The splitting branch of the Presbyterian vine produces some sour grapes

exit closedThe angst is palpable in the June 27 letter from Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), to Jeffrey Jeremiah, stated clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. At issue is the EPC’s reception of congregations that have disaffiliated from the PCUSA.  Parsons asserts that the EPC can only receive a congregation that has been formally dismissed by its PCUSA presbytery of membership.

Any other exit route is barred, Parsons says.  “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 congregation 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.”

Parsons’ final sentence in the paragraph is an open threat of ecclesiastical and civil lawsuits.  But cause for greater alarm is the revelation that the PCUSA’s highest official is negating the guaranteed right of free association under the Constitution of The United States of America.

Parson acknowledges that presbyteries have the constitutional mandate to have policies in place to effect gracious dismissals of PCUSA congregations to other Reformed bodies. However, the majority of PCUSA presbyteries do not have such a policy. Others have such unwieldy policies as to make dismissal virtually impossible.

He says, “The congregation’s presbytery of membership has the responsibility to coordinate, guide, encourage, support and, resource the work of its congregations for the most effective witness to the broader community. If a session or congregation expresses a desire to be dismissed from the PC(USA), the presbytery, in light of its mission, has the responsibility to counsel and consult with the session and congregation, and to ultimately determine whether a congregation should be dismissed to another denomination.”

That statement begs the question what legitimate mission does the presbytery have beyond its congregations? Does not the presbytery exist to support the witness of Christ through its constituent congregations? Or, in fact, do the congregations exist to support the higher governing bodies of the denominational structure, including the presbytery? Has the traditional inverted triangular Presbyterian icon of representative governance been officially inverted?

There is a related issue that is not addressed in the letter: The regular transfer of clergy from one denomination to another. A pastor is called to serve a local congregation, but he or she is a member of the presbytery. In the case where the congregation wants to leave the PCUSA the pastor is understandably caught between competing loyalties. In most cases where the congregation votes to disaffiliate the pastor must renounce the jurisdiction of the PCUSA or face ecclesiastical charges for having allowed such schism to foment under his/her watch. Remember Heidi Johnson?

Some pragmatists out there are going to ask, “How many churches are we really talking about? How many churches have taken the disaffiliation route to the EPC?”  The answer from recent history is 25 but the forward looking question is as presbyteries close the dismissal door is the disaffiliation option preserved by U.S. Constitutional right?

The effect of Parson’s letter may be much broader than churches actively seeking to depart the PCUSA for the EPC. The letter is not only copied to all the executive presbyters and presbytery stated clerks in the PCUSA it is also copied to the two highest ranking officials in the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The WCRC is the only international ecumenical body whose membership includes both the affected denominations: PCUSA and EPC.  If Parsons can raise concerns about the EPC with the WCRC that may also affect the current provisional membership of the ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. Why? Because the EPC is one of the two WCRC “sponsors” of the ECO for membership.

Maybe it’s all just sour grapes, but I fear it portends negatively of things to come.

August 22 update: The Stated Clerk of the EPC, Jeffrey Jeremiah, has replied to the June 27 letter from Parsons.
Read Jeremiah’s letter to Parsons.



Comments 43

  • I find it laughable that I am being told I need to adhere to the Book of Order to seek an exit from the PC (USA). While at the same time if I am a clergy member who is involved with a same sex marriage or wishes to perform a same sex marriage ceremony the Book of Order does not apply. I don’t much care what PJC’s and the GAPJC think, if they can pick and choose the rules they want to follow so can I.

  • I dunno….I didn’t read all of the previous posts on this issue, so my solution may have already been addressed. Perhaps a particular church cannot leave without jumping through all of the hoops set by presbyteries for formal dismissal, but each one of the members can certainly leave and affiliate with another reformed body and just leave the powers that be within the presbytery holding the proverbial bag. After waiting for several years for the session at our former church (a PCUSA congregation) to do some discerning of their own, which they absolutely refused to do, we just walked away and joined with perhaps the most conservative reformed body in the Presbyterian Church, the PCA. Although I am sure the OPC might take issue with that last statement. 🙂

    Nevertheless, it has been like a breath of fresh air for us when our current pastor unashamedly says that the Word of God found in the Holy Scriptures is completely sufficient, completely without error, and completely authoritative.

  • I am wondering those supporting the new “denomination” will feel when the time comes that its members will declare they are not orthodox enough and must leave? That will be the true test of your understandingof church polity! As to Ms.Fowler’s about Stated Clerk Grady Parson,many of us feel it is about time the gloves come off and the PCUSA confronts these “renegade” congregations and says we will not permit you to leave without correct dismissal to another recognized denomination. Well done, Grady!

    • The OPC, PCA, EPC all have dismissal policies and procedures to allow churches to leave. The PCUSA does too, but many presbyteries seem to not want to allow particular churches to leave and work in an antagonistic way. Leaving a denomination is difficult. I am aware of churches that left the OPC to the ERPC that have left some bad feelings. That’s normal. It shouldn’t be too easy and it should hurt a bit, for both the congregation and the denomination. However, in the end, the dismissal should be as gracious as possible.

    • Dan, why are you so upset with those of us that have left individually like I did or as congregations? Renegades are those that willfully disobeyed their vows and did as they pleased under the lie of “freedom of conscience” and “social justice.” Renegades created lies like “many interpretations.” Many interpretations cannot exist in God’s law found in Scripture of both the Old and New Testaments. Like my earthly father, I knew as a child when he said no he only needed to say it once. I never would have thought to question my father as a child or contrive “I have a different interpretation of what you said.”
      Renegades divide and destroy to get their way and you succeeded. This is what you wanted so be happy in that you “won.”

  • David, that is rather bold of your session. When I joined my former church home they were well aware that I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church and that I worship where there is sound, Scriptural preaching. The pastor from my youth stated on more than one occassion “There are no Baptist buttons or American flags in heaven.” I add to it that there aren’t any Presbyterian pom poms in heaven, either.
    I resigned my membership from my church because they hadn’t left the denomination after the ordination standards were removed. I found it to be in violation of what Paul instructed in I Corinthians 5 regarding those that claim to be brothers and sisters yet boast about their sins as being good for me to stay in a congregation that continued association with such supposed brothers and sisters. My salvation is found in Jesus Christ and is a gift of grace that I did not earn but given when I asked Him to be my Lord and Savior at the age of 8 and decided to follow Him. My salvation is not in a denomination, a presbytery, a Baptist association or a local congregation.

  • When I left the PC(USA) in June 2011, as an individual, I did so with a letter to the Session resigning my membership. However, I was told that there is no category of “resignation” and would therfore be listed as an inactive member. This sounds like a parallel situation to the rules for local churches.

    • David, what your Session told you was wrong, unless they just wanted to legalistically argue over the word “resignation”. The Book of Order, in G-10.0302b(3), says:

      (3) When a member, whether active or inactive, requests
      that membership be terminated, the session, after
      making diligent effort to persuade the member to
      retain membership, may delete that person’s name
      from the active or inactive roll.

      So if you think your name is still on the inactive roll, and that bothers you as a matter of principle, you should send another letter to the Session, referring them to this Book of Order section, and ask to have your name removed from the roll.

  • So, when did PCUSA finally define “the essentials of the Reformed faith?” Did I miss that? And does that definition include the divinity and exclusivity of Jesus Christ? If not, it is impossible to be in schism if you are the party leaving such a secular organization hiding itself behind Church vestments.

  • This is not an easy problem to solve. I am more sympathetic to the theological stance of the departing congregations than to the denomination as a whole. And I think the Trust Clause is an awful part of the Book of Order. One need not have a Trust Clause to be considered “Presbyterian.” The EPC and PCA have managed to function very well without a Trust Clause. And the accusation of “schism” to my mind begs the question: schism from what? And who is in actual schism? Is it the congregations that seek to depart, or is it the denomination itself, which is best known for fuzzy theology, a permissive sexual ethic, and an obsession with secular politics?

    Having said all of that, every congregation considering departing should be extraordinarily hesitant in turning to the civil magistrate for “protection” from their Presbyteries. Some Presbyteries are indeed oppressive and unfair to their dissenting congregations. But in 1 Corinthians 6, the Apostle Paul went so far to counsel Christians that it is better to be cheated or defrauded rather than bring a court action (meaning a court outside the church) against others in the body. Paul seems to counsel against standing on one’s rights. So, while from their perspective (and mine, for that matter) departing congregations are right to be concerned about being victimized by a vindictive Presbytery, even so they are called to act with transparency and a willingness to sacrifice their property if it comes to that. It would be much better, of course, if the Presbytery would also act with Christian charity, but their failure to act in a Christ-like way does not give the congregation a pass to do the same thing.

  • It’s sad to see how far gone the PCUSA is from my youth just 15 years ago. It is clearly a synagogue of Satan and no longer serves Christ at the denominational level, but the devil. There are good local churches, but that is not worth staying for anybody still in. Come out of the apostate and into the true church. The EPC, PCA, OPC, RPCNA are there for you. I miss the memories of my home church, but I have no regrets on leaving for the PCA 10 years ago.

  • The only fear the PCUSA hierarchy in Louisville has over congregations pulling out of the denomination is that they will loose the money. These bureaucrats are only concerned for power and money and not the truth of God’s word. I wonder if the PCUSA spends much time and effort holding onto those small struggling congregations who have no resource that wish to leave the denomination. The denomination is already loosing money, denominational personnel in Louisville, and congregations, so this will raise the fear and anger of those who control the denomination. May the Lord call out more faithful congregations from this apostate group and foil the plans of those who are not building the kingdom of God.

  • As an OPC’er who has prayed for the PCUSA for years, I hesitate to weigh in, but I fear that few realize that without church discipline all you are ever left with is politics. The liberals will ultimately win in the game of politics. For all their promise of unity and new vision, realignments will never bring substantive reform unless the church can rediscover that she can never be more loving than Jesus in Matthew 18.

    • Excellent point, Jason. The PCUSA is missing one of the marks of a true church; discipline. How can they expect congregations to remain if they do not practice church discipline? Control, power, threats, and intimidation is the only thing they have to bring these renegade congregations in line. If they upheld the authority of Scripture they would be practicing church discipline, and then they would not have a mass exodus of congregations.

  • I wonder if a mental health model is not an appropriate way to look at what is happening now with the denomination. On one hand the GA seems bent on seeing how far they can go into apostasy. On the other the national leadership seems to be coming unhinged. From where I stand in my local church I want as little to do with those people as possible.

  • In reply to Wayne Yost: “Anarchy and schism must be named for what it is.”

    Exactly what the priests said to Luther. Had they won the day, we’d all still be one happy family attending Catholic mass.

    Perhaps when a denomination lets it cultural and political views inform its theology, instead of the other way around, anarchy and schism are both the right and faithful moral choices.

  • Isn’t it ironic how the PC(USA) is selective in its adherence to its own constitution?
    Some parts can be ignored based on an ecclesiastical version of civil disobedience while other parts are followed with a zeal that rivals the most ardent fundamentalist.

  • I wonder on which side of the vine are the sour grapes really growing?
    It appears to me that those who wish willy-nilly pluck themselves up from one vineyard and deposit themselves in another vineyard have no regard for the Constitution of the PC(USA) or any other with which they might not like.
    Anarchy and schism must be named for what it is.

    • I am not aware of any congregation “willy-nilly plucking themselves up…” As a ruling elder, I can show you many examples of a presbytery or many of the GA committees and commissions willfully violating the Constitution and Book of Order. I have been lied to by presbytery officials as they covered for pastors with “problems”. We, as Presbyterians are in need of this new Refomation.

  • The right of free association your talking about is an individual right. Any person can readily leave a congregation and go to a denomination or church of their choice without an action of dismissal on the part of a denomination. Parson’s isn’t negating anything. You’re wrongly applying an individual right to a corporate entity.

    • The one general principle of association which can be expressed in
      terms of constitutional doctrine is that an association or its members acting in concert are entitled to do what an individual can do to the extent the associational conduct is merely an extension of individual liberty.

  • As a Ruling Elder of a newly organized EPC church that was birthed from a failed effort to be dismissed with our property from the PCUSA, I would counsel members of churches desiring to depart to take a straw poll to gauge the level of support for dismissal. If there isn’t an overwhelming majority desiring to leave then I would advise those that want out to seriously consider walking away from their property as a group, form a new congregation and affiliate (or not) with another denomination.

    I know this isn’t easy but it is an act of faithfulness rather than staying and fighting a loosing battle. The hurdles the PCUSA places before congregations is exhausting and for large congregations (ours had 830 members) it is difficult to reach the super majorities they require to depart so these types of splits will occur anyway as folks vote with their feet. The PCUSA is only interested in assets. They could care less about spreading the Gospel or the fate of those who remain in these depleted and demoralized congregations. .

    Although difficult to start fresh we have seen God’s faithfulness at work every step of the way. Nothing causes vitality in a congregation more than knowing you have followed your convictions and that God has planted you for a purpose which is to advance His Kingdom.

  • Re: at what point a congregation leaves, or left

    My pastor and I had a good conversation about this point the other day. When (if ever) to leave is analogous to a house and the threat of fire. Question: when is the house on fire. Kindly bear in mind, no snark to my words.

    1. when a candle is burning
    2. when the candle is tipped over
    3. when the wax touches a curtain
    4. when the curtain catches fire
    5. when the wall or a ceiling catches fire
    et cetera

    My pastor is PCA. In all fairness to the lingering congregations, the PCA began leaving when views on the Bible and Theology affected ecclesial matters, mission, morality, and politics. The OPC began leaving at a purer point, with merely views on the Bible and Theology were affecting ecclesial matters and mission.

    Secondary, or tertiary splits in departing denominations, however small, frankly demonstrate that there are those who will leave the house when a book of matches is seen lying next to an unlighted candle.

  • Bob D.

    as has been noted in many articles in the Layman and sometimes in the Presbyterian Outlook, many presbyteries are not as gracious as yours. You have the very visible case of Heartland Presbytery, who forced a church seeking dismissal to go the disaffiliation route, then took the church to court. The presbytery lost in every court until finally losing in the Supreme Court.

    They then attempted to sue the church through the courts in another state, as the church had property there, that state courts (if I recall right) threw the case out for lack of jurisdiction or somesuch .

  • I am not well-versed enough in the polity of any of the denominations to wade into the conversation above; however, I can attest that our congregation did engage the PC(USA) via our Presbytery and worked through their process(es) and were ultimately dismissed graciously and with their blessing. It was a somewhat bureaucratic and drawn out process, but in the end, I believe the work required to engage and wade through the process ensured that we were indeed following a path discerned and ordained not by men, but by the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit.

  • I think this is a foolish argument. The presbytery has the right to control a group of people that call themselves the Church of Wherever (PCUSA). They have the right to control any group that uses the term (PCUSA). I am not going to argue to what extents.

    What they don’t have the control of is the people making a mass exodus and no longer calling themselves (PCUSA)

    The problem is just back to the property problem. Can a church stay in one place and change denomination.
    I think fighting this has been worn out. It is either going to be solved through Grace or the Courts. Arguing any farther just takes us away from the important things.

  • Mr. Kester, your criticism of the concern expressed over the far-reaching claims of the PCUSA officials is misplaced, if not directly contrary to the PCUSA Book of Order. Presbyteries may not morally bind those who wish to leave their communion into continued membership. In fact, the Book of Order clearly states that “no church judicatory ought to pretend to make laws to bind the conscience in virtue of their own authority.” [F-3.0107] It seems that the rather arrogant position of Mr. Parsons that the PCUSA may tell another denomination who it can accept in is, in fact, a pretense of authority which he or the denomination simply do not have. The PCUSA’s recalcitrance in dismissing congregations upon their request is “hostage holding” seeking to bind the conscience of those congregations which wish to leave.

    It further seems that Mr. Parsons over-reaching in seeking to tell another denomination which churches it may accept and which it may not is directly contrary to the PCUSA Book of Order at F-3.0102: “every Christian Church, or union or association of particular church, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion.” Does Mr. Parsons think that this only applies to the PCUSA, which would be a violation of the Presbyterian principle (also found in the Book of Order) that the Church is the body of Christ, catholic in its reach, and beyond denominational boundaries. [see, e.g. F-1.0301,] It would further seem to directly contradict F-3.0101 which asserts that “God alone is Lord of the conscience” and that the PCUSA supposedly “consider[s] the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable.”

    The PCUSA’s old Book of Order directly acknowledged that “the members of a particular church voluntarily put themselves under the leadership of their officers, whom they elect.” And that the “government of the Presbyterian Church (USA) presuppose the fellowship of women and men with their children in voluntary covenanted relationship with one another ….” But the new Book of Order, nFOG, sought to change that, removing the language of voluntary connectionalism. Why? Perhaps it is just semantics, but the principle of voluntary association is deeply imbued with concepts of religious liberty. If Mr. Parsons thinks that the PCUSA can hold groups of people hostage to a denomination with which they do not wish to associate, then his arrogance is shocking indeed. Moreover, it is directly contrary to the constitution of the United States, which allows for freedom of assembly and freedom of religion.

    Kudos to Carmen for calling out Mr. Parsons in his attempted usurpation of authority.

  • Your comment ” But cause for greater alarm is the revelation that the PCUSA’s highest official is negating the guaranteed right of free association under the Constitution of The United States of America.” is utter nonsense. The PCUSA is not governed by the American constitution, any more that the United States of America is governed by ours. PResbyterian congregations abstract right to assemble is mediated by the constitution of the body to which they belong. This kind of category error is exactly what is destroying the church! THis kind of thinking has puchase in BAptist or free standing congregationalist churches, but I would expect better from you and the PRESBYTERIAN layman.

    • Mr. Kester, my comment was about the guarantee that the U.S. Constitution provides to people, not to an institution. The people have a guaranteed right to assemble and therefore, a right to disassemble and re-assemble as they freely choose.

      • A particular congregation in the PCUSA does not have the ‘right’ to withdraw from the Presbyterian Church USA. Consent by its presbytery is required for dismissal to another Reformed body. Any number of individuals certainly could leave to form their own congregation – but they can’t take the property held in trust by the presbytery. The article clearly urges a Constitutional right of disaffiliation for congregations.

        From the article above: “Some pragmatists out there are going to ask, “How many churches are we really talking about? How many churches have taken the disaffiliation route to the EPC?” The answer from recent history is 25 but the forward looking question is as presbyteries close the dismissal door is the disaffiliation option preserved by U.S. Constitutional right?”

        Mr. Kester is correct in his assessment of the article’s logical fallacy and polity error. To assert that the U.S. Constitution determines PCUSA polity might suggest that teaching elders ought to be required to officiate same-gender marriages under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Mrs. LaBerge is apparently espousing a crude Erastianism by way of cheerleading schism in the PCUSA.

        • Mr. Lang,

          your statements are correct in those states where courts have not used neutral principles to determine the validity of the “property trust”, or states where disaffiliation by churches from a denomination has not been upheld.

          But in more and more states, courts are holding that the imposed ‘trust’ is invalid, or that the right to disaffiliate from a voluntary association (the PCUSA) is valid. its disingenuous to use the absolutes in your reply such as “.. they CAN’T … *” or “… consent by its presbytery IS required …* “.

          *(emphasis added)

          • I did not deny, nor would I, that some congregations have successfully appealed to the secular courts to subvert their obligations under the PCUSA Constitution. The language of G-4.0203 through G-4.0205 and G-4.0207 is clear. Congregational property is held in trust by presbytery. The only exception to the property trust is found in G-4.0208 relative to congregations exempted by 1991. I certainly agree with you, Mr. Catholic: Some teaching elders and sessions have refused the discipline of the PCUSA and gone into schism, in effect renouncing the Book of Order, and using the secular courts to effect their breach of covenant. I do not dispute that. As to the nature of the language, I decline your interpretation of the PCUSA Book of Order. In G-3.0303b it is clear that only the presbytery can dismiss a congregation. It cannot dismiss, divide or dissolve itself. Whether a civil magistrate can be located by a particular congregation in schism, to enable a violation of the Book of Order, is always an open question I suppose.

        • The congregation which I serve as a member (and as an ordained deacon), Colonial Presbyterian Church of Kansas City, Missouri, is organized as a Public Benefit Non-Profit Corporation (under the name The Colonial Presbyterian Church) in the state of Missouri, and its Articles of Incorporation state, “Any property held by or for the Corporation or titled in the name of the Corporation SHALL BE FOR THE EXCLUSIVE USE AND BENEFIT OF THE CORPORATION only in furtherance of the purposes set forth herein, WITHOUT A TRUST IN FAVOR OF ANY OTHER ENTITY; provided, however, that any property deemed to be held in trust shall be held in a revocable trust, unless expressly stated otherwise in a written instrument describing said trust, and accepted and agreed to in writing by the Trustees of the Corporation.” (emphasis added)

          From its incorporation in 1953 until 1983, Colonial was voluntarily associated with the PCUS, and from 1983 until August 22, 2010, it was voluntarily associated with the PCUSA . In the early 1980s, prior to its union with the UPCUSA (and after The Colonial Presbyterian Church was incorporated), the PCUS amended its Book of Order to add a Trust Clause, similar to that found in the PCUSA Book of Order at the time Colonial voted to terminate its voluntary association with the PCUSA and instead to voluntarily associate with the EPC: §G-8.0201: “All property held by or for a particular church, a presbytery, a synod, the General Assembly, or the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whether legal title is lodged in a corporation, a trustee or trustees, or an unincorporated association, and whether the property is used in programs of a particular church or of a more inclusive governing body or retained for the production of income, is held in trust nevertheless for the use and benefit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).” Needless to say, Colonial’s Articles of Incorporation and the PCUSA Book of Order’s Trust Clause are at odds.

          What, then, is the legal ground of the PCUSA Book of Order’s Trust Clause? Neither the PCUSA (or the PCUS before it) nor Heartland Presbytery (or any preceding presbytery with ecclesiastical oversight of Colonial during Colonial’s voluntary association with those two denominations) provided financial resources, either in the way of grants or loans, to contribute to or finance the purchase or maintenance of property owned by The Colonial Presbyterian Church as a corporate entity. The corporation purchased the real estate with its own funds (or with funds borrowed from financial lending institutions). The PCUSA Book of Order’s Trust Clause, if it had legal standing, would have the effect of requiring the corporation to purchase a second time the real estate that it had already purchased once. Quite apart from the question of the legal standing of the Trust Clause, can anyone truly argue that such an arrangement would be fair to the corporation?

          Likewise, Colonial’s Articles of Incorporation do not state that Colonial’s property “is held in trust…for the use and benefit of the (PCUSA)”. Now, in arguing the PCUSA’s case before the Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court, attorneys for Heartland Presbytery cited PCUSA Book of Order §G-8.0201 as quoted above as Colonial’s purported declaration that Colonial, as grantor, held its property in trust for the PCUSA. However, in judging the case, the Circuit Judge declared that “the language ‘for the use and benefit’, confers only a right to use the property, it does not confer ownership of the property. The (PCUSA) Book of Order is a unilateral document created by the (PCUSA) as beneficiary of said trust and not by (Colonial), the grantor. It is not signed by (Colonial). The above clause in the Book of Order refers to property, generally. Missouri law requires that in order for a trust to be created, the subject matter must be definite. … The above clause does not describe the the property with any specificity. Missouri law also requires that an express trust be created by the ‘direct or express words of a grantor or settler, or by the intentional act of the party having dominion over the property.’ … The above clause is drafted by the beneficiary and not the grantor contrary to and in violation of Missouri law. For these reasons, the court finds that the above clause does not create a trust over (Colonial’s) property.” (Colonial Presbyterian Church v. Heartland Presbytery, Case No. 1016-CV24909, Division 4) In other words, the PCUSA has no legal standing (at least in the state of Missouri) to unilaterally impose a trust on property owned by another corporation, even if said corporation, as an ecclesiastical body, is under the ecclesiastical oversight of the PCUSA, as Colonial was until August 22, 2010. The Johnson County, Kansas, District Court (which has civil oversight over the property that Colonial owns in Johnson County, Kansas) and the Missouri Western District Appellate Court concurred.

          Or, for that matter, is the ownership of property a matter of civil or ecclesiastical law? Just because the PCUSA in its Book of Order asserts that all property of a particular congregation under its ecclesiastical oversight is held in trust for the benefit of the PCUSA, is the particular congregation thus bound to legally recognize that claim? To quote from Colonial’s Bylaws: “These bylaws (the “Bylaws”), in like manner and consistent with the Articles, address themselves to civil matters, such as corporate governance and property. It is recognized that the Church (as defined in the Articles; herein the ‘Church’) and its members are subject to ecclesiastical jurisdiction of church governing bodies (congregation, session, presbytery, synod, General Assembly, and the like) which jurisdiction extends only to spiritual matters and spiritual oversight; not temporal or civil matters.” The property ownership of a corporation, as recognized here, is the purview of civil, not ecclesiastical, law. And as stated above, the civil courts concurred.

          Now, obviously what I just described is the “disaffiliation option” that Colonial ultimately pursued. But this does not mean that Colonial did not first pursue the “dismissal door”. In January 2010, Colonial’s Session announced to the congregation after a weekend retreat that they believed that the Holy Spirit was calling Colonial to do two things: (1) get out of the PCUSA; and (2) get out of debt. The first of those two items was addressed first. Colonial was very open with Heartland Presbytery and invited Heartland to participate in the discernment process. Heartland formed an Administrative Review Committee (ARC), and four town hall meetings were held, with ruling elders serving on Session presenting reasons why they believed the Lord was calling Colonial to seek dismissal from the PCUSA and admission to another Reformed denomination, and members of the ARC presenting reasons why Colonial should remain affiliated with the PCUSA and not seek dismissal. Both Session and the ARC sent materials to the homes of the individual congregation members, and all materials (including audio recordings of the town hall meetings) were made available on Colonial’s website. On May 8, 2010, the Session sent a non-binding survey, approved by the ARC, to the homes of all Colonial members, asking whether Colonial should remain affiliated with the PCUSA or whether Colonial should seek to be dismissed to another Reformed denomination. As of July 22, 2010, 69.1% of all members had responded, and of those, 91.2% said that they did not wish to remain affiliated with the PCUSA but instead seek dismissal to another Reformed denomination. However, most of the responses had been received by May 23, indicating a strong majority of members desiring to be dismissed, at which time, Colonial’s Session asked Heartland Presbytery to appoint an Administrative Commission (AC) with the authority to negotiate with Colonial for terms of dismissal. However, the AC saw its primary mission as seeking to reconcile Colonial to Heartland Presbytery and the PCUSA and, if that were ultimately not possible, to seek to enforce the PCUSA Property Trust Clause. The negotiations quickly soured as the AC turned increasingly belligerant toward Colonial’s Session (and toward Colonial’s Lead Pastor and Clerk of Session, in particular). As such, Colonial’s Session came to realize that seeking a fair, just, peaceful, and equitable resolution leading to Colonial’s dismissal from the PCUSA was not going to happen without an extensive, drawn-out, expensive drama distracting from Colonial’s primary mission to reach out to the lost of Kansas City, the US, and the world. And so, on August 7, 2010, Colonial called a joint meeting of the members of the corporation (i.e., The Colonial Presbyterian Church) and the members of the congregation (the same people) to be held August 22, 2010, to vote on whether to terminate Colonial’s voluntary affiliation/association with the PCUSA, and if so, whether to voluntarily affiliate/associate with the EPC. Less than a week prior to the scheduled meeting, the AC threatened to dissolve Colonial’s Session and remove the Colonial’s Ministers and assume those responsibilities itself if the Session proceeded with the joint meeting. Consequently, the corporation filed for Quiet Title for its property in both Missouri and Kansas and filed TROs in both states against Heartland Presbytery. The meeting occurred as scheduled, and 97% of those voting voted to terminate Colonial’s voluntary affiliation with the PCUSA and to voluntarily affiliate with the EPC. The Jackson County, Missouri, Circuit Court ruled in Colonial’s favor on June 9, 2011, the Johnson County, Kansas, District Court did the same on February 2, 2012, and the Missouri Western District Appellate Court upheld the Circuit Court ruling on June 26, 2012.

          On February 11, 2012, just over a week after the Kansas ruling came down, Heartland Presbytery voted four to one to continue litigation, believing that “the concept of ‘walking away’ from litigation in mid-stream is neither legally responsible nor economically viable, without knowing what the costs of that line of action would be,” and “considering the value of the properties involved (i.e., Colonial and Gashland Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, MO), the Presbytery has spent less than 2% of what it would recover if the property were to remain in the denomination as a result of a successful defense of the denomination’s ‘property clause.'” (Heartland Presbytery Minutes, February 11, 2012) Now, “the law and government of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presuppose the fellowship of women and men with their children in voluntary covenanted relationship with one another and with God through Jesus Christ. The organization rests upon the fellowship and is not designed to work without trust and love.” (PCUSA Book of Order §G-7.0103) To be frank, I don’t see that in the PCUSA.

  • Thanks for your Christian charity Ralph.

  • I have to say, congregations, sessions & clergy that are only now considering leaving the PCUSA seriously lack discernment, in my opinion. The PCUSA has been in the control of apostate leadership for over 20 years now–and people just waking up to that don’t garner much sympathy from me.

    • Mr. Davis, the spectrum of reasons for discernment and the potential seeking of dismissal from the PCUSA are as varied as the people who populate the pews and stand in the pulpits of churches across the country. In much the same that you can never step in the same river twice because water flows continuously, so too you can never assess “the same” congregation two days in a row. Things change and people change (both internally and in terms of who is present and active in leadership and participation). The fact is that many many Presbyterians went to sleep and are just now waking up (for whatever reason) to discover that their denomination is not what it was when. They ask “who stole my church?” or “How did we get here?” Once they discover the answers to those questions they begin to determine whether God is calling them to invest themselves in the missionary and ecclesiastical political endeavor of redeeming the PCUSA or invest themselves in the missionary and ecclesiastical political endeavor of participation in another Reformed body. “When” God awakens a person or a session or a congregation to the realities and stirs within them a desire a re-align their denominational affiliation comes in God’s time and is unpredictable. Case in point: those who formed the OPC, PCA, EPC and ECO.

    • Ralph,

      Why 20 years? Why not 1967 when they ceased to be reformed in terms of the confessions the denomination adopted? Why not the 1930’s when the OPC left? While, in general, I would agree with you, there are other factors. Sometimes a church will stay because of the desire to work within the denomination. If a church left everytime there was a disagreement, there would be no presbyterian denominations at all, just independent bible or elder run churches. Some presbyteries were more sympathetic to the gospel and reformed theology than others. While I realize that Synods have a fair amount of power, and the EPC doesn’t have Synods, the Presbytery is the primary organization that has responsibility over the particular churches. As the denomination erodes, and the standards that they held in the past go away, the decision to leave comes upon most “conservative evangelical” churches eventually. For a particular church, the decision has as much to do with the relationship with the individual presbytery as it does with anything else, though the denomination-wide standards are important and should factor in the decision. So, I think I generally agree with you, the issue is really more complicated than you make it to be. There are still “conservative evangelical” churches in the PCUSA. Some of those are staying. It would be fair to say that they probably aren’t that reformed, so moving to the EPC could be a difficult transition (even if you think the EPC is a little lax on upholding the standards). I’ve seen PCUSA churches joing the EPC and embrace the Westminster Standards in a fairly big way. There is more to the decision than acknowledging that the leadership of the PCUSA is “apostate”.

      On another note, I grew up in a liberal congregation of an Episcopal denomination. That congregation has become “evangelical”. Revival happens. I have sympathy for churches who wake up and realize the truths of the gospel and find themselves in a denomination that doesn’t believe the truths they should that the congregation has recently discovered or rediscovered. It’s like I have sympathy for Josiah who discovered the Law and had it read to Israel and reinstituted the Passover (in a way it had not been before, though it had been celebrated before by other kings). So, I am willing to see revival happen in churches, (in fact, I’d love to se that) and as they see the denomination they are in and what it stands for, I am willing to welcome them into the EPC as they move towards God and Christ, and towards the Biblical understaning of Reformed theology.

    • Amen.

    • Ralph,

      What about the churches which are made up of a mixture those representing all the way from evangelical to civil religion? Local church politics and presbytery procedure are too much to comprehend and work through. I imagine that many Presbyterian churches are like ours which are really congregationally mined and are only vaguely aware. (like sheep). Maybe a little sympathy?


    • Ralph, I understand your frustration, but as the old bubblegum pop song goes, breaking up is hard to do. I am personally appalled by the actions of the governing body of the PC(USA), yet I dither, fret and remain currently unaffiliated (to my disgrace, I know). The area where I live has no choice but PC(USA), alas.

      Not my point. I come from strong Scottish roots, which go deep and hold fast. My hometown church has been our family rock for well over a century. My mother was baptized there, as was I. Its ministers buried my beloved grandparents and then my own parents. I came home to marry there, no other site seemed fitting, and that marriage has thrived under the beautiful lessons and admonitions put forth by her minister.

      Now? We live far away, but I follow the demise of this beloved house of God, now tragically misdirected. Membership, which forty years ago was well over 1,000, is now around 50, many of whom are either senile or too old and beleaguered to change at this point. The minister? A kind man, I suppose, tragically misguided into the pseudo religion of Progressivism. The church under his direction removed the American flag from view, stating that political or government concerns had no place in a house of God. I weep to think of how many young men and women went forth from that church over the nearly two centuries of its existence to die for that flag and the values which it represents, while their mothers and fathers took sanctuary there and mourned their deaths. What added a bitter twist to this decision to eliminate the flag was the inclusion on the next page of the bulletin (this was in 2008) of a full page explanation of why church members and all Christians had an obligation to vote for Barack Obama. I kid you not. This church is now the temple of homosexual and transgendered acceptance and pro-Palestinian support.

      And yet, and here is my point, my heart breaks and understands how hard it is to let go – of a pile of bricks which once sheltered us in God’s love, of a titular faith that once represented all things good and decent and of God. Counselors know how hard it is to bring the abused woman to renounce her husband. Often she dies first, a victim of her own reluctance.

      So I feel it is with the PCUSA and its much-abused members. It should be a simple matter – the Word of God versus apostasy. But the heart can cling to foolish hope even as the brain sees the clear path. May God help us all in these difficult times, and the even more difficult times yet to come, as Christianity
      Itself is brought to trial and condemnation. May we all find the faith of Daniel.

  • All things aside, your writing skills are concise as a Scottish vegetable garden. Nutritious words to get people fit.

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