Newest Presbyterian denomination experiences continued growth

ECOIn just two years of existence, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians has experienced substantial growth, already surpassing the 100-congregation membership mark.

ECO, started in January 2012 as a conservative denomination that broke off from the Presbyterian Church (USA), added 35 churches in its first year of existence, and more than doubled that number last year. Forty of those congregations that joined ECO did so in the last four months of 2013, allowing the denomination to surpass 100 congregations in the process.

First Presbyterian Church of Tacoma, Wash., was the first congregation to join ECO in May 2012. The acceptance of Bethel Presbyterian Church from Columbus, Ohio, in December 2013 gave the denomination its 100th congregation.

As of Feb. 5, ECO had grown to 109 congregations and 181 pastors in 22 states.

Dr. Dana Allin, ECO’s synod executive, noted that the average membership of churches joining the denomination is 375, leading to nearly 40,000 total members in ECO right now.

Dana Allin - ECO
Dana Allin

The greatest concentration of ECO churches is west of the Mississippi River, primarily in California (15), Washington (10) and Colorado (7), Alaska and Texas (6 each). East of the Mississippi, the states with the most ECO churches are Pennsylvania (16) and Florida (11).

“We’ve seen quite an increase in applications from California, Texas, Washington and the southeast area of the United States,” Allin said, adding that another 120-150 churches are in the process of joining ECO. “There are a lot of churches that plan to join when and if they can. They’re just waiting for congregational votes or dismissal by a presbytery.”

Even more churches are in a period of discernment to determine if they need to stay in the PCUSA or leave, and there also is the decision of which denomination to join if they choose to sever ties with the PCUSA.


PCUSA remains largest Presbyterian denomination

While ECO has seen positive growth in its membership (churches and individuals), the PCUSA still is the largest Presbyterian denomination in the United States.

According to information from the PCUSA, there were 1,849,496 members at the end of 2012 in 10,262 congregations. That’s a loss of 102,791 members and 204 congregations from the 2011 data. Membership totals for 2013 will be released later this spring.

The denomination’s membership has seen a steady decline over the last decade. In 2002, the PCUSA reported 2,451,969 members, so the current membership reflects a net loss of 602,473 members, or about 24.6 percent, over the last 10 years. There were 11,097 congregations in 2002, 835 more than in 2012.


ecomissionReasons for ECO’s growth

Allin gave several reasons for the influx of churches for ECO, which also has brought about the creation of nine presbyteries, an increase from two when the denomination formed two years ago.

“The mandate from the General Assembly to have gracious dismissal policies in place has been taken very seriously by presbyteries,” he said. “They have started working with churches that have realized they just don’t belong in the PCUSA anymore.”

Along with that is a theological diversity that has manifest itself within the PCUSA.

“A lot of us are realizing that even evangelicals need to do things differently,” Allin said. “More creativity and flexibility is needed, and there is a desire to return to that connectional nature of what it means to do Presbyterianism – how best to implement ministry and recapture what it means to be Presbyterian.”


Formation of a denomination

Information from the ECO web site shows that the new denomination developed from the formation of The Fellowship of Presbyterians (FOP) in 2011. More than 2,000 people gathered at the initial Fellowship meeting in Minneapolis, Minn., in August of that year. Five months later at a similar gathering of approximately 2,220 in Orlando, Fla., pastors and congregations feeling called to leave the PCUSA established ECO, providing a new denominational home for those holding true to the conservative Reformed faith.

The ECO name speaks to its core commitments:

Covenant: To connect leaders in accountable relationships and encourage collaboration.

Order: To commit to a shared way of life as we unite around a shared theological core.

Evangelical: To advance the gospel of Jesus Christ and plant new missional communities.

Presbyterian: To stand within our Reformed heritage and celebrate the life of the mind.

The mission is one that holds true to the Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20 to build flourishing churches that make disciples of Jesus Christ.

With the goal to “baptize more than they bury” by 2018, ECO churches place priority on lifting up the centrality of the Gospel; growing with an emerging generation of leaders; prioritizing a wave of church innovation; and creating an atmosphere of relational accountability.


A draw for congregations

Allin indicated that the missional entrepreneurial spirit, flexibility in operation and a desire to be the church God has called them to be have been reasons cited by congregations for their decisions to make ECO their new denominational affiliation.

“They feel this is the denomination that they can best fulfill the mission God has given them,” Allin said.

But is ECO merely a haven of rest for congregations disturbed by the more liberal direction the PCUSA has taken through the years? Is it a sanctuary from what conservatives churches are trying to leave behind?

“Sometimes we see congregations that simply want to leave the PCUSA,” Allin said. “But so many others want to embrace the philosophy of ECO, something they are hungry to be a part of. We see that there is dissatisfaction with being in the PCUSA, and this is an opportunity to change gears, not to get away from something but to move toward something they are excited about. We help them make those steps toward a new reality.”


Looking to the future

While pleased with the rapid growth of ECO, Allin is looking forward to continued additions of congregations and opportunities not only to add those from other denominations but also to plant new churches.

“As exciting as it is to see that we have more than a hundred churches, I’ll be way more excited when we plant 100 new churches and reach out to people,” Allin said. “We’re thankful to have over a hundred congregations; it gives us more people to reach out to others and share information about our denomination, but more importantly to share Jesus Christ. We have people who are clamoring for opportunities to be involved in church planting.”

Allin anticipates continued growth for the denomination on the horizon, especially with so many churches already engaged in the process of discernment and/or dismissal and others enquiring daily about acceptance by ECO.

“We see opportunities to develop new partnerships and continued growth for ECO,” he said. “If we can continue planting churches and see people come to Christ, we’ll be on the trajectory we want to be on for the future.”



Comments 6

  • What keeps the EECO and the PCA from becoming one?

    • The ordination of women is perhaps the greatest difference between the ECO and the PCA, but it is not the only difference.

      The ECO has adopted the entire PCUSA Book of Order as its confessional standard, whereas the PCA recognizes only the Westminster Confession of Faith, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as its confessional standard. The PCA requires ordained officers to affirm, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery (or Session) the change which has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?”
      Similar to the EPC and unlike either the PCUSA or the PCA, the ECO has adopted an “Essential Tenets” document, and it asks its officers to affirm, “Will you receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and will you be guided by them in your life and ministry?” The ECO “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document makes a distinction between “Doctrinal Progressives”, “Doctrinal Restorationists”, and “The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition”. It says, “Doctrinal Progressives understand the church’s confessional and theological tradition as an evolutionary development of doctrine in which the church’s expression of the gospel becomes richer in each succeeding age. In this view, contemporary theology and new confessions of faith are more developed, better expressed, fuller apprehensions of truth than the faith of previous centuries. Our way is the way.” It’s clear that the ECO is here referring to theological liberals in the PCUSA. The “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document also says, “Doctrinal Restorationists understand the church’s theological and confessional tradition as a series of missteps leading to imperfect understanding and inadequate articulation of the gospel. In this view, a particular moment in the church’s confessional and theological tradition, such as … the seventeenth century Westminster standards, is the pure faith of a theological golden age. Their way is the way.” It’s fairly clear that the ECO is here referring to the PCA and other Reformed denominations (such as the OPC, the ARP, and the RPC) that use only the Westminster Standards as their confessional standard and require their officers to take ordination vows similar to the PCA vow quoted above regarding the Westminster Standards without much room (if any) for expressing disagreement with the Westminster Standards. In contrast, the “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document states, “The Reformed understanding of the church’s confessional and theological tradition sees contemporary Christians as participants in an enduring theological and doctrinal conversation that shapes the patterns of the church’s faith and life. Communities of believers from every time and place engage in a continuous discussion about the shape of Christian faith and life, an exchange that is maintained through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Today’s church brings its insights into an ongoing dialogue with those who have lived and died the Faith before us. Voices from throughout the church’s life contribute to the interchange – ancient voices that articulate the enduring rule of faith, sixteenth and seventeenth century voices that shape the Reformed tradition, and twentieth century voices that proclaim the church’s faith in challenging contexts. The confessions in the Book of Confessions were not arbitrarily included, but were selected to give faithful voice to the whole communion of saints.” In a nutshell, the ECO is defining two extremes—the “Doctrinal Progressives” and the “Doctrinal Restorationists”—and then charts what it perceives is a middle path between the two extremes, saying that the Reformed understanding of the Confessions is this; that is, “Our way is the Reformed way.” The PCA, I am reasonably sure, takes exception to the ECO’s definitions and its adoption of the PCUSA Book of Confessions, making them a point of contention between the two denominations.

      Another major difference between the ECO and the PCA is in how it perceives the Scriptures. The PCA requires ordained officers to affirm, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?” By “as originally given”, the PCA means the original autographs as penned by the prophets and apostles, and the PCA requires its officers to believe that these autographs were so inspired by the Holy Spirit as to be without error, and by implication that our modern translations are trustworthy and reliable to the extent that they accurately deliver the message of the inerrant autographs.
      The ECO requires its ordained officers to affirm, “Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, and, inspired by the Holy Spirit, the unique witness to Jesus Christ and the authority for Christian faith and life?” The ECO “Essential Tenets & Confessional Standards” document further expands on this vow, stating, “The clearest declaration of God’s glory is found in His Word, both incarnate and written. The Son eternally proceeds from the Father as His Word, the full expression of the Father’s nature, and since in the incarnation the Word became flesh all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are offered to His disciples. The written Word grants us those treasures, proclaims the saving gospel of Jesus Christ, and graciously teaches all that is necessary for faith and life. We glorify God by recognizing and receiving His authoritative self-revelation, both in the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and also in the incarnation of God the Son. We affirm that the same Holy Spirit who overshadowed the virgin Mary also inspired the writing and preservation of the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit testifies to the authority of God’s Word and illumines our hearts and minds so that we might receive both the Scriptures and Christ Himself aright.” Remember that the ECO requires its officers to “receive, adopt, and be bound by the Essential Tenets of ECO as a reliable exposition of what Scripture teaches us to do and to believe, and (to) be guided by them in (their) life and ministry”, thus making the statement quoted here about “the infallible Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments” as the Word of God an extension of the ordination vow regarding the Scriptures themselves.
      To be sure, the ECO vows do not preclude officers from believing the doctrine of inerrancy as required by PCA officers, but neither do they require them, as do the PCA vows. Notice also that the ECO “Essential Tenets” document declares that the Scriptures are “infallible”; it does not say that they (or the autographs) are “inerrant”. To the casual observer, this might seem like splitting hairs; after all, don’t the two terms mean that the Bible is not mistaken in what it says?
      The difference is perhaps best spelled out in Positions 1 and 2 of a survey taken by the Presbyterian Panel in the summer and fall of 1979, the results of which were published in “Biblical Authority and Interpretation: A Resource Document Received by the 194th General Assembly (1982) of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America”. Position 1 stated, “The Bible, though written by individuals, has been so controlled by the Holy Spirit that it is without error in all it teaches in matters of science and history, as well as in matters of theology.” This position is essentially the doctrine required of officers in the PCA ordination vows. Position 2 stated, “The Bible, though written by individuals and reflecting their personalities, has been so controlled by the Holy Spirit that it is trustworthy in all it teaches in matters of theology and ethics, but not necessarily in matters of science and history.” (emphasis added) The word “infallible” has been typically employed to say that the teachings of the Old and New Testament Scriptures regarding theology and ethics, though not necessarily of science and history, are exactly as intended by God, whereas the word “inerrant” has been typically employed to say that the actual words of Scripture are exactly as intended by God, and therefore everything on which the Scriptures speak, including matters of science and history and not just of theology and ethics, are exactly as God intended. Now, the immediate problem in saying that the Scriptures are inerrant in this sense is that there are minor contradictions in the Scriptures themselves, such as numerical discrepancies in the historical books (e.g., did David slay seven hundred Syrian charioteers under the command of Shobach, as in II Sam. 10.18, or seven thousand, as in I Chron. 19.18). For this reason, those who hold to Biblical inerrancy (as I do) hold that only the autographs were inspired by the Holy Spirit and were thus without errors, and that the later copies and translations of the same Scriptures are inerrant only insofar as they accurately reproduce the message of the autographs.
      Now, even beyond this issue, there is a further stumbling block to many, in that some of what Scripture says is, to put it mildly, rather amazing—some would say incredible. For example, all the patriarchs in Genesis lived extraordinarily long lives by contemporary standards—Abraham lived to be 175 years old (Gen. 25.7), Isaac lived to be 180 years old (Gen. 35.28), Jacob lived to be 147 years old (Gen. 47.28), Joseph lived to be 110 years old (Gen. 50.22), and Abraham’s ancestors in Genesis 5.1-32, 9.29, 11.10-32 lived even longer still, with Methuselah living longest, dying at the age of 969 years (Gen. 5.27). For this reason, some will say that whereas the teachings of Scripture regarding theology and ethics are 100% reliable, the teachings regarding science and history might not be (after all, people don’t live more than 120 years at the most). The ECO ordination vows regarding the trustworthiness of Scripture allow ordained officers to take this position, whereas the corresponding PCA ordination vows do not.

      In addition to the issue of the ordination of women (for my own position on this issue, see my blog post at, the differences in confessional standards and the requirements of officers regarding their beliefs about the reliability of the Scriptures are matters of serious contention between the ECO and the PCA and are the basic reason why these two denominations won’t “become one” anytime in the foreseeable future.

      • Thank you so much for this excellent explanation of the differences between the ECO and the PCA. My unbelieving sister recently heard Dan McNerney speak from Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship in Winnetka, IL. She sent me some information about PFF and as I looked into it, I soon found myself on ECO websites. I’m an elder in the PCA (Briarwood Presbyterian in Birmingham) and was not familiar with ECO. I read through the Tenets and Confessional Standards, but your cogent remarks above made some of the uniqueness’s very clear. Thanks for your service in proclaiming the Gospel of Christ!


        Steve Adams

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