yet they intend to remain true to that calling and all its attendant vows for the rest of their days. May God bless them for their faithfulness.
I want to focus in this post on the curious construal of connectionalism that the ECO envisions as the covenanted life for congregations. As befitting our consumer culture, there are three ways that a congregation can connect with the ECO. First, for the furious and unreconcilable congregation, they can be dismissed from the PCUSA and welcomed into the blessed rest of everlasting peace by making the ECO their final destination. This makes the most sense, of course, because what’s the point of claiming there is a status confessionis (a crisis point in the life of the church which requires that a new line in the sand be drawn to deamarcate truth from error, which is precisely the point at which we are, the ECOers have been saying) if we aren’t making a place for which to leave? Although on their website, ECO seems to have gone to great pains to downplay the rift, anybody who has been following things over the years knows that this is the justification for why this has to be done. Despite the fact that the theological substance of the justification for the split is fuzzy to many of us, this position to an extent has to be respected, in my opinion, because it manifests the courage of their convictions and isn’t just a lot of talk, which is what we have had. They feel they must go, so I believe we should let them. Of course, if there were real rather than trumped-up theological issues at stake which would actually justify a split they certainly should have been filing heresy charges years ago against persons whom they think are in error but with whom they instead have been amicably working in presbyteries for ages, but better late than never, I suppose.
But this is not the only option. The ECO will, incredibly, let churches swing both ways. They will allow a kind of “half-way covenant” for congregations who can’t quite make up their minds. They can walk in the light at the ECO presbytery meeting on Tuesday and yet have fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness at their meeting on the very next Saturday, all with apparently perfect consistency! I can understand why a congregation might want to do this–you can have all the benefits of the money, power and history of the PCUSA while thumbing your nose at it by signing up with the ECO. But why would you even need an ECO if it wasn’t for having to get away from the unfruitful works of darkness in the first place? Why would the congregations who are trying to flee from the Devil let him have his foot in the door by a union? If it’s OK to be in covenant with a church who works with homosexuals or universalists in other churches, why waste the time and money to create a whole new structure? Can you imagine Athanasius making such a deal with Arian congregations or Luther offering an olive branch to his inquisitors at the Diet of Worms? If there has to be a “a line drawn in the sand”, how can you in the very next action, rub out the line? It makes not a whit of theological sense to me and thus appears be a pragmatic decision designed to take advantage of any impulse of a congregation to react negatively to the vote on ordination standards. The ECO is apparently intent, not simply on doctrinal purity as they have maintained, but on leveraging the anger of PCUSA congregations to its maximum extent in order to build their brand. Fifty years from now, when their grandchildren cringe over this decision as we did those who made the same error in the 1850s (“You split the denomination over WHAT?”) and each of our two denominations’ descendants will be trying to piece back together that which is now being rent asunder, such union congregations will be needed. But right now, they will harm the PCUSA and should be rejected outright by all of its presbyteries.
The intent of the ECO can be seen even more clearly in light of the THIRD way in which congregations can connect with the ECO. Does your congregation owe money to the presbytery for a building project and can’t get dismissed until the balance is paid off? Do you have a majority of elders on your session who want to leave the PCUSA but you don’t yet have the two-thirds necessary majority among the general membership to get the job done? Do you have the required majority to be dismissed but are blocked by a big tither who won’t be moved from the denomination of his or her forebears? Well the ECO has a plan for your church while you are in ecclesiastical limbo, so that you can show your colors until the time is right to make your move. The ECO has a plan to partner with what it calls “affinity groups,” which are PCUSA congregations who are kind of “bi-curious” and who for whatever reason can do no more than dip their toe into the water of schism rather than diving in. Not to fear. You can affiliate with them without being dismissed by your presbytery. This policy is being presented by the ECO under the guise of doing joint mission, but Presbyterian churches don’t need any kind of affiliational decision to do mission with a congregation of any other denomination, Presbyterian or otehrwise. We work across denominational lines every day. My congregation will work with anybody who serves the same ends, even if we don’t share the same theology—we work with both Jewish, Muslim and Unitarian congregations, for example. No, this isn’t about mission. It is aimed specifically at PCUSA congregations (see their polity document) and appears rather to be about harnessing resentment for the benefit of the new brand and to the detriment of the old. Angry congregations who can’t leave can still make public protest by joining an ECO-recognized affinity group. The ECO has a plan for every congregation; no matter how angry, they’ll work with you!
All of this should be very troubling to traditional Presbyterians. It doesn’t matter how mellifluous the name of the new denomination sounds; they come preaching schism and an ongoing one at that, which appears designed to diminish by whatever available means the resources and energy of the PCUSA. It isn’t about doctrinal conviction, for if it were there would be but one option: either in or out. That is our way. Thus, Presbyteries should countenance neither the second or third options proffered by ECO. Allowing either of these decisions to stand in congregations would be to imbibe the cancer of schism in the name of some odd kind of forbearance. Normally, not reacting would be the best and easiest path to the amicable resolution of such a dispute. But that doesn’t seem possible here, when the ECO seems intent on doing all it can to undermine the life and mission of the PCUSA. Churches that vote to align with the ECO in any way should be presumed by presbyteries to be intent upon renouncing the jurisdiction of the PCUSA and should thus be given a certain time frame in which to be formally dismissed from that presbytery under that presbytery’s dismissal policy. If the congregation does not comply by the date set by the presbytery, then unless there are mitigating factors, the presbytery should dissolve the pastoral relationship and the session and assume original jurisdiction.
This is a schism. Just because it is being orchestrated by smart, tall-steeple pastors who are our friends and evangelical theologians whom we have all respected doesn’t make it any less of one. John Ortberg’s sermon on the ECO site which “introduces” the new denomination is brilliant, passionate and powerful for the first 17 minutes, for example, but urges on his hearers thereafter a complete capitulation of Reformed ecclesiology. There isn’t another nice way to put this. You can, as they say, put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig. So the response to this movement, therefore, has to be different from what has been the norm, which, for the most part, has been forbearance. This is an existential threat to the life of the PCUSA. It’s horrible that it has come to this, but it is what is. The schismatics are threatening the body, and the body has a responsibility to protect itself from the harm. It can’t do this by downplaying what is happening or placating those threatening to leave in the hopes that this will make the problem disappear.
The PCUSA welcomes dissent. The PCUSA is a denomination teeming with evangelicals. We need evangelicals to stay. No one wants anybody to leave. But if people are insistent on going, then they should go, not part way, but all the way out. There should be a gracious separation and we should part on as good of terms as possible. They should not, however, be allowed to draw and undraw their line in the sand as it suits them, congregation by congregation, angling for the best terms. Nor should they be allowed to draw this matter out, year after year, threatening to leave if they don’t get their way on the next issue over which we can’t agree. This is what I fear could happen in presbyteries where they allow union congregations and affinity groups. Long arguments with your family are normal; they are draining with people who have decided you are the enemy. Our understanding of ecclesiology is at stake here. If the ECO insists there is to be a line, then so be it.