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:
- Jesus-shaped identity (in which the essential question has to do with whether one is actually a disciple of Jesus).
- Biblical integrity (in which the essential issue is whether the unique and absolutely authoritative Scriptures actually define our identity).
- Thoughtful theology (in which Reformed theological education is treasured).
- Accountable community (in which churches are communities where guidance is actually a corporate spiritual experience).
- Egalitarian Ministry (in which the spiritual gift of both genders and all racial and ethnic groups are “unleashed”).
- Missional Centrality (in which the church “lives out” the whole of the Great Commission, “including evangelism, spiritual formation, compassion and redemptive justice”).
- 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”).
- Kingdom vitality (by which the church actively reproduces missional communities).
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.