(Originally posted 1/31/13; updated with video on 2/6/13)
One of the most prominent Presbyterian churches in Oklahoma has ended its affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA).
First Presbyterian Church of Edmond’s request for dismissal from the PCUSA was granted Monday, Jan. 28 when Indian Nations Presbytery voted to allow the church to leave and join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO).
Representatives of the churches in the presbytery voted 63-4 in favor of the dismissal to ECO, another Presbyterian denomination.
In spite of the vote for dismissal, the ordination papers for Senior Pastor Mateen Elass and two associates have not been transferred to ECO yet even though representatives from ECO sent a letter to the presbytery informing the body that it would assume ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Edmond’s pastors and congregation.
Elass said until that takes place, he and his associates are still part of the presbytery.
“We’re waiting to see if we will be transferred,” he said.
The presbytery vote came a day after the FPC-Edmond congregation overwhelmingly voted to leave the denomination in one of the church’s most significant meetings in its history dating back to formation in 1891.
More than 1,000 people turned out for the vote, and 870 members of the church cast ballots Sunday, Jan. 27. Eight-hundred fifteen of them were in favor of leaving the PCUSA. Fifty-five voted against the proposal.
The church needed 685 votes in favor of dismissal for an Administrative Commission of the presbytery to recommend the move from the PCUSA to ECO.
The church has a membership of about 1,400.
Under terms of the dismissal agreement, FPC-Edmond will provide a lump sum payment of $510,000 to Indian Nations Presbytery but will retain its property rights.
Also, the church had requested that its dismissal date from the PCUSA be listed as Jan. 31 to avoid any health insurance coverage issues for staff members through the Board of Pensions, but the presbytery did not grant that, making the dismissal effective with the results of the Jan. 28 vote.
Despite such issues, Elass said the church had been able to navigate its way through the dismissal process.
“It hasn’t been too difficult,” he said. “We’ve been able to hurdle the barriers the Administrative Commission has erected to slow our departure. What’s been disheartening is seeing people who go by the name of Christ treat others with such a coldness, meanness and legalism.”
Theological differences and a perception that the church had strayed from the authority of the Scripture played roles in Edmond’s decision to seek dismissal. The 2011 decision to allow the ordination of practicing homosexuals and a perception that the denomination is not holding accountable members of the clergy who have gone against the church’s ban on same-gender marriage factored into the rationale for seeking the move.
“The theological difference was the precipitating cause,” Elass said. “During the last decade our church has been very active in the renewal movement of the PCUSA, supporting financially as well as with manpower. We’ve tried hard to be one participant seeking to put the brakes on the denomination’s slide over the years, but we’ve not had a discernible impact.”
In an interview with The Oklahoman, Elass said the decision was one that had been carefully and prayerfully considered.
“This is not a decision that we’ve come about lightly,” he said. “We’ve been studying the issues concerning our present denomination for over eight years. We’ve decided that the theological drift over the last couple of decades has now made the Presbyterian Church (USA) a place that no longer accords with the beliefs of this congregation as far as the essentials of the Christian faith.”
The church created a task force that had been examining issues within the PCUSA, and following a perceived splintering of the evangelistic movement during the Fellowship gathering in Minneapolis, Minn., the FPC-Edmond session decided in March 2012 to seek the process of dismissal from the denomination.
“We acknowledged on paper that the PCUSA still was orthodox, but in reality The Book of Confessions and the Bible didn’t mean much,” Elass said. “There was very little theological and ethical concern for Biblical truths. Our denomination did not abide by its own rules of discipline. Why should we stay in a denomination that says these are things we believe but refused to stand behind them when challenged?”
That led the congregation to ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
“ECO, we discerned, had a strong desire for the proclamation of the Gospel and spreading that news to the world,” Elass said. “The goal of this denomination (ECO) is to bring polity into serving the mission. We sought to be affiliated with ECO because it allows churches and encourages churches to get beyond the brick and mortar mentality in how they serve God. We wanted to be part of a denomination that would press us to do things we know are right as a church.”