From one Stated Clerk to another, a continuing conversation between the EPC and PCUSA

EPC logoTwo months have passed since Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) sent a letter to the stated clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), Jeffrey Jeremiah. The angst in the June 27 letter concerning the EPC’s reception of congregations that have disaffiliated from the PCUSA was palpable.  The EPC stated clerk responded in a letter dated August 22.

At issue is Parsons’ assertion that the EPC can only receive a congregation that has been formally dismissed by its PCUSA presbytery of membership.  Parsons argues that all other exit routes are barred. ”A Presbyterian congregation, as I am sure you are aware, cannot dismiss, dissolve, disaffiliate, or transfer itself by its own action. Any vote taken by a PCUSA congregation or session in no way removes the congregation from the jurisdiction of the PCUSA. Neither the congregation nor the session has the authority to make the congregation ‘independent’ as the congregation or the EPC may suggest. We do not recognize the action so the congregation and/or the EPC as releasing a PCUSA pcusacongregation from the requirements and obligations of our Book of Order.  If the EPC takes action to receive a non-dismissed PCUSA congregation, such action is not recognized by us as a dismissal and the presbytery of membership will continue to fulfill its responsibility through its related processes, ecclesial and/or secular, through to completion.”

Jeremiah’s response points out that the PCUSA and EPC have – and are therefore governed by – different constitutions.

Flatly denying the primary issue raised by Parsons, Jeremiah’s letter says, “our constitution recognizes multiple ways for churches to come to the EPC, including independency. We do not make an evaluation of churches based on the way they come to us. We respect their calling by Christ as a community of faith, no matter the manner of their arrival. You appear to object to this constitutionally approved practice. To accede to your position we would have to change our constitution. We see no reason to do this.”

Jeffrey Jeremiah

Jeremiah’s letter addresses three additional constitutional issues.

1. “..the EPC considers the congregation based on its spiritual, biblical and confessional profession. Little consideration is given to such things as the name of their church and its property value.”

2. “…an EPC congregation has total ownership of their property. Our constitution allows for churches to leave the EPC with their property when going to other denominations or independency without fear of punitive responses from the EPC.”

3. “…the EPC and the majority of Presbyterian denominations in the United States recognize independency and acknowledge a congregation’s right to disaffiliate from a denomination. On this, we choose to affirm the majority position, which aligns with biblical principles.”

Jeremiah’s letter goes on to address the widely disparate experiences of congregations seeking to realign from PCUSA presbyteries to the EPC. He notes that although some presbyteries take the action of the 2008 General Assembly calling for gracious dismissal seriously, many presbyteries make denominational realignment almost impossible. Jeremiah notes that the route of disaffiliation is seen “as the only option” for some.

gradye parsons
Gradye Parsons

Since the migration of PCUSA churches to the EPC began in earnest in 2007, 25-30 churches have been received by the EPC from “independent” status. But not all of those disaffiliated. Some churches were “dissolved” by their PCUSA presbytery and then reconstituted themselves and joined the EPC as independent congregations.

The vast majority of churches received by the EPC over those years have been dismissed by their PCUSA presbyteries. The Layman strives to keep an updated accounting of the migration.

As Parsons’ original volley in this exchange was copied to leadership of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), the only official ecumenical group of which both the PCUSA and EPC are members, Jeremiah’s letter also was copied to them.

The proverbial ball is now back in Parsons’ court.


Comments 17

  • Aren’t the reactions and positions taken by the PC (USA) and its leaders reminiscent of how the Catholic church reacted to congregations wanting to leave it for a Protestant denomination? It was then also about power & money; think of all those indulgences and required monies forward to the head church that were going to disappear if they left the fold.

    There’s a lot of talk about grace at the PC (USA) but they seem to act more from motives of power, money and defending the ‘correct’ political agenda.

  • At the end of the day, for the pcusa it’s not about spreading the word or mission it’s about holding on to property, this is about money. They could care less about the conservatives in their pews. They would dismiss them a long time ago if it meant they leave w/o property.
    Pcusa will eventually die out though, they will gasp once, then twice, then rollover and die it’s bound to happen. Look at their numbers, they are white, old and dry. I don’t think they have much time left. In the meantime they will try and hold on to what they can to avoid the inevitable.

  • I think it is interesting how much everyone talks about the rules and procedures of this matter and how little people are willing to acknowledge the deep hurt that this entire situation has brought to so many. This isn’t just a bunch of people who have decided to stop paying their bills and walk away from a mortgage. These are brothers and sisters in Christ who have earnestly sought the Lord for their beliefs and convictions and are trying to live their lives according to the Scriptures as they understand them. At the end of the day the church is there for the purpose of edifying the saints and at the point where the majority of a congregation says we can no longer ascribe to these beliefs because we earnestly believe the Bible instructs us otherwise and God has called us to other things, there is nothing left but to bid them farewell. It no longer matters what the BOCO states because we are, in the end, called to a higher calling of God’s standard. If the Presbytery will not release them then it is the Presbytery that has grieved the process not the the church. That being said, with the Timberridge ruling behind us I would encourage churches, do not try to fight, just leave. It will be a hard process but easier in the end.
    At the end of the day it is this kind of talk that has labeled us the frozen chosen. God forgive us for our lack of compassion for the hearts of our brothers and sisters.

  • I want to start a business analogy. It I had a franchise with McDonalds, but became troubled and upset by certain McDonalds practices, I could not, suddenly one day decide the place was going to become a Burger King. Even if I changed the sign, started getting my supplies from BK, and told everyone the place was now a BK, there is still the business of the franchise contract which must first be dissolved. Failure to do so would result in a lawsuit by McDonalds, Inc.
    Second, a marriage analogy. If I tire of, become upset with, or just grow distant from my spouse, I cannot just walk out, say “it’s over”, and go off to marry someone else, no matter how much more compatible the potential new spouse may be. The marriage must be dissolved (divorce), and it sometimes is messy and costly, though sometimes it is also quite amicable.
    So too, a local congregation which is part of a national body to which it has historic ties, and to which it has likely given support and at other times received support from (building loans, aid to field, etc.), cannot one day declare itself no longer a part of the larger body. There is a process to follow. The process can be amicable, or it can be messy. Sometimes it is the Presbytery’s fault and sometimes it is the local church’s fault, but fault-finding and finger pointing are seldom beneficial to anyone, especially the glory of God.
    Regardless of the differences in polity and property ownership, until a church has been fully dismissed or dissolved from one denomination it is inappropriate for denomination to receive said church.
    Case closed.

    • Mr. John Pehrson:
      I don’t like analogies because they always break down under scrutiny. For example, your business analogy is a straw man. It assumes that McDonalds is continuing to be McDonalds and the franchisee is driven to switch loyalties for some lightweight or selfish reason.
      When a a body of believers leaves the PC USA they are leaving because the PC USA has ceased to be who they once were – who they were when loyalties and agreements were put in place. The PC USA is the one walking away from decent biblical standards – and causing many believers to be forced to find find another home.
      This analogy would be more appropriate: Over the years, McDonalds drifts farther and farther from their core principals and arrives at a point where they are barely recognizable. They even begin delivering tainted food. People are becoming ill and lives are at risk. Rather than try and make things right McDonalds response is to tell concerned business owners that if they leave the organization they can’t have their own building or any assets and they are clearly rebels and rabble rousers. When a concerned and responsible franchisee asks for the specifics the proper procedure to depart on a mutually amicable basis, McDonalds HQ refuses to answer in a clear manner, and instead lays out sometimes contradictory and vague responses filled with vague terms that they bend to their own advantage, and then begin a process of committees and lawyers and delays that could stretch out for years. Any MCDonalds owner with a soul say’s “I cant do this to people any more. It is wrong”
      Better analogy , I think.

      • Mr. Dennehy,
        It is true, analogies break down at some point – apples and oranges. Still your analogy is simply an expansion of mine and fails to take into account both contract and case law. The owner of a McD could decline to renew the franchise when it is up for renewal, and then become an independent restaurant or sign on with BK, which would also mean changing the appearance so as to not resemble a McD. However, this could not be done while the franchise agreement is still in place, though the plans could be laid for making a switch. Contract law is very clear on the matter and case law backs it up
        So, switching to the marriage analogy, even if one’s spouse is unfaithful and committing adultery, the marriage is still a binding contract requiring one to go to court to have it ended. And just as different states have somewhat different processes for divorce, so too different presbyteries may have a different process for a separation agreement.
        That said, the process ALWAYS works better when there is mutual respect and a spirit of humility and cooperation. Refusing to cooperate, name calling, and ignoring the rules result in situations where the love of God is destroyed.

    • John,

      Get this: THERE IS NO PROCESS for churches to leave!

      • Yes there is. Our Presbytery has a clear and concise process, which, when churches follow it, results in mutual respect and continued cooperation. Two churches which left our Presbytery continue to support selected Presbyterian mission projects and participate in a presbytery cluster group. Shall I forward our process to you?

        • John,

          You’re confusing your local presbytery’s policies, with the rest of the PC(USA) presbyteries. Many have very draconian “Gracious” dismissal policies, others have none at all.

          You may have forgotten what Heartland (or Heartless) Presbytery did to one church who requested to leave. Very draconian process, eventually the congregation had to go to court to ask relief. Even after being told that it had no standing, the Presbytery went after the church in another state, and also got shot down. Result; money that could have gone to spread the Word, went into some lawyer’s pockets. The church in question had funds to proceed with the case; there are small churches that cannot afford such legal costs.

          In those states where a voluntary association is revocable, it is very legal for the church corporation to disaffiliate. This is the way many small churches have taken. Now that the ‘law of the denomination’ is that no matter what the presbytery wants to do, they have to take into account the values of ALL endowments, property (there’s that word again), and furnishings to determine how much the church asking for dismissal should pay in ransom.

          This is the result of not having a SINGLE, denomination wide policy for dismissal.

          And frankly, in quite a few states, if churches just leave, the PC(USA) has NO legal recourse to property at all. In Texas and South Carolina, you’re going to see a few churches just leave with no fanfare whatsoever.

  • The problem that Parsons raises is one that has been created by the PCUSA itself. The absence of a clearly defined process of departure of congregations is irresponsible. As it is, there are perhaps as many strategies for dealing with departing churches as there are presbyteries in the PCUSA. Some leave gracefully, others under threat. Some are dismissed; some (such as my congregation) are dissolved; some are disaffiliated; some are transferred. This is due to the neglect of the PCUSA to develop a consistent means of dealing with congregations who wish to exercise their right to freedom of association!

    Parsons should be embarrassed by his attempt to blame the EPC for his own neglect.

  • The EPC has an unamendable provision that guarantees local churches own their property. I trust this would be true even if they did not follow the constitutional procedure for leaving the denomination. That process is more for good order than holding congregation’s property hostage.

    Presbyterianism has historically recognized the existence of “Independent” congregations. Presbyterians in the American colonies were all such prior to the formation of the first presbytery in 1703.

    One could be sympathetic with a complaint regarding the officers of one or more specific congregations disregarding their ordination vows respecting the Constitution of the PCUSA. No church should ignore the violation of vows freely made. However, as Jeremiah points out, no specific violations were cited.

    A church which does not practice biblical discipline and distorts biblical doctrine and God’s moral law ceases to be a true church of Jesus Christ, becoming a synagogue of Satan. In the face of intimidation and threats, one may understand congregations fleeing without looking back.

    If a congregation has been dissolved and reconstitutes itself as an independent fellowship, it need not ask anyone’s permission in seeking to join another Christian body, other than those with whom it seeks to affiliate.

    I thank God the EPC exists to receive many of these congregations. Better they are part of a body with Presbyterian connectionalism, accountability, and holding to the essentials of the Reformed faith than drifting in Independency.

  • Reply to Mr Coppack .. as far as I know, the EPC Book of Order concerning property or receiving churches has not changed since 1990 … long before the mass exodus of churches from the PC(USA). The EPC BoO, Book of Government chapter 5-4 states : “When an established congregation desires to become a part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, it shall petition the Presbytery in which it is located to be received. Such petition should be presented by an authorized delegation from the requesting congregation which indicates that the congregation and its governing body (IE: Session) have duly concurred in the request, ”

    It does not require anything else.

    To Mr. Maher: you should note that many churches requesting admission to the EPC have gone through a dismissal procedure with their PC(USA) presbytery, and were then formally received by the EPC. Those that chose to disaffiliate (which is a legal action in many states) are fewer.

    Also note this letter was in reply to Grady Parson’s letter which was released to the press the same day it was sent. The tone of that letter was decidedly accusatory, and not as a collegial ‘clerk-to-clerk’ letter.

    And as far as this statement of your’s : ” I predict problems for the EPC in the future, when some of their congregations declare themselves to be independent of an apostate denomination.”

    I seriously doubt the EPC will ever reach the point where its congregations are doing what many in the PC(USA) are doing today. That said, the procedure for dismissal from the EPC is also governed by rules in its BoO (last changed in 1988), unlike the PC(USA) where each Presbytery gets to set the rules. The procedure can take 3 to 6 months, and if the congregation approves at the end of that time with a 2/3 vote at a congregational meeting, the church is then dismissed with property and assets.

  • If Jeremiah and the EPC constitution were truly “Presbyterian” and Reformed, they would acknowledge that these congregations do not come from a “congregational” form of government, and are therefore not “independent,” but subject to their presbyteries. There has always been a diplomatic protocol to be followed when a clerk corresponds with an official of another denomination. It is obvious that the EPC and the Layman wish to take an outlaw position in the ecclesiastical world by thumbing their noses at the PCUSA. I predict problems for the EPC in the future, when some of their congregations declare themselves to be independent of an apostate denomination.

  • Isn’t it ironic that the “Evangelical” Presbyterian Church is lead by a person named Jeremiah. And isn’t is ironic that their constitution is different allowing and encouraging PCUSA congregations to circumvent the Constitution under which they were formed, help write over time and agreed in writing to respect and operate under.

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