The feeling that the Presbyterian Church (USA) was pulling way from its Reformed roots and straying from God’s Word was enough to lead a Pennsylvania congregation to seek affiliation with another denomination.
The 106-member Bridgewater Presbyterian Church, located in Beaver County of western Pennsylvania, was dismissed from Beaver-Butler Presbytery and the PCUSA effective Jan. 1, 2014, to become part of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
“The decision of leaving was not one of opposition with Beaver-Butler Presbytery. We have always had strong ties with the presbytery,” said Dr. William Silver, pastor at Bridgewater for 16 years. “It was not an anger issue. We simply have a strong stance on trying to uphold the Word of God. Our congregation felt the denomination was leaving its roots, pulling away from what it had been.”
So the members of the historic church, which will celebrate its 170th year of ministry in 2014 and once served as a stop for the Underground Railroad during the Civil War, made the decision to look elsewhere for their denominational home.
Time to make a move
Bridgewater’s decision to leave the PCUSA got its start following the 220th General Assembly that took place in nearby Pittsburgh in 2012. Events of that gathering prompted the Bridgewater session to pen a letter to the presbytery expressing “deep concern of the congregation” related to the direction of the PCUSA.
Much of that was centered around what was witnessed at the GA, such as the draping of rainbow-colored cloths (symbolizing the Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer movement) on the cross and communion table at various gatherings.
“This is a congregation that has always been solid and fundamental in its worship and beliefs, holding true to the original confessions,” Silver said. “What we witnessed at that General Assembly appeared to be an attack on the Word of God.”
Silver said he always has been the type of person who believed there was a need to stay and fight for renewal in the denomination, but that was not feasible in this case.
“I’ve been an advocate of staying and fighting, holding to what God’s Word says, but we have a spiritual calling,” he said. “The PCUSA is adapting Scripture to culture rather than culture to Scripture. That brought us to the point we had to make a decision. Are we honoring God? Can we continue as we are, or is it time to make a move?”
Clinging to the Word
Bridgewater opted to continue to follow God’s Word as it is written rather than follow the adaptations that are made by the PCUSA to accommodate today’s culture.
“It’s a lot easier to change to the times instead of remaining what God has called us to be,” Silver explained. “We believe in the sovereignty of God and His Word. People can try to twist things any way they want. They are trying to change His Word, and it does not change. Even though culture changes, God’s word is consistent. It never changes.
“We felt it would be much better to be associated with a denomination that shared those core beliefs. We did not feel that was the direction the PCUSA was headed.”
Settling on ECO
ECO seemed to be the appropriate denomination for Bridgewater to make its new home, through its polity as a Reformed body that holds true to the confessions and essential tenets shared by the Pennsylvania congregation.
Additionally, ECO allows the ordination of women, something important to Bridgewater as it is to many other small congregations.
“That was a very important consideration for us,” Silver said, adding that ECO’s sense of connectivity and accountability for pastors and sessions also were a draw. “There’s also not a top-down format, which allows the Spirit to move in the local congregation. That shows a strong trust in the congregation.”
Leaving with property
The Bridgewater congregation voted 72-3 in favor of leaving the PCUSA and had a similar showing when the tally to accept dismissal terms and ECO as a new denominational affiliation was taken.
“We did not receive any negative feedback from the decision. We had a strong sense of unity,” Silver said. “On the one hand it was difficult spiritually because we had to break ties we’d had for many years. But on the other it was smooth. Beaver-Butler Presbytery treated us so well. We know that many other (churches) have had a more difficult time, but we did not. We have such high regard for (Executive Presbyter) Alan Adams and all he did in our process.”
The presbytery voted in October 2013 to approve Bridgewater’s dismissal to ECO after the congregation agreed to pay $16,000 to retain its property as well as the fee associated with the property assessment. There was a 90-day appeal process that came to an end Dec. 31, 2013, without any objections to the dismissal, and Bridgewater found itself part of ECO when the calendar turned to a new year.
“There was a knowledge that some churches had not had to pay,” Silver said. “There was talk about fighting (the dismissal fee) but the general consensus was that we did not want extend the process or get into a battle with the presbytery. We don’t have any ill feelings. We were not at odds with the presbytery. We just wanted to leave as we are.”
Answering the call
Silver noted that it appears a cloud has been lifted from the collective shoulders of the Bridgewater congregation now that the denominational wrangling has been cast aside and they are part of a new denomination.
“I get a sense from the congregation that there has been a spiritual burden lifted and now we can get on with doing ministry,” he said, noting the congregation’s commitment to missions, globally and locally. “We can concentrate on what God is calling us to be as a church. We know the denomination we’re now a part of stands on what the Word says, and we feel so much better being part of a denomination that shares our beliefs.”
Being part of ECO means there are no more denominational battles ahead for Bridgewater.
“We’re tired of those battles and glad they’re behind us,” Silver said. “We have the opportunity now to be part of the ministry God has called us to do, and that’s reaching out to share His Word and touch lives through the Gospel.”