Fate of Houston’s First Presbyterian Church to be decided on Sunday

houstonBy Florian Martin

This Sunday, Houston’s First Presbyterian Church will vote on whether to break with the Presbyterian Church USA and join a more conservative denomination. The possible split would be part of a nationwide trend.

Sunday’s vote concludes a year-long so-called discernment period, during which church members discussed the pros and cons of leaving their parent denomination. Those who want to break away say there has been a theological drift between the First Presbyterian Church and the larger body since at least 2001. One example some point to is that the larger general assembly almost allowed a path to gay marriage less than two years ago.

In an interview with KUHF about a year ago, First Presbyterian’s senior pastor Jim Birchfield said that is not the main issue.

“No, at this point it’s really not about gay marriage. It’s really more about the fundamental differences in how we interpret scripture and how we view the nature and the work of Christ.”

But Lynn Mitchell, director of the University of Houston’s religious studies department, is not so sure. He says there has been a trend of Presbyterian churches around the country ending their affiliation with PCUSA after the larger institution allowed the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy in 2011.

“It becomes a central issue for a congregation like the one in Houston because Houston and congregations in Houston of all kinds — Presbyterians and otherwise — tend to be more conservative.”


Comments 13

  • Stephen, please contact me on email.


  • Stay and fight? Enough of this denominational idolatry. My devotion is to Jesus Christ and his call to help hurting people. It seems that, instead of preserving a heritage, we should be caring about lost people. Don’t lost people matter more than a denomination overcome with false teaching and an arrogant political agenda?

  • Presbyterians may struggle sometimes with substance but they’re world class experts on procedure and Presbyterian procedure redeemed itself in this case of First Presbyterian Houston. There should be a bias in favor of the PC(USA) in a PC(USA) church and if there’s enough of a loyalist PC(USA) faction for a church to continue as a viable PC(USA) congregation even if it’s a minority, the church should continue as a PC(USA) church. I hope that the evangelical majority will remain part of the church and not leave. They can take comfort from the experience of Highland Park Presbyterian in Dallas. Highland Park evangelicals fell short with a 55% vote to leave in the 1990’s but all of Highland Park is unified today in their desire to leave which will happen in the very near future. The First Houston majority can be serenely confident that the trends in the PC(USA) they have correctly identified will continue inexorably and that it’s just a matter of time before their brothers and sisters in the First Houston minority are on their way out the door with them.

    • “They can take comfort from the experience of Highland Park Presbyterian in Dallas. Highland Park evangelicals fell short with a 55% vote to leave in the 1990′s…”

      Are you kidding? In the aftermath of the vote of HPPC to remain affiliated with the PCUSA rather than separate and become affiliated with the PCA, HPPC went through a painful church split, where a substantial minority of HPPC members left to form Park Cities Presbyterian Church, a congregation affiliated with the PCA. It would NOT be a comfort to FPC-Houston if a substantial minority of its members—or especially a slim majority, based on the sentiment behind the numbers of the vote (64.5% to leave; 35.5% to stay)—left to form a new ECO or EPC congregation.

      In the early 1990s, Evangelicals could still reasonably hope that through their witness, the denomination might turn around and move more in the direction of Biblical faithfulness. Today, that is no longer the case. In the recent moves by the 2008 and 2010 General Assemblies (and ratified by a majority of presbyteries) for the PCUSA to adopt the world’s sexual mores, Evangelicals have become very disillusioned about the effectiveness of their witness to this very worldly denomination, which increasingly shares neither their confidence in the truth of Scripture nor their commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ as the only way, the only truth, and the only life, through whom alone men and women can come to the Father.

      Given this disillusionment and that a substantial majority of FPC members voted to seek dismissal from the PCUSA to the ECO, I would be surprised if FPC did not experience at least some kind of church split in the aftermath of this decision.

      • Yes, you’re right Mr. Golden that a substantial faction of Highland Park evangelicals left after the failed vote in the 1990’s but you’re missing my point. Highland Park is totally unified in their desire to leave the PC(USA) today, a unity the Holy Spirit could have accomplished years ago if those evangelicals hadn’t left in the 1990’s. The same outcome will play itself out at First Presbyterian Houston. If a substantial portion of the 65% majority leave in a huff, it will take the Holy Spirit twenty years to unify the church to leave. If the majority stays committed to the Lord and to their brothers and sisters in the 35% minority, the Holy Spirit can unify the church and extricate it from the PC(USA) in five years.

        • Jim, the reason I disagree with your theory is this: 20 years ago, when Highland Park first voted, it could have been plausibly argued that the liberal course of the PCUSA might still be halted; “stay and fight” was a legitimate position to take. Today, there’s no such possibility. The denomination has fully evolved into a liberal social and political entity. The 596 members of First Houston who voted to stay were clearly registering their approval, or at least their acceptance, of the PCUSA’s agenda. It seems unlikely that there’s anything PCUSA leadership could do that would push these 596 over to the “leave” vote, if nothing that’s happened so far has done that.

          • Yes Don, but every follower of Jesus has to wrestle with the paradoxical counsel of Scripture to be in unity with other believers but to separate ourselves when the unfaithfulness of others reaches a certain breaking point. I disagree that if the PC(USA)’s heterodoxy hasn’t pushed the First Houston minority past its breaking point by now, there’s no hope for them. The PC(USA)’s gradual embrace of Unitarianism, syncretism and universalism is inexorable and irreversible and it’s just a matter of time for the minority at First Houston just as it was just a matter of time for the congregation at Highland Park. But if a large faction leaves First Houston now it will dissipate resources and energy from Christ’s mission in Houston and keep First Houston in the PC(USA) many years longer as was the case at Highland Park.

  • The path forward for the 1,085 should be clear: To remind themselves that the church is not the buildings on Travis St., but the people who have been worshiping there; and to walk out the doors without returning, to begin the process of starting a new, non-PCUSA congregation. From what I’ve read, though, the pastors and members seem to be already resigning themselves to staying in the denomination that they had previously concluded they couldn’t stay in. Perhaps the buildings on Travis St. mean too much to them, after all.

    • Don, you raise an important point: Do church members stay behind to fight for the facilities they’ve built up over the years, or leave it behind to start afresh? For many of the older members who now live on fixed incomes, this has to be a tough choice. If you leave then you leave behind a substantial infrastructure (especially for children’s ministry and the school) to the “progressive” minority of the congregation.

      With the direction the PCUSA is headed I would not be surprised to see another vote in 5-10 years that will easily pass.

  • Today the members of First Presbyterian Overwhelming voted to support of their staff in moving to ECO. Out of 1,681 votes, 1,085 were in favor of moving to ECO. However, this fell 36 votes needed for the supermajority to carry the motion.

    Despite the fact that the vast majority of members would like to leave PSUSA, it is obviously God’s will for us to stay at the present time. Please pray for our pastors and elders as they will once again will have to endure another PCUSA General Assembly.

    • Byron, I hope that this vote will lead to Reformation within the congregation at 1st Presbyterian/Houston and the denomination at large. I am afraid that too many have given up the fight and do not want to stand against the tide. Our Protestant forefathers fought hard and well and some gave their blood to bring the church out of the slavery of Romanism. We need men in the PCUSA with the same passion and spirit, but sadly many have abandoned the denomination. Stand and fight earnestly for the faith and reclaim the PCUSA for the glory of God and the advancement of His Kingdom.

  • 596 faithful members of First, Houston sent a message of hope and grace and healing for many people today. I am for one am thankful. I also pray fervently for healing in this congregation, the same healing many like me have experienced by this historic vote.

    • Blake, what kind of message of healing did 596 send? If it is anything contrary to sound doctrine it will only bring more confusion and put souls in jeopardy.

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