Sorting by

Skip to main content

Presbyterians at the Crossroads: Part One

By March 1, 2012 No Comments
Listen to article
Voiced by Amazon Polly

by David L. Stubbs

Editors’ note: This is part one of a two-part essay. The second part will appear in next month’s issue ofPerspectives.

Interpreting history as it is happening is difficult. Think of Pentecost, a time when people knew somethingwas happening, but it was not immediately clear what. And so they asked, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). The first and easiest answer, as is often the case, was a cynical one: “They are filled with new wine” (Acts 2:13). Better answers usually take more time, a narrative imagination, and a trust that goes deeper than our suspicions.

There are historic changes sweeping through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) that require interpretation. A new movement called “The Fellowship of Presbyterians” and its associated new Reformed body called the “Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians” (ECO) mean that the status quo is probably no longer an option for the PC(USA). While this movement can easily be seen solely as a schismatic movement reacting to the issue of the ordination of homosexuals, that would be a vast oversimplification of several important impulses in play. A call for greater theological clarity and unity, a missional vision of the church, dissatisfaction with current church polity, and a call to accountability and discipline of both ordained ministers and non-ordained members: each of these is an important aspect of what the Fellowship and the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians represent for the PC(USA) and the greater Reformed churches. In these aspects, a fresh movement of the Spirit, similar to Pentecost, can be seen. Yet there are other aspects of this movement that seem more akin to the stories of the Tower of Babel or the breakdown of the Kingdom of Israel.

As I listen and respond to this movement as an ordained minister and theologian within the PC(USA), I will consider it from both vantage points: a Spirit-filled movement of reform and also a less-than-desirable movement of schism. The final story our grandchildren will tell is yet to be decided. My hope is that the best of these impulses might be seen and cherished within both the PC(USA) and the ECO, while—God help us—yet another schism within the church might be avoided.

For those who do not know the background of this movement, here is a brief sketch. For a long time there have been tensions in the PC(USA) between those on the right and left of the theological spectrum. The recent vote by the 219th General Assembly followed by approval from the required number of Presbyteries changed the language of the PC(USA) Book of Order in such a way as to give room to ordain homosexual ministers. For many, this was a tipping point. In response partially to this, but even more so to longer-term dissatisfactions with trends in the PC(USA), the Fellowship of Presbyterians formed in January 2011, drawing from the more evangelical and conservative wing of the denomination. The group gathered in Minneapolis in August 2011. At their January 2012 Covenanting Conference in Orlando, those associated with the Fellowship unveiled a new Reformed body, the ECO. Each conference was attended by over two thousand people and, taken together, represented 1,159 congregations.1

As a result of these gatherings, statements of polity and discipline and a document of “essential tenets” have been made available. Individuals and congregations can sign a covenant with the Fellowship. While details are still being worked out, it appears some congregations might break ties with the PC(USA) and join the ECO as a separate denomination, while others may remain in the PC(USA) and affiliate with the ECO, and still others might become a union congregation of the ECO and PC(USA). On February 2, 2012, the PC(USA) Mid-Council Commission approved a recommendation to the 220th General Assembly to allow “provisional” nongeographic presbyteries “for particular mission purposes.” If approved, this would permit the formation of ECO-oriented nongeographic presbyteries within the PC(USA).

As I think about these developments, my heart and mind are filled with contradictory responses. My first home within the PC(USA) was Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, a California congregation that is now deeply involved with the Fellowship. Many of my friends and colleagues from college and seminary are part of the Fellowship and the ECO. While I share many of their concerns, I am repulsed by schism and also share concerns with those critical of this movement. I offer these reflections as an ordained minister and theologian within the PC(USA) who is struggling to understand and find my own way in the midst of these changes. I hope that these reflections may help the PC(USA), both those in the Fellowship and those outside it, to discern the most fruitful path forward.


Considering the Fellowship and the ECO as a movement of reform and renewal, I perceive at least three central, interconnected themes. The first is a recommitment to biblical and confessional authority and to theological clarity. The second is an emphasis on the “missional” character of the church. The third is a call to committed discipleship that is expressed in and fostered by accountability and spiritual practices. One can clearly see these three themes in the literature and public statements of the Fellowship, both in who they are and in what they see lacking in the PC(USA).

The three themes fit together. Given the Reformed commitment to the authority, clarity, and sufficiency of scripture, a clear and shared theological vision should be possible. An important part of this vision is the high calling of the church to participate in the mission and ministry of God, through Christ, in the power of the Spirit, to the world. The church should be a community of passionate and missionminded disciples whose commitment is expressed in and fostered by spiritual practices and accountability to one another. Amen to all of this.

This call for biblical and confessional authority and theological clarity is seen particularly in “The Fellowship Theology Project,” which includes a statement about how the current confessional standards of the PC(USA) should function as authorities secondary to scripture, along with a full statement of “essential tenets” that are intended as “indispensable indicators of confessional convictions about what scripture leads us to believe and do.”2 This movement has a serious commitment to recovering and being formed around a strong biblical and theologically clear yet rich center.

Typical concerns and critiques about the current theological life of the PC(USA) can be heard, for example, in John Ortberg’s speech that opened the Orlando conference. The PC(USA), he says, is “too broad,” characterized by only “casual affirmation” of the confessions and a “presumed consensus” where in reality there is none, in part because the essentials have “not been identified for debate.”3 Similar concerns can be heard in Jim Singleton’s statement, “Ten Theological Challenges Facing the PCUSA.” The first two areas he covers (which include seven of the ten theological challenges) center on “the nature and authority of scripture” and “the person and work of Jesus Christ.”4 He writes that, while the role of women and sexuality were and are “presenting problems,” “there were (and continue to be) consistent, underlying fault lines in four major areas of theology that widened the gap between left and right in our denomination.”

While I have some apprehension about the details of the essential tenets proposal, I agree with the overall concerns and the need to address this systemic problem. Arguably, the Office of Theology and Worship, under the leadership of Joe Small, has been addressing them in the last decades. I also see the Fellowship as one part of a greater, long-term recovery of a robust theological sensibility seen within the evangelical world and within parts of academic theology and much of the ecumenical church since Karl Barth’s break with theological liberalism. However, there are always gaps between great works of theology, official church statements (the rich theology implicit, for example, in the recently published PC(USA) Book of Common Worship), and the theology on the ground. The Fellowship and the ECO are evidence that a major groundswell within the PC(USA) desires these issues to be addressed head on. Their covenanting process and theological statements talk not only about problems but also about creative and practical ways to address them.


A second important theme of these movements is the call to understand and live into the missional character of the church. The ninth of Singleton’s ten theological challenges is “Christendom versus Missional Models of the Church.” He writes, “The goal is not building the church as an end in itself. Rather, the church is built in order to be sent so that we may be witnesses to God’s redeeming work in Christ.” In Ortberg’s speech, this missional model of the church is linked quite clearly to the church as described in Acts: the church as a “new community” in which people were “so devoted to God and so irrationally committed to each other” that “old barriers, old ethnic hostilities got broken down,” “the rich were motivated to actually give to help the poor,” “they all served,” “people were devoted to prayer,” “they ate together with glad hearts,” and “they changed the world.” This is not a narrow understanding of mission but, as stated in the “Our Values” document of the Fellowship, includes “evangelism, spiritual formation, compassion, and redemptive justice.”5 As evidenced in others of the ten challenges, as well as in the “Fellowship Covenant,”6 this sharing and living out of a communal life that witnesses to the Kingdom of God includes a commitment to gender and racial equality, movements of reconciliation, care of the creation, and a tithe of income to share with the church and “sacrificially provide for the needs of the poor and oppressed.” This is a beautiful and biblical vision of the church.

Typical complaints about the PC(USA) include a lack of passion in the church for these very things, as well as forms and styles of polity, leadership, and leadership training that seem to stifle these impulses. Instead, there is a call for “bold,” “courageous,” “innovative,” and “adventurous” leadership that is still rooted in the “thoughtful,” “reflective,” and “theologically informed” Reformed tradition.7

In response to such statements, my heart sings. Of course there are important questions about the details, strategies, and best practices in which this vision of the church gets fleshed out. I would like to see more about how these impulses find their source and power in, under, and through worship that is centered on Word and sacrament. It should also be noted that there are a variety of ways that the word missional is understood and that leadership within a missional church model is best envisioned.8 Arguably, the new PC(USA) Form of Government is an attempt to allow some breathing space within the church to move precisely in these directions. But even with these caveats, there is no doubt in my mind that the Fellowship and the ECO are part of a positive recovery of a thicker, visible ecclesiology that has gained momentum throughout the worldwide church in the last half century in places, writings, and thinkers as diverse as Vatican II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stanley Hauerwas, the Belhar Confession, John Zizioulas, and Lesslie Newbigin.


Finally, a third major theme of this reform movement is the clear call for accountable, passionate, and intentional discipleship. Building upon the work initiated within the Office of Theology and Worship of the PC(USA), the Fellowship and the ECO are calling ordained leaders to a high standard of commitment and accountability. Part of the “Theological Project” document is this statement of commitment: “Toward these ends, we now commit ourselves to the formation of theological friendships in communities that include all teaching and ruling elders—gatherings of elders which covenant to study and learn together, providing mutual encouragement and accountability for the sake of sustaining and advancing the theological and missional work of the church.”9 The model for such a covenant was developed as part of the Re-forming Ministry Program of the Office of Theology and Worship in an insightful document called “A Pastoral Rule.” All who are part of the Fellowship commit to it.

I find great encouragement and hope in this call to theological friendship, commitment, and accountability. I personally am currently developing such friendships and accountability structures, in part because of their encouragement. I see in these covenants not a reaction to any single issue. Homosexuality, for example, is not mentioned or obviously implied in “A Pastoral Rule” or the “Fellowship Covenant.” Instead, these documents are pervaded by a refreshing spirit of commitment and rededication to God and to our vocation as baptized Christians. I see this theme in the movement as part of larger movements and writings that call for the recovery of the “mark” of discipline within the larger ecumenical church.10 The intention is not oppressive or punitive, but instead is to partake of the deep biblical call to present ourselves to God as living sacrifices, to discipline ourselves and disciple one another within the church.

In sum, I see much that is positive in this reform movement within the PC(USA). It should not be caricatured as a single-issue, reactionary movement. Rather, it participates in similar movements of the Spirit throughout the worldwide ecumenical church. I applaud the leaders of the Fellowship and the ECO for the audacity of not merely writing a book or paper about the need for such things, but instead putting these things into practice through the creation of a “fellowship” and an “order.” The number of people at their events bears witness to the fact that there is a need and hunger for such a movement of reform and renewal.

To the aforementioned themes of renewal I would only like to add what I consider to be a very important and complementary fourth: the need for the church to recover what some have called a “sacramental world view” or a Christian “reenchantment of the world.”11 While not as visible or as easy to make part of a movement as the first three, I think it is an important part of a recovery of an integrated Christian worldview in which the three themes of this movement gain intelligibility. It would have a subtle but profound impact on how each of these three themes are understood and embodied.

There is much that I laud and am encouraged by within the Fellowship and the ECO. However, I also have some concerns and reservations. It is to those that I will turn in the second part of this essay.

David L. Stubbs teaches ethics and theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, and is a contributing editor of Perspectives.









8. I recently heard a lecture in which six different strands within “missional” literature were identified, ranging from Roman Catholic to Anabaptist versions. I hope that all involved take care that the connectional, ecumenical, and sacramental understandings of the church that are part of the Presbyterian heritage are not lost but rather strengthened. Furthermore, there is good conversation and some disagreement within the missional movement about exactly what kind of leadership is “missional” leadership. This must be carefully considered. See, for example, Jeff Van Kooten and Lois Barrett, “Missional Authority,” in Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness, ed. Lois Y. Barrett et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 139–48.


10. For one example of this call for a recovery of discipline, see David Yeago, “The Office of the Keys: On the Disappearance of Discipline in Protestant Modernity,” in Marks of the Body of Christ, ed. Braaten and Jenson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 95–122. Movements concerned to renew the practice of adult catechesis leading to baptism in many mainline denominations, including projects within the PC(USA) sponsored by the Office of Theology and Worship, are also part of this recovery.

11. These phrases are inexact. What I mean by them is more precisely called a “participatory metaphysic” in this statement that is part of the introduction to the new Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality series: “A participatory metaphysic, which many of the church fathers took as axiomatic, implies that all of created reality finds its point of mutual connection in the eternal Word of God, in which it lies anchored” (Peter Leithart, Athanasius [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011]). It is spoken of directly in writings such as Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1999) and James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), and is reflected in the title of Eugene Peterson’s Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005). Christians have woken up to the fact that a “flattened” and “disenchanted” modern view of the world and God’s relationship to it has been poisonous for Christianity (nor does it reflect the best of contemporary science); in response, the proposed future will share much with premodern and ancient Christian thought.