Who's Got the Big Mo?
On Saturday last the Vicksburg (MS) Post reported that 99 years after the first time Vicksburg and Port Gibson have once again fallen to invaders. Three area churches, including the First Presbyterian Churches of Vicksburg and Port Gibson, were on Thurdsday dismissed by The Presbytery of Mississippi (PCUSA) to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. These are added to two other Mississippi congregations in Pascagoula and Ocean Springs. At least five other congregations had earlier received similar permission.
What has happened in Mississippi seems to reflect a national trend among disaffected PCUSA congregations. They are not going to The Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA remains the “big boy” among the non-mainline Presbyterian denominations with 1455 congregations, and nearly 273,000 communicant and 348,000 total members. The EPC has about 300 congregations and 115,000 members.
Meanwhile January the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians announced its formation. The new denomination, if it is to be called that, described its identity thus:
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).
The EPC gives this list of what makes it “distinctive” among American Presbyterian denominations (abridge by The Curmudgeon):
1. Distinctive: The Essentials
While adhering to the Westminster Confession of Faith, along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught by the Bible, we have developed a document called "The Essentials of Our Faith." While we believe all of our faith is important, some elements of that faith are absolutes.
2. Distinctive: The Westminster Confession
The Westminster Confession of Faith has had a number of revisions over the years. Not only has the Evangelical Presbyterian Church adopted some important revisions that bring it up to date, but in addition, it has adopted a modern language version.
3. Distinctive: Work of the Holy Spirit
While affirming the priority of the fruit of the Spirit over the gifts of the Spirit in the Christian life, we also affirm those who believe that all the gifts of God's Spirit are biblically valid for today. While we are not Pentecostal, neither do we believe that the work of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, should be ignored or forbidden.
4. Distinctive: The Ruling Elder
Part of the genius of Presbyterianism has been the role of the Ruling Elder, the layman, in the government of the church. When a denomination becomes clergy dominated, it tends to lose touch with the grassroots of the church. To maintain that important balance, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church provides for each congregation to send two Ruling Elders for each minister to Presbytery and General Assembly
5. Distinctive: Women in Ordained Office
In the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the decision to elect women as Ruling Elders or Deacons is left to the discretion of the local congregation. We believe that under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, God's people should be free to follow His leading on this important issue. (Editorial note: The EPC also allows local congregations with the approval of Presbyteries to elect women as ministers.)
6. Distinctive: Rights in Perpetuity
,.. there are certain features of our government that are unique and distinctive, and should never change. Among these are the rights of a church over its own property and to elect its own officers. To insure that such features are not the victims of time or circumstance, there is written into our Book of Government, a section called, "Limitations in perpetuity."
7. Distinctive: Mission of the Church
The Church must never confuse its primary task of evangelism (the Gospel) with the fruit of faith (good works)." This affirmation settles for us a dispute that has caused much division in our day when churches have become preoccupied with social change to the neglect of true spiritual change.
8. Distinctive: Congregational Rights
In our Book of Government, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church spells out rights reserved to a particular church…the right is included for a particular church to own its property as well as to withdraw with its property if it so decides. It outlines other rights, such as the right to call its own pastor.
9. Distinctive: Voluntary Giving
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church has no "per capita tax." We do not believe that one court of the Church has the right to put a "tax" with obligation on another lower court.
10. Distinctive: Position Papers
In the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, we have developed a system whereby the denomination can speak clearly and decisively to member congregations on issues facing our society. We do not believe in political positions, but we do believe the Church has an obligation to speak its mind to congregations on important issues..
Conclusion: Truth in Love
Perhaps the finest distinctive of all in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church is the spirit of love that characterizes our denomination. With the historic marks of the true church -- the practice of scriptural discipline, the right preaching of the Word and proper observation of the sacraments -- we have included loving fellowship (John 13:35). Our motto is "In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty; In All Things, Charity." And underneath this motto, the seal of our Church adds "truth in love."
This writer notes that both these denominations provide health insurance plans for their ministers. The PCA, the victim of its own distinctive polity, does not and cannot. The large, healthy, and young do well under the PCA system; the rest do not.
All this leads to several questions:
(1) What is the PCA? Not what is an individual congregation or Presbytery, but what is the PCA as a whole? The matter of identity is as alive now as it ever was – and perhaps more so. Growth for the PCA is most likely to occur by church planting, not by gaining congregations from the PCUSA. But what will those church plants look like and what impact will they have on PCA identity? (Hint: Look at the past and present to predict the future.)
(2) How long will the PCA as presently constituted hold together? There are those on the denomination’s right who would like to see the left and the squishier parts of the middle leave. If this does not happen, we could see yet another Presbyterian denomination. At the same time, not a little energy is extended on pan-denominational unity – whether of the NAE type or the Gospel Coaliton type. (NAPARC, or Presbyterian unity, is pretty much irrelevant.)
(3) In the long run, what will some of the bigger names in some of the bigger, largely metropolitan, churches do? They surely have options which could make a better fit, if they decide they want any kind of connectionalism at all. They could escape such controversies as the Federal Vision and six-twenty-four creationism and would be free to have women deacons and over time women elders and ministers.
The PCA remains the biggest of the Presbyterian splits. The OPC, ARP, and RPCNA can look at its size and resources, if not much else,with envy. But for how long will the PCA be the 800 lb. gorilla in the Presbyterian room? The momentum may be shifting elsewhere.
Responses are invited and will be published as submitted.