The 575-member church located in Cobb County northeast of Atlanta has finalized its dismissal agreement with Cherokee Presbytery and acceptance to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, effectively severing its ties with the PCUSA.
Started in 1972 as MINTEC (a Ministry to East Cobb), the church became Eastminster the following year. It was dismissed to ECO during the May 28 meeting of Cherokee Presbytery.
A document outlining the road to dismissal indicated that the passage of Amendment 10A, regarding the “fidelity and chastity requirement” for ordination, in 2011 as well as the approval of the new Form of Government (nFOG) were major issues for the session and congregation, along with the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
“It is a cross issue, a Gospel issue,” the Rev. Dr. Timothy McConnell wrote in an email to The Layman. “If the church claims authority to forgive sins by majority vote, it is promoting an alternative atonement theory. If sin can be put away by a process other than the work of Jesus on the cross, then the cross is rendered superfluous. There seem to be two gospels at work in the Presbyterian Church today. One says, ‘Come to us, we are the church that has voted to disregard your sins.’ The other, and that which Eastminster feels compelled to present, is this: ‘Come to Jesus, repent and believe in Him, and He will forgive your sins by His work on the cross.’”
McConnell indicated that the results of a 2008 Presbyterian Panel Survey showed two contradictory claims to the meaning of Christ’s work on the cross. The results showed that a third of PCUSA clergy agree with the statement “only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” Two-thirds disagree or are unsure that it is necessary to follow Jesus to be saved. Among specialized clergy the numbers showed 78 percent either unsure or certain that following Jesus is not necessary for salvation.
“These leaders, theologians and pastors for the most part do not feel it is necessary to lead the lost to Jesus for their salvation. In formal terms, this is a status confessionis, because the church’s ability to bear witness to the saving work of Jesus Christ in the world is jeopardized,” McConnell wrote. “In fact, without that witness the church ceases to be the church. The elders of this (Eastminster) church consider the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ on the cross necessary to our salvation, that without repentance and faith the benefits of Christ’s atonement do not accrue to the lost sinner, and that these are essential elements of the Christian Gospel.”
McConnell pointed out that elders of Eastminster also grew concerned over the erosion of Presbyterian polity with the passage of nFOG, granting greater oversight authority to higher bodies while stimulating local options on issues like ordination standards. Property disputes remain problematic, dissolving the claims of local ownership of property by congregations, and the PCUSA continues to press political issues and stances that are counter to the values held by conservative congregants, causing them to wonder why their tithes and offerings are supporting such political agendas.
“Eastminster is a conservative community, and these positions consistently deleveraged our mission to bring the Gospel to our particular context,” McConnell wrote.
A “Peace, Unity and Purity” (PUP) Task Force formed by the General Assembly (GA) in 2001 to examine causes of discord in the PCUSA and recommend solutions issued a report five years later that allowed for selective interpretation of ordination standards by each presbytery. Eastminster’s session drafted its own statement on ordination and the PUP report, rejecting such interpretation only to see the GA approve the idea of local options in the presbyteries.
The 219th GA, in 2010, voted to remove the fidelity and chastity requirement for ordination, a measure passed by a majority vote of the presbyteries the following spring, and nFOG went into effect. Eastminster’s session responded by declaring the 2009 Book of Order would be its manual of operations and drafted a position on human sexuality to stand as a continued guide as the issue comes up time and time again.
Town hall meetings and updates from the session to the congregation about the direction of the PCUSA were held in August 2012. In October 2012, elders voted to enter a period of discernment, and the presbytery formed a Response Team. A meeting in mid-December focused on results of the denomination exploration, and the session announced Dec. 27, 2012, that the church would seek dismissal from the PCUSA to join ECO.
A straw poll taken in February 2013 showed nearly 93 percent of voting members (260 of 280 who voted) were in favor of leaving the PCUSA to seek membership with ECO. Cherokee Presbytery then formed an Administrative Commission (AC) to work with Eastminster.
The AC recommendation presented to the presbytery on May 28 was that Eastminster be dismissed with name, property, title and assets to ECO, and that its pastors also be dismissed to ECO.
In exchange for dismissal, Eastminster proposed to contribute $25,000 annually to the presbytery for the next three years ($75,000 total) to shared Christian missions in the region, an offer agreed to by the AC. However, the presbytery council voted down the recommendation, choosing instead to take the cash payments to help it “make a constructive transition in its ministry.”
On the same day that Eastminster was dismissed, 120-member New Lebanon Presbyterian Church in nearby Jasper also was granted departure from the PCUSA but only after agreeing to pay $130,000.
McConnell explained Eastminster’s decision to align itself with ECO.
“We decided on ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians for a number of reasons. We delight in the consistency of confessional belief, carrying the Book of Confessions forward,” he wrote. “The commitment to restoring Presbyterian covenantal unity and spiritual formation returns the church to practices of Presbyterianism from the last era of grand church expansion (early 20th century). The desire to prioritize church planting over institutional defense is invigorating and challenging … and right!”
He continued, “Finally, we are encouraged by the commitment to equal service of men and women in every office, and were somewhat concerned at the prospect of sending commissioners to presbytery meetings who would not be recognized as elders by other commissioners because they are women. These factors led us to joyfully answer Christ’s call to ECO, even though most departing congregations from our presbytery have joined another Presbyterian denomination.”
McConnell indicated that the dismissal procedure was one that proved to be cordial on both sides.
“Our process was genuinely amicable throughout. I am very proud of our elders, and also of the commissioners and staff of Cherokee Presbytery. We prayed earnestly for one another, carried through the process open with one another from beginning to end, held each other in high regard through every dialogue, and came to an agreeable end for dismissal,” he wrote.
Even though there was an amicable parting of ways between congregation and presbytery, McConnell opined for a more streamlined process to be used by all presbyteries for all churches seeking dismissal.
“I do wish that the PCUSA would nationalize the procedure. The church is in genuine schism over a status confessionis issue. A consistent procedure from the national level would save a great deal of heartbreak as every case is subject to the whims and eccentricities of personalities involved,” he wrote. “In our case, there was a last-minute change that rendered months of thoughtful prayer, dialogue and deliberation from our Response Team and Administrative Commission meaningless. They were as upset as we were. In other cases, there are even worse scenarios playing out fueled by fear and institutional defensiveness. These scenarios bear sour fruit in our witness to the world on the meaning and reality of Christian love.”
With the dismissal process behind them, members of Eastminster Presbyterian Church now look to their calling in a new denomination without the issues of their former home weighing them down as they seek to do God’s will.
“We must recognize as Presbyterian leaders that we are in a post-denominational age. Anything we wish to retrieve and employ from our heritage and confessions must be presented with meaningful arguments for why it is of value today for the current mission of the church,” he wrote. “The congregation cares very little for denominational politics and associations. That said, for those who are and have been invested in the denomination, this is a new and joyful era of freedom to stop worrying about the next national embarrassment or the use of denominational funds and energies. For those who cared only a little, they are relieved that it is all over and we can stop talking about it and go about our mission! For the active elders and staff, there is a genuine excitement about what God is doing through the Fellowship of Presbyterians and ECO movement. We believe we are poised now to use our gifts and resources to reach the next generation with the Gospel in ways we would not have felt possible even a year ago.”