The churches, all from Washington County about 30 miles south of Pittsburgh in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, were dismissed during a Sept. 10 meeting of Washington Presbytery. Two of them aligned with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), while the other three now are affiliated with ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
First Presbyterian Church of Bentleyville and Windy Gap Presbyterian Church left the PCUSA for the EPC, while Third United Presbyterian Church, McDonald Presbyterian Church and Mingo Creek Presbyterian Church were dismissed to ECO.
Pastor Andy Scott of FPC-Bentleyville and Pastor Tom Bellhy of Third-UPC – now known as New Hope Church-ECO Evangelical Presbyterian – said there were no dissenting votes cast when the dismissal was acted on during the presbytery meeting.
“There were people who did not agree with the idea of separation, but there was no serious contention,” Scott said. “There were no audible ‘No’ votes. Washington Presbytery, on the whole, was very gracious.”
Bellhy added, “There was no dissent. No one voiced disagreement at the presbytery meeting. (Presbyters) were very good about (the dismissals).”
That sentiment was shared by Mingo Creek Commissioned Lay Pastor Glenn McClelland.
“I and the congregation wish we did not have to go through this, but we felt we had to go in a different direction in taking our stand, and this is where the Lord has taken us,” he said. “There’s no animosity. Washington Presbytery has been very gracious to us throughout this process. They worked with a Christian spirit.”
Windy Gap interim pastor Lowell Meek said the process was handled in a way that “honored our Lord Jesus Christ and encouraged our continuing fellowship despite our decision to walk separate roads in mission and ministry.
“The leadership of the Presbytery set the pace for peaceful departure in a most loving and open atmosphere,” Meek said. “Great pains were taken to keep open and honest communication in a faithful attitude of grace, peace and love.”
Ready to move on
Scott said the presbytery’s dismissal policy requires 75 percent of the active voting membership to agree to leaving, and he noted that better than 80 percent were in favor of departing the PCUSA at all five churches.
FPC-Bentleyville (169 members) voted 82-21 to leave the PCUSA, while Third-UPC (96 members) voted 56-2, and the margin for McDonald (270 members) was 125-14 with two abstentions in favor of seeking a new denominational home.
Mingo Creek (81 members) voted by a 67-8 margin to depart the PCUSA, while Windy Gap (71 members) had a 40-4 vote in favor of leaving the denomination for a new home.
FPC-Bentleyville sought dismissal based on the erosion of Biblical authority and a lack of standards of discipline and practice within the national denomination, choosing to make the EPC its new home.
“It was simply a matter of the EPC being the best fit for our congregation,” Scott said. “We look forward to directing our energies toward the work of the Gospel and not toward denominational politics.”
Likewise, Mingo Creek, which celebrated its 231st anniversary on Oct. 13, pointed to doctrinal issues in its reasoning to seek a new denominational affiliation.
“It came down to what we have been teaching, and that is the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ,” McClelland said. “Unfortunately, it felt to us that the PCUSA has been straying away from those teachings.”
McClelland added that ECO was a draw for his congregation because it clearly outlines its essential tenets/core beliefs, offers a better plan for utilization of commissioned lay pastors moving forward in ministry, and it provides a platform for sharing Christ outside the walls of the church.
“It’s a place we could go to be the church we need to be and are trying to be,” he explained. “We can’t relax, though. We have taken a stand for a future denomination that wants to grow churches and spread the Good News. There’s some sadness in having to go through something like this, but we look forward to worshiping God as we feel He has called us to do.”
Meek said Windy Gap could no longer be part of the PCUSA’s drift.
“The main concern of the congregation and its leadership seems to have been the drift of the PCUSA from a clear view of the authority of Scripture and the belief that, in the PCUSA, the only essential tenet of our faith is that there are no essential tenets,” Meek explained. “The PCUSA seems now to rely more on ecclesiastical processes than Scriptural authority, particularly in its present emphasis on inclusion for all regardless of fidelity to Biblical (Reformed) theology.
“The mood of the congregation is very positive and hopeful, looking forward. There is an air of excitement in the congregation.”
Following God’s will
Bellhy said the two-year process for Third-UPC was one bathed in prayer to determine where God was leading.
“We put this to prayer,” he said. “We looked to seek the face of God and discover His will in this matter. The most important aspect is that it was not some decision made without considering and seeking God’s will. We really believe we made the right decision for our church.
“This was a big move for our congregation, to stay true to the Word of God and follow His will. We believe we will be blessed by it.”
Part of the dismissal agreement, and the desire of the congregation as well, was that Third-UPC change its name. After several months of prayerful consideration, New Hope Church was chosen as the new name moving forward in a new denomination.
“We prayed about what name would best fit God’s church, and as we started voting, it became clear what was coming out: hope, to a new life in Christ, and to a new family of God,” Bellhy explained. “This was no small matter. The church had its name since 1894.”
ECO resonated with the New Hope congregation because it holds pastors, sessions and congregations accountable to each other, but also because of its push to be evangelical, make disciples and spread the Word of God, following the teachings found in the Book of Acts, Bellhy said.
“Our churches have become fortresses, and they’re not meant to be. They’re meant to be outposts,” he said. “They should be a place to come to get revival, get rest and meet with fellow travelers so we can go back out into the wilderness and spread the Word of Christ.”
Additional information regarding the dismissals was not available, and presbytery officials declined to comment when contacted by The Layman.