ECO: the latest Presbyterian denomination

[If you care to respond to this post, please read the whole thing.]

As someone considering ordination in the PCUSA, the latest developments in Orlando will likely have direct consequences for how (if) I pursue ordination in the PCUSA. Things just got complicated, yes, even more complicated. Similar to what Anglican groups have been doing for the last ten years (e.g., the ACNA), evangelicals within the mainline denomination have adopted a multi-tier polity for a new denomination: the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). In true Presbyterian fashion, they already have the pension plans set out! There will be three levels of membership:

  1. affiliate as a “ministry association,” which involves no change in PCUSA membership status and is apparently open to non-PCUSA churches
  2. pursue “union membership,” which involves a joint union with the PCUSA and ECO
  3. join ECO as a “full member,” which involves leaving the PCUSA

Update: They have decided on two levels of membership: (1) Fellowship of Presbyterians and (2)  ECO. As a member of the Fellowship, you can still remain in the PCUSA. As a member of ECO, you have joined the new denomination and left the PCUSA. So, the Fellowship will be a means for networking evangelicals within the PCUSA and with ECO members.

I’m really curious to see how the PCUSA responds. The Fellowship of Presbyterians (the body initiating all of this) is not to be taken lightly. 500 churches were represented in Orlando, with many more in sympathy, and these are some of the strongest churches in the PCUSA, such as First Presbyterian of Orlando (David Swanson) and Menlo Park Presbyterian (John Ortberg), plus my own Westminster Presbyterian of Charlotte. The Huffington Post, not surprisingly, has reduced everything to gay marriage and homophobia, in an ungracious and pathetic representation of Fellowship motives: “Cowardly Lions.” Don Sweeting, the president of RTS-Orlando and an EPC minister, has a far more helpful analysis of the Fellowship and ECO. As my pastor has emphasized over and over, there is no denying that the 10A amendment was a decisive moment for the networking and organizing of evangelicals in the PCUSA, but the amendment was simply a manifestation of something far more disconcerting: the nearly complete disregard for biblical authority in underwriting the amendment. To their credit, many scholars and leaders in the revisionist camp are not even claiming biblical warrant, instead focusing on supposed ambiguities in the text, contextual differences between the ANE and today, and the relative newness of homosexual monogamy and the need to “baptize” homosexual relationships with Christian marriage. To put it another way, would the apostles accept homosexual marriage? No, but that’s neither here nor there, according to the GLBT lobby. That’s where evangelicals fear to tread. I have lots of questions, and few certainties, about homosexuality, but I have to remain captive to the canonical norms, not the fallibility of my experience or wisdom, which is otherwise highly sympathetic and attracted to much that is written in favor of homosexual relationships…Sarah Coakley and Rowan Williams come to mind.


  1. “That’s where evangelicals fear to tread. I have lots of questions, and few certainties, about homosexuality, but I have to remain captive to the canonical norms, not the fallibility of my experience or wisdom, which is otherwise highly sympathetic and attracted to much that is written in favor of homosexual relationship…”

    After reading this sentence multiple times I am still confused about what you are trying to say. It seems like you are doing mental gymnastics to try to justify a dogmatic position with which you disagree. Or, given the tone of your blog, are you set on your assumptions? Are you trying to come across as more sympathetic than you really are? Because it appears that you are dancing around the issue here, much like the ‘Cowardly Lion’ mentioned in the John Shore article. Why can’t you lay it out on the table? What are you afraid of?

    Kevin, its seems like you are in the same boat as I was ten years ago. A thoughtful young man of a conservative upbringing who, through careful study and reflection, has come to question much of the teaching and dogma that you have been taught since you were young. You strike me as someone who would prefer the label of ‘Reformed’ above everything else and would like to be known as someone thoroughly steeped in that tradition. Yet, it is obvious that your heart is not 100% behind your convictions. You have either read something or met someone who has challenged you on this issue and you are unsure of what to do.

    Well, I think you need to just be honest with yourself. I have been a pastor for 7 years now. That is a long enough time for me to see that you either have to spend every waking minute reassuring yourself of your ‘captivity to canon’ or you have to learn that God can lead you in different directions. Would you be the one who turns away a couple asking to be married because one of them has been divorced once before? Are you going to refuse to baptize a baby because her grandparents insisted even though her parents never come to church? You learn a lot about life from the parish. And sometimes you find that it is really the Spirit that is challenging you to be more like Jesus. It is cliche, but doing what Jesus would do sometimes requires a more thoughtful response than ‘the bible says’.

    I would challenge you to take some time to read about what gay people say about their experiences in the church. In fact, I would encourage you to go get John Shore’s book ‘Unfair’ or one like it. Honestly read and reflect. If you are not touched and moved by the painful, heart-breaking stories of those who have been utterly abandoned by the Church because of their sexual orientation, then come out and say it. Say that you don’t want to be part of the PCUSA because you think gay people are unrepentant sinners and that they shouldn’t be allowed to serve in the church. Say it in public. Don’t mince words. And then pursue ordination somewhere else. Its simple really. You need to start by being honest with yourself.

    • I’m well past the “questioning my upbringing” stage. And, I’m far from naive about gay experiences or queer theory. Yes, I need even more direct experience, as you have, but I’m not exactly following the impulses of a latent reactionary conservatism. Guess which philosopher I wrote the most about when I was an undergraduate? Foucault. The professor who introduced me to Discipline and Punish was a self-described Marxist-Lesbian-Radical-Feminist, and she was probably my favorite professor. In many ways during college I started from scratch — conceptually at least — and rebuilt my beliefs. It was all rather Cartesian and Kantian! From Kierkegaard and Barth, I eventually found my way into Protestant dogmatics; and from Henri de Lubac et al., I found my way into a rather vigorous and exciting, grace-oriented Natural Law tradition. I’m a long way away from Dispensationalism and Young Earth Creationism!

      Yes, I struggle with this issue, and I hope my sympathy is genuine and not pandering. I’ve read/watched the testimonials, and I’ve read some of the most elegant defenses of gay relationships — Gerard Loughlin, Eugene Rogers, Williams, Coakley, and such. And, I’ve read the other side — mostly Catholics like von Balthasar, John Paul II, Robert George, and the like. I’m not just throwing out names to sound impressive but, rather, to indicate that I have really tried to give the issue its due diligence.

      I certainly don’t think it’s as simple as either “gays are unrepentant sinners” or “open and affirming.” Discerning culpability is far from my domain, especially with an issue as complex as this, rooted in desires for love and understanding and wholeness.

  2. How do you know how the apostles would have responded? Or even how Jesus would have? What are the 2 greatest commandments? Or is the GLBT community not our neighbors?

  3. kinda weird, I grew up in a presbyterian church, then stopped going, right around 83, when the pc usa formed. and the church I went to joined the pc isa. then they left the pc usa to the epc in 2007. now the pc usa and epc, seem way too liberal/modernist to me..and I want to find a OPC and start going to church again..:)

    • Well, the OPC is way too insular and nitpicky for me. I take theology very seriously (as, hopefully, my blog makes clear), but we can easily idolize our own personality type that favors the cerebral/analytic.

      Moreover, I honestly do not think that the OPC has a clue about how to engage our world, which is why the OPC has been a stagnant denomination for the entirety of its existence. They have found safety in the comfort of their “worldview.”

  4. gays and lesbians that is betweem them God,but i will not support a church financially that condones it, The PCUSA should re write the Bible to conform with their philisophy.I am 74 years old and have been a presbyterian 44 years,but after general assembly next year 2014,I will probably no longer be a Presbyterian.

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