The Edmond Sun
Members of the First Presbyterian Church of Edmond voted 815-55 to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA) and join the Evangelical Covenant Order.
Sunday’s action was billed as the most significant in the history of the church, established following the Land Run of 1889. Inspired by Christ’s command to love others, members have played key roles in creating Mobile Meals, Citizens Caring for Children, the HOPE Center, Habitat for Humanity, Project READ, the community Thanksgiving Dinner and more recently Turning Point Ministries. Church leaders have said the congregation will not stop supporting local causes.
On Monday, First Presbyterian representatives were to meet with the Indian Nation’s Presbytery, the regional governing body, which had to authorize the “gracious dismissal” from the PCUSA, one of nine Presbyterian denominations in the United States.
For the vote, members had to be in good standing and present, a denominational rule that prevented military members of the congregation who are serving overseas from voting.
Following Sunday’s vote, Indian Nations Presbytery representative Tom Laubert, chairperson of the administrative panel working through related issues, said the Presbytery had to approve the terms of the settlement, which included a one-time payment of about $510,000 and First Presbyterian remaining within a Reformed denomination for 10 years. Local leaders have said the congregation has no intention of leaving Presbyterianism.
“I suspect that will probably happen without much turmoil,” Laubert said, adding there is always an element of uncertainty, just as there was with the congregation’s vote. “Tonight, the weight of the world was lifted off the congregation. Tomorrow the rest of the weight of the world will be lifted off.”
The Presbytery vote was scheduled for 1 p.m. Monday. Under its rules, the PCUSA retains property rights over local property. First Presbyterian leaders said the settlement will help fill the Indian Nations Presbytery’s financial gap created by its departure.
REACTION TO THE VOTE
Following the vote, Senior Pastor Mateen Elass said the congregation is standing firmly for the authority of Scripture and the uniqueness and lordship of Jesus.
“I think this vote, a huge landslide vote, is a vindication of the direction that the leadership felt God was calling this congregation to move toward,” Elass said.
The singing and worship before and after the vote merged into a wonderful display of God’s kindness and grace toward the congregation, Elass said. The vote was a statement not about bigotry but about affirming God’s word and his love for the world in and through Jesus.
Elass and Laubert shook hands and both leaders said they maintained respect for each other. Laubert said he appreciated the respect from First Presbyterian, knowing the task was difficult. The Presbytery had no policy in place for “gracious dismissal.”
“I have high regard for the leadership of this congregation,” said Laubert, who has worked at the Presbytery level for 35 years.
Laubert said the PCUSA still believes that Jesus is lord and savior. The Presbytery was charged to work with, not against First Presbyterian, and he defended the release of letters stating opposing views as part of its charge to minister to the congregation, Laubert said.
“Nothing was ever distributed with the intent to malign or cause harm to this congregation,” he said.
Gordon and Judy Andersen, First Presbyterian members for 31 years, agreed that the action was the most significant in the church’s history.
“I just feel that this is what God has led us to do,” Judy said. “We stood on His promises. We worked really hard to change things. When they didn’t change, we said, ‘OK Lord. We’ll follow your word and what we’re supposed to do.”
Gordon said the reason they came to First Presbyterian was they were drawn to a congregation that held in high esteem the tenets that the PCUSA was founded on. When the PCUSA started drifting away from the inerrancy in the Bible and that Jesus is the only way to salvation the couple was disturbed by that, he said.
“I think the future is strong,” he said of the church. “I think what this congregation has shown is that they’re ready and willing and have lived the life that God would have us live, and that Jesus Christ would have us live, and that is trying very hard to be good disciples.”
Gordon said he thinks the congregation will grow as the community recognizes its willingness to take a stand and follow Jesus and biblical truths.
REASONS FOR ACTION
First Presbyterian leaders have said the Evangelical Covenant Order, a new, rapidly growing Presbyterian denomination, fits more closely with the congregation’s theological beliefs.
In August 2011, 1,950 like-minded pastors and elders met to begin laying the foundations of a new Presbyterian denomination that would be biblically orthodox, Presbyterian/Reformed in its beliefs, evangelical in spirit and missionally minded to deliver the gospel creatively in an ever-changing culture, according to a First Presbyterian document regarding frequently asked questions.
According to the document, estimates put ECO’s membership at 1,000 or more congregations in about five years.
ECO states that all officers must “receive and adopt without hesitation” the denomination’s essential tenets. They include affirming the unique lordship of Jesus and salvation solely through him, the authority and infallibility of Scripture, the necessity for faithfulness in the covenant of marriage as traditionally defined and the value and dignity of all human life.
Church leaders have said or stated that the PCUSA no longer clearly communicates why and how Jesus matters to a world that needs to know him, citing a denomination-level rejection of the statement “Jesus is the singular saving Lord.”
They also cited a change in the PCUSA’s understanding and application of biblical authority from the historic Reformed tradition approach to one better characterized as “religious humanism.”
Originally, the Reformed tradition, declared Christ alone is the mediator between God and humankind, that Scripture alone is the only authoritative word of God and is the only rule of faith and practice in Christian life, that salvation is a gift from God, not the result of human works, that by faith alone humans are declared just by God and all work in the church is done to the glory of God alone.
Also, First Presbyterian leaders cited an apparent lack of interest in the PCUSA doing evangelism, illustrated by the denomination’s accelerating loss of membership, a broken denomination-level disciplinary system and a recent change in ordination standards that allows the possibility that persons in same-gender relationships can be considered for ordination.
The PCUSA “family struggle” over ordination standards lasted for three decades. First Presbyterian leaders said the change was not the primary reason for leaving the denomination.
Before the vote and Presbytery action, the Indian Nations Presbytery had 52 congregations attended by more than 10,000 men, women and children.
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