My Presbyterian Field Trip: A Fragmenting Tradition

From Wikimedia Commons
From Wikimedia Commons

This last Thursday evening, I was supposed to be concelebrating at the festal services for a nearby Orthodox church, but over the days preceding I had so strained my back that I knew that if I followed through on my plans, even just standing during the services, I would likely not be able to stand the next morning. So I stayed home while my family went.

While settling in for the evening, I remembered that a local Protestant clergy acquaintance had posted on Facebook that his church—a large Presbyterian congregation in a nearby city—was going to be hosting a dialogue that evening between representatives of the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. It seems that the church, which currently belongs to the PCUSA, is considering leaving the ailing liberal mainline denomination and entering ECO, a new two-year-old splinter group.

When I saw his post, I did some quick reading on the players and thought it sounded interesting. And when I found myself with an open evening which needed me to be seated rather than standing, I decided to head over to the Presbyterian church to see what was going on as they pondered their future together. It would certainly be more edifying than watching Netflix.

There must have been a couple of hundred people gathered to listen to the two presenters. The leader of ECO was there to make his case for the move, while a prominent member of the Missions department of the PCUSA also came, to urge the congregation to remain where they were.

I do not keep up with all the details of the internecine conflicts in Presbyterianism, but what is fundamentally at issue here is a narrative that has played out elsewhere in the mainline. The Episcopal Church (ECUSA), for instance, fractured when the Anglican Continuum (various Anglican splinter groups) formed in the 1970s, catalyzed by the acceptance of women’s ordination in the ECUSA. In 2009, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) formed, breaking off mainly over the issue of the acceptance of homosexuality in the ECUSA. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was formed in the 1970s for essentially the same reasons that brought the Anglican Continuum into existence, and now groups like ECO (formed in 2012) are roughly parallel to ACNA. Lutherans now have the North American Lutheran Church (NALC, formed in 2010), which is also similar (though the 1970s worked out differently for Lutherans, since they already were divided into a few large denominations).

It’s hard to keep track of all these breaks, but what is common among all these denominations formed in the past few years is that they will ordain women but retain more traditional teaching on sexual morality. That they wanted to keep women’s ordination is likely what kept breakaway congregations from simply joining their 1970s conservative co-religionists.

The two presenters made their various arguments in favor of moving or staying. The ECO leader (who struck me as having the “Young, Restless and Reformed” personality) was energetic and occasionally reminded me of Julius Caesar’s saying about Cassius, having a “lean and hungry look.” He was definitely a man of ambitious demeanor, precisely the sort to lead a successful breakaway denomination that has attracted some 60,000 members in 165 congregations in the two years of its existence. He has the title of “Synod Executive” (not “Bishop,” mind you; these are Presbyterians, after all). He spoke frequently of the authority of Scripture and raised uncomfortable questions about alarmingly high numbers of PCUSA clergy who report that they do not believe in core Christian doctrines.

The gentleman from the PCUSA was far more the diplomat. He had a lot more institutional weight behind him. While his interlocutor represented a mere 60,000 members, his denomination, hemorrhaging though they are (having lost more than 50% of members in the past few decades, and picking up speed lately), still boasts some 1.7 million across more than 10,000 congregations. And of course the PCUSA is much more the “big tent” denomination, welcoming both more conservative, Evangelical members as well as progressives who wish significant revisions in theology on everything from morality to the divinity of Jesus Christ. He frequently mentioned that he was more Evangelical himself but saw value in the views of his progressive colleagues. Rather than defending the liberalism that is spreading throughout the PCUSA, he mainly focused on the denomination’s more recent achievements, including a new initiative to found churches among ethnic minorities as well as its foreign charitable and missionary work (including the odd claim that Presbyterians first brought the Gospel to Egypt; I am hoping that was just a misstatement and not something they actually believe—then again, perhaps some are so bold as to consider the Apostle Mark a Presbyterian).

After the presentations, a question and answer session followed. Congregants focused on some technical questions about the two denominations (e.g., how many staff they have in their national organizations, which isn’t really fair, since the PCUSA is almost 30 times the size of ECO and much older), but also asked about moral issues. Some discussed how much would be owed in assessments to ECO as compared to the PCUSA. A number made references to Scriptural content. A confusing (to me) discussion ensued about a hymn that was not included in a version of the official Presbyterian hymnal because of its depiction of the atonement as satisfying the wrath of God.

What caught my ear most was that the PCUSA representative answered the ECO leader’s statements about the authority of Scripture by saying that they, too, believe in the authority of Scripture. The question is how one interprets it. I was hoping that that gauntlet would get taken up by the ECO gentleman, but he just left it there on the ground and essentially repeated himself.

Of course, as an Orthodox Christian, I generally have more in common with the ECO views on sexual morality, but where we part ways is the apparent insistence that the Bible should be read that way, i.e., this is just what it says, and if you disagree, then you do not believe that the Scripture is authoritative. No doubt if the two men had gotten into the brass tacks of interpreting Scripture from their respective denominational positions, it would have been revealed that they actually differed not on whether Scripture is authoritative but how to interpret it.

A related question was asked by my acquaintance (who works on the pastoral staff of the church), who inquired of the man from the PCUSA whether a tradition that has embraced as much diversity as they have can actually remain a coherent tradition. That was probably the biggest and most probing question of the evening, but it basically went unanswered.

The question I would have liked to ask (and I did not, because I didn’t think it was my place; I was just an observer with no stake in the proceedings) would have been this: “How do you know that your interpretation of Scripture is the right one?”

What my thought and his question have in common is the issue of ecclesiology, which is what actually makes a tradition coherent. Denominationalism (the belief that there can be many denominations within the one Church, all differing on doctrine and praxis and often contradicting each other) precludes a robust ecclesiology. If the congregation moves from the PCUSA to ECO, no one would say that they have “left” or “joined” the Church. They have just repositioned themselves within it.

What exactly does a Presbyterian denominationalist point to to say “This is the true Presbyterianism” or “This is the true Presbyterian church”? There are the various confessions and statements, of course, but no Reformed denomination is wholly faithful to them. After all, the ECO wants to be faithful to Presbyterian tradition by nixing homosexual sex yet wants to depart from that same tradition by ordaining women. If one element of tradition can be revised, why should another be sacrosanct? And on what authority were those original Reformed confessions ratified, anyway?

I thought of all this again today when reading this Christianity Today piece which lauds reading Scripture with “the Great Tradition” yet can’t seem to define it. It asks “Which tradition?” yet does not really answer. And while lauding tradition, it still gives the reader a way out—not everything in tradition has to be followed, naturally. And so the sifting and revising continues.

The Orthodox Church’s answer to all this is to point to history, to the fact that there is one Church which can be traced in a consistent line through history, with one tradition that began with the Apostles. Yes, tracing that line can sometimes be a bit difficult if one happens to live during, for instance, the Arian controversy, but God still preserved the Church all right out on the other end.

Without a robust ecclesiology, without the courage to say “This is the true Church,” the question that was asked by my new friend (we had lunch the next day) will remain unanswered. Yes, perhaps various Reformed groups such as ECO can pick up the rearguard while the PCUSA retreats from much of what is recognizable as historic Christianity, but aren’t they already compromised by their own revisions of tradition? It is hard to see how this pattern can lead to anything but fragments from fragments from fragments.

I wish the congregation well, and I hope that they do end up making the move away from the PCUSA. I don’t know where ECO might be going, but it’s certainly better for the moment than where the PCUSA has gone. May God bless them and illumine them.


  1. Those discussions are incredibly interesting–especially if one has some understanding of the two denomination’s beliefs and history as it relates to the things discussed. Sadly, they rarely go into detail or much depth.

    I also think your response (“I wish the congregation well, and I hope that they do end up making the move away from the PCUSA. I don’t know where ECO might be going, but it’s certainly better for the moment than where the PCUSA has gone. May God bless them and illumine them.”) to the situation represents the right attitude (something I lack much of the time and am trying to work on).

    I wonder, did you and your friend discuss his question, and the lack of an answer, during lunch?

  2. Fr. Damick,
    Interesting post. Thank you.
    If I may, however: there was an attempt in the 1970s to split the major conservative Lutheran body (my own), the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. But the attempted liberal takeover of the denomination and the main seminary (Concordia–St. Louis) was defeated, with the LC-MS staying conservative Lutheran (and to this day not ordaining women).
    That said, I must confess that the more Orthodox writers and theologians I read (including the glosses in the Orthodox Study Bible), the more I am convinced that your church(es) have the correct understanding of authority in the Church.

  3. From the first few paragraphs of this post, it occurs to me that the North American Lutheran Church missed an astounding opportunity in not calling themselves the “North American Church, Lutheran”, in which case their initialism would have been NACL, which is approximately the symbol for the chemical composition of table salt.

  4. Very interesting reflections, Father.

    Just for interest sake, I wouldn’t be surprised if the hymn mentioned in the discussion was “In Christ Alone.” This intensely popular worship chorus was objected to on the basis of its adherence to the satisfaction model of atonement put forward by Anselm. The Presbyterian Church contacted the writers of the song to ask permission to change the phrase in question to “the love of God was magnified” (in place of “the wrath of God was satisfied”). The writers did not allow the change on the grounds that it failed to fully convey the gospel. Thus the hymn was pulled from the official Presbyterian hymnal. There was an article about it in Christianity Today a while back that can be found here:

    As a convert from Evangelical Protestantism, I see this kind of thing a great deal… unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are just so sick of all the bickering that they really don’t care any more. When one organization fails them for one reason or another they are quick to jump ship and find another that better suits their needs. It truly is a very sad trend to watch…

      1. I have a longish comment that I beg your indulgence for, as I sit recount a troubling experience at a PCUSA parish and would like the opinion of the readers including Fr. Andrew. Recently I visited a PCUSA and a Catholic Church that were adjacent for a “Bach Walk” concert. Which was actually silly because both churches had identical “hybrid” ( read “fake”) organs that use their visible pipes in lieu of a subwoofer, and “digital stops”, i.e. a synthesizer, for everything else. These fake organs are made by the same company that built the real organ at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and the built in synthesizers are designed to emulate its sound precisely. Never mind that Bach composed his music too variety of timings including A 466hz (replicated on the Bachorgel in Leipzig, at which I was present for the tuning), and these organs, while theoretically able to replicate such tuning can’t; one of the, furthermore broke down in the service and got stuck in middle C; apparently they tend to malfunction with all stops engaged, and to clear it, the organist had to hit as many chords as possible simultaneously to make the software reboot. We should feel really thankful that in most Orthodox churches we don’t have to deal with those unruly beasts! (Although the Greek Diaspora and our Armenian friends from the OO land put them to good use, I’d never want to hear one in a Russian Orthodox Church).

        At any rate, I digress. While at the PCUSA church I felt the presence of evil all around me; I couldn’t stans being there. I don’t know why; the last Presbyterian church I visited was Coral Ridge PCA during the James Kennedy era, and I felt at peace there. But here, there was a sense of Satanic oppression. Perhaps it was the spare “communion table” identifiable by the words This do Ye in Remembrance of Me, in use in the narthex as a registration table for the concert; an identical one was in the chancel., this struck me as a shocking impiety even in a Calvinist church; don’t they at least consecrate those things? Even at the Old Ship,Church in Higham, Massachussets I can’t imagine the Unitarians using their legendary fold-out communion table to distribute literature.

        When we arrived at the Catholic Church (where the organ broke), I felt a sense of peace. I did not feel like I was experiencing a meeting point between Heaven and Earth as I do in most Orthodox churches I have attended, but I no longer felt as though an evil presence were trying to suffocate me. I could breath; I could see the holy water font, the chapel of perpetual adoration with its gilt tabernacle, the properly set apart altar table, the missals and breviaries, and other reassuring signs of Catholic devotion. It felt like the Methodist church in which I grew up, albeit with more features. I would not want to,trade that Roman parish for my Orthodox parish for anything, but at least the atmosphere was not spiritually toxic.

        I have a friend who is a conservative a Episcopal priest, who,will be forced to retire in about a month. At his church, which is a conservative parish, the picture ofmthe presiding bishop is carefully concealed, and I sometimes visit him; my parish being on the Julian calendar, I use his for singing Christ,as carols,with the permission of my confessor. I do not partake of communion; I did in the past before my Chrismation, and before my confessor told me that practice was not allowed, and the wine upset my stomach, which suggests to me that sadly, despite their belief to the contrary, the members of the ECUSA parish are not actually receiving the Eucharist. However, at least their church, like the Catholic Church, feels like a church, where Jesus Christ is worshipped with sincerity. It is not the glorious intersection of Heaven and Earth that the Orthodox Church provides, but it doesnt feel like a real life version of the a Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. In the PCUSA parish I felt I could cut through the evil with a knife.

        I did discuss this with my confessor, who suggested it was a natural reaction to a heterodox church, but I remain troubled by what I felt and the fact that others present seemed unperturbed. I assume a relative and myself were the only Orthodox present but she didn’t seem bothered. The only place I’ve been that scared me as much was a Mormon “stake” or meeting house. I survived only by saying the Jesus Orayer on my prayer rope.

        IF I may ask you, Father Andrew, did you sense anything like that I the PCUSA church or emanating from the PCUSA delegation? Does anyone else have any input on what I experienced? Has anyone felt the same thing in non-Orthodox churches after converting? My thought was this being a notoriously revisionist PCUSA parish lacking only a rainbow flag, and my antipathy for low church Calvinism in general, may have had something to do,with how I felt; the ECUSA church run by my friend is of the “Just one more thing and we’re leaving!” Type that never does.

        1. No. Probably the most I’ve felt was as a fish out of water. I didn’t feel anything malevolent at all while I was at the Presbyterian church the other night. And the people seemed like good, honest people who were trying to find their way together.

          1. Well that’s reassuring at least. Something at the PCUSA parish really spooked me then I guess. I had been to my local PCUSA parish for an interfaith gathering with members of my Methodist youth group on 9/11/01 (chalk boards were erected keeping track of any friends/relatives of people in our little SoCal suburb who had been In DC or NYC and were unaccounted for) and everything felt fine.

  5. This is an interesting process to follow, and I appreciate the insights you offer as an Orthodox Christian. You certainly make a compelling case for the legitimacy and value of Tradition.

    My parents PCUSA church has just recently broached the subject of leaving the denomination themselves, they’re intending to take quite some time to safely navigate the waters ahead but many people are curious where they will ultimately end up. No indications or suggestions have been given yet, as they have only recently brought the issue before the congregation. I suspect, given the culture of that particular church, it may either align itself with ECO or possibly abandon Presbyterianism altogether for something of the non-denominational variety.

    That’s just conjecture on my part, I don’t attend their church so I’m not privy to all the details.

  6. Fr. Damick,

    My personal history happens to be in the Reformed tradition (prior to embracing Orthodoxy) – specifically within the Federal Vision. The covenant theology branch of the Reformed movement appears to be pretty unwavering on social issues and on clerical issues, remaining very conservative.

    Here is the thing, Fr. Damick; the Federal Vision ascribes to a progressive eschatology, that the Holy Spirit reveals truth progressively over the course of human history. Similarly, they believe the “church” will be incomplete until the eschaton. Would not such an understanding of eschatology and ecclesiology lead them to question their own traditions?

    Such an understanding of eschatology and ecclesiology lends itself to continuous changes in liturgy, doctrine, and “speculative theology” (note Rev. James Jordan).

    Considering these things, how can we expect the conservative branches of the Reformed movement to remain firm on social issues and clerical issues?

      1. I spent a few years in PCA churches. Peter Leithart, associated with FV, is popular with some educated Presbyterians. My Reformed Episcopal priest back in the States actually moved from Presbyterianism to Anglicanism due to FV arguments. But Leithart has been tried for heresy by the PCA (exonerated, though some wish to see him retried), and I have heard PCA elders explicitly condemning FV as a heresy. I think the OPC has formally rejected FV. My impression is that, among conservative Presbyterian churches such as the PCA, FV will only get a bigger and bigger issue, and possibly lead to breakaways to the CREC.

        1. I have spent time with Dr. Leithart, and others in the FV such as Tim Gallant and James Jordan. These are very intelligent and motivated people. I would not be surprised if the FV grows further – partially in response to the liberalization of various other Reformed and Evangelical denominations.

          I will be attending a Rich Bledsoe (another member of the FV) conference up here in New Hampshire this February. I understand that ecumenism (in some forms), is looked down upon by the Church, but I feel it is important to engage the FV.

          – James

      2. I don’t know if the churches I went to was influenced by the Federal Vision movement or not, as I grew up in the Vineyard and didn’t think they where reformed in any way. But the Pastors I was under while attending the vineyard also held to the view that it’s progressive revaluation and that it wont be complete until the eschoton. Is it possible that maybe a good portion of Christians today hold to a progressive view because that seems to fit their reading of history especially those that fought in the culture wars of the 50s and 60s?

        –The Master

  7. Might I ask if the Presbyterians of North America are related to the Scottish Kirk? I used to visit the High Kirk in Edinburgh in the 1960s and it did not resemble any of this, as I far as I can remember. and I still read with profit the works of Dr William Barclay a scholar of New Testament Greek especially his “New Testament Words” in which his explanations often resemble those of Orthodox scholars… and he seemed a true Scottish ( John Knox )Presbyterian
    However I’ll grant that the Presbyterian Church in this city in New Zealand seems to be very wishy washy but so are many Anglicans here. Maybe its the N American influence in both cases!

  8. One might observe by the way that at least the PCUSA is giving disaffected congregations the chance to leave, versus forcing them to stay by means of a $40 million legal campaign, and prohibiting dioceses from selling buildings to ACNA, which is the aggressive, militant approach of the ECUSA.

  9. I was Presbyterian for 30 years: 9 years in the church in which I was married, 18 in the church I left for Orthodoxy, and 2 others on a sporadic basis in between the 7 and 18 year ones.

    Three of the 4 have left the PC-USA, two for ECO, one for PCA. One is staying but is big enough to stay conservative on the recent changes. Two of the leavers have lost or are likely to lose their buildings to the denomination; both left with more than 2/3 of the congregants. The pastors left with the congregants; their financial future is still a question mark.

    That, I would say, is a pretty high percentage of change for one person’s lifetime.

    The thing is, there are so many places the leaving PC-USA churches can go…ECO, PCA, OPC, EvangelicalPC, CREC, RCA, Dutch Reformed, Reconstructionist, and there are more that I can’t pull out of my brain at the moment. Each of these has a different “take” on the scriptures and the ECO has a fairly blurry statement of faith, compared to some of the others…so it is easy to see how that will bring with it some issues of its own in years to come.

    It comes down to “What is the Church?” and the issues surrounding Sola Scriptura.

    Coming into Orthodoxy was like falling into a hammock for me. So great to be able to trust the Church, and to not have to figure it all out for myself (to know which was the right *PC to attend) and to be relieved from constantly judging the pastor and those people around me, to see if they had correct theology (according to me). What a relief…what an easy yoke and light burden to be part of the Orthodox Church.

    William G: you have blessed me with your comments on the Open Discussion on WW. Thank you.

    James: when you attend the conference in New Hampshire, say hello to our old friend Rich from Patty and Glenn, from about 30 years back. :0)

  10. William G:

    I don’t think Presbyterians (and others in the “Reformed/Calvinist” tradition) “consecrate” communion tables and the like, but they may well “dedicate” them. Although *I* would not use a communion table for any other purpose, I know of a church in that tradition where left-over communion bread may be taken home and cut up and toasted to make croutons — despite pieces of it having been given to communicants with the words “The Body of Christ, given/broken for you.”

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