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.

Distinctives
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 (https://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.

Categories: Church History, Presbyterians, The Church Tags: , , , , | Comments

29 Comments

  • 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

  • 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:

      Jim,
      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

      • 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.

        David

      • Stephen says:

        Don,

        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.

        Stephen

      • 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

  • 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.
      DS

      • 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.

  • Valorie Raica says:

    All I can say is AMEN 🙂

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Paul says:

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

  • 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?

  • Cathy says:

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

  • Kevin T. Smith says:

    I read Jerry Andrew’s quote about why they are using the entire Book of Confessions (Ref https://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.

  • 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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