First Presbyterian Church of Greenback became the first member of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians in the state when it was dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) by the Presbytery of East Tennessee (PET) in November 2013.
“We’re the only ECO church in Tennessee now, but we hope others will come through time,” said FPC-Greenback Pastor David Bell, who has led the Loudon County congregation for 20 years. “We’re looking forward to the new relationships we’ll build.”
The 80-member church, founded in 1908, is located in Greenback, 12 miles south of Maryville, Tenn., not far from Knoxville.
Bell pointed out that frustration with the national denomination had been building within the FPC-Greenback congregation for the last 10 years or so.
The session of FPC-Greenback adopted the Confessing Church Movement statement in 2001 and presented an overture to the presbytery regarding essentials established by the church following a 2007 Peace Unity Purity (PUP) Report that suggested churches take such action. That overture was not adopted, and Bell pointed out that measure has remained a point of difference.
He was a commissioner at the 219th General Assembly (2010) in Minneapolis when the changes to ordination standards were approved and a statement acknowledging Jesus Christ alone as the only way to salvation was not adopted.
“We feel the Scripture is clear on the issue (of fidelity and chastity in reference to ordination), and the Bible is clear that Jesus is the only way to salvation,” Bell said. “We saw that as a statement that (the PCUSA) is not willing to follow Scripture.”
Bell even wrote a 14-page report defending the Biblical view of homosexuality as a sin only to see the Presbytery of East Tennessee vote for the changes in ordination standards brought about by Amendment 10-A.
“As a result we were further alienated from the direction the (Presbyterian) church was going,” he said. “We had our own standards and essentials we had written and felt secure in that. We just felt out of place (in the PCUSA).”
And so the decision to seek dismissal was reached through a congregational vote in January 2013. The congregation followed the steps outlined by the Administrative Commission (AC) assigned to the church and was granted its release from the PCUSA 10 months later.
Working through a process
Bell explained that the PET did not have a policy for dismissal in place, thus allowing each AC to go through its own procedure for coming to terms with congregations seeking departure.
He noted that two other small churches (Epperson Presbyterian and Brown Hill Presbyterian) were dismissed to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) prior to FPC-Greenback’s departure without financial compensation to the presbytery.
FPC-Greenback was required to make payment of $15,000 over a five-year period, $5,000 in the first year and decreasing by $1,000 each year afterward. The congregation opted to make a lump sum payment and sent a check to the presbytery in exchange for a quitclaim deed to its property.
“The congregation put this matter in the hands of the session to handle,” Bell said. “There was one objection on the floor (during the presbytery meeting), but it was quite amicable otherwise, very cordial. I was surprised at the gentleness of that transition but also grateful. We are grateful to God for making it that way.”
A new home in ECO
Bell cited several reasons that FPC-Greenback opted to make ECO its new denominational affiliation. Its ordination of women into positions of leadership into the church and following of the Westminster Confessional Standard were a couple of those that stood out, but Bell offered more.
“We liked that ECO is for church planting, expansion and making disciples for Jesus Christ. That really appealed to us,” he explained. “There is an expectation that congregations will be linked to each other through mission groups, and the linking of pastors in fellowship and accountability was attractive to us.”
More than that, the congregation liked knowing that it would be standing firm on God’s Word with brothers and sisters who share a similar theology.
“It’s such a huge relief to know that we can move from an oppositional stand in our presbytery and the national denomination to seeing what we can accomplish with others who share our beliefs,” Bell said.