The EPC and the World Communion of Reformed Churches
Below is a report I wrote in 2021 assessing my denomination, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, remaining a member of the global ecumenical body the World Communion of Reformed Churches. I wrote this as a member of the EPC’s committee on theology to assist our committee on Fraternal Relations to think through that membership in light of the EPC’s revised endorsement policy. At the 2022 General Assembly, the committee on Fraternal Relations was instructed (at their request) to formally evaluate the EPC’s membership in the WCRC and to bring a recommendation for action to the 2023 GA. While the official recommendation has not yet been made public, the expectation is that it will encourage us to end our membership in the WCRC. The WCRC is more aligned with mainline and liberal churches in North America and Europe (such as the PCUSA) than evangelical churches, and the North American and European contingents dominate the ethos and meaningful leadership of the WCRC. This is the real reason the EPC would consider leaving: the WCRC is not a good fit for missional partnership.
I believe the EPC should remain a member of the WCRC, though only if we’re willing to actually engage it. There is a significant shift happening on a global level in the church (e.g. the changes in the Anglican Communion and among the Methodists) where the leadership is moving towards evangelical churches in the majority world. I think the EPC could stand to benefit from being part of global council of churches committed to the Reformed tradition, especially as things are changing. So below is a lightly edited version of the report I submitted in July 2021.
Theological Evaluation of the EPC’s Membership in the WCRC
The revised endorsement policy of the EPC (2020, AoA 20-10) has prompted questions about our denomination’s current membership in the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Below are a handful of theological considerations. Polity and ecclesiology are inherently theological, not simply administrative, so several considerations will engage not only doctrine but the application of that.
In 2011 the EPC instructed the Fraternal Relations Committee to evaluate all of our fraternal partnerships. This included the WCRC. At the time, part of the concern over the WCRC was our sharing a membership with the PC(USA), which had just revised its ordination vows to accommodate homosexual relationships. The FRC’s report, adopted by the GA in 2012, said this about the WCRC,
While not being enthusiastic about the EPC belonging to two global Reformed bodies [the other being the World Reformed Fellowship], the Committee recommends no changes at this time. Our membership in the WCRC provides a corresponding relationship with the PCUSA that has helped facilitate the dismissal of churches to the EPC. The Committee on Administration recommended to the FRC as part of this review that membership in WCRC continue for the coming year and the FRC concurs.
The motivation for maintaining membership seems to have been primarily to allow more PCUSA congregations to join the EPC without losing their property. That same year the GA adopted a new definition of fraternal relationships that applies to the WCRC, “Memberships in ecumenical agencies that proclaim the Word of God, promote the unity of the Body of Christ, and share resources for effective ministries.”
The question is then whether the WCRC has changed, the EPC has changed, the PCUSA has changed, or the need of the EPC for the WCRC has changed since 2012.
Promotion of the Unity of the Body of Christ
Jesus’ prayer in John 17 should be taken seriously by the EPC in our fraternal relationships. The Geneva Statement between the EPC and the ARP includes this line, “We further believe that such practical fraternity, apart from any quest for organizational union will be pleasing to God and promote the advancement of the gospel in the world.” This is the right spirit to have in approaching the EPC and the WCRC. Does maintaining our membership foster or harm the unity of the body of Christ? Would leaving (schism!, albeit a “minor” one, and possibly warranted) foster or harm the unity of the body of Christ?
There are several considerations. First, since 2012 the EPC has used the WCRC to affirm ecumenical unity without taking the PCUSA into account. Specifically, in 2019 the EPC approved maintaining “its relationship with the Presbyterian Church of Ghana (PCG) through its membership in the” WCRC. What would departure do to that relationship?
Second, while the EPC is also a member of the World Reformed Fellowship (where I am also both an individual member and on the board of directors), the WRF as a fellowship strives to be more of a forum for deliberation and cooperation, not just among churches, but also schools, parachurch organizations, and individuals from within the fellowship. This is different from the WCRC’s mission of being a communion of churches striving towards ecumenical unity, speaking to the churches both within and without the communion. The WRF does not facilitate ecclesiastical communion the way the WCRC does, and ecclesiastical communion is a spiritual good. Practically speaking, this means that there are substantially more member churches of the WCRC than WRF, particularly in Africa and Central and Southeast Asia. The overwhelming majority of these churches in the Global South are orthodox by the EPC’s standards. Would departing from the WCRC hinder potential fraternal outreach to other orthodox churches? Is it possible to see a shift in the WCRC’s emphasis as churches in the Global South take on more leadership?
Closer to home, the Korean Church Abroad/in America and the Hungarian Reformed Church in America are two examples of orthodox, confessional, and ethnic churches in North America who are members of the WCRC but not the WRF, and whose values align well with the EPC’s. As we work towards being a Revelation 7:9 church, would departure from the WCRC hamper fraternal efforts in their direction?
Third, the EPC has not tried to contribute to the orientation of the WCRC or its member churches, whether globally or in the regional Caribbean and North American Area Council. Would the effort required for the EPC to more proactively engage the WCRC or its regional branch be worth it? Does the denomination have the resources and energy to do that? Being a name on a list is not the same as really being in communion with other churches, and if the EPC were to remain part of the WCRC it should only do so if it is willing to invest in it.
Proclamation of the Word of God and Resources
One of the difficulties in theologically assessing the WCRC is determining where it as an organization differs from the EPC versus the areas where individual member churches use the WCRC to promote their divergent understanding of God’s word. The danger inherent to any ecumenical organization is that member denominations will state positions that violate each other’s doctrine. For instance, the WRF includes Baptist churches who teach contrary to the EPC’s confession of faith on the sacraments. The National Association of Evangelicals (of which the EPC is a member) includes churches who promote annihilationism, Arminianism, that salvation can be lost, perfectionism, rejection of the legitimacy of pedobaptism or baptism by sprinkling/affusion, the sacrament of footwashing, universalism, continuing revelation from God, the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second work of grace, and the necessity of speaking in tongues for salvation. If the EPC’s confessional standards will be used to evaluate the ecumenical organizations to which it belongs, that needs to be done consistently and with a determination of whether the organization or its constituent churches are what is being evaluated.
The WCRC does produce resources (conferences, seminars, Bible studies), but whether anyone in the EPC takes advantage of them or would find them helpful is a different question.
In July, 2017 the WCRC joined the “Joint Declaration of Justification”, an ecumenical document crafted by the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church in 1999. I wrote a series in 2017 analyzing on the WCRC and JDDJ, with the main piece here. Jeff Jeremiah, then Stated Clerk of the EPC GA informed me at the time that the EPC did not participate in the feedback process from the WCRC related to the JDDJ.
In my judgment, the JDDJ flattens the distinction between justification and sanctification through semantic slight-of-hand which results in the removal of the unconditional grace of Jesus as the only basis for our justification. It also rejects that faith is the lone instrument of justification, partially through this flattening. The WCRC did not affirm or endorse all of the JDDJ, but “affiliated” with it as a result of the ongoing dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church that concluded in 2017. The WCRC’s affiliation with the JDDJ included adding a section that was distinctly Reformed, rather than Lutheran or Roman Catholic, and was far stronger than the rest of the document, though still quite weak. The process of the WCRC signing the JDDJ excluded member churches voting on it and the JDDJ is not binding on WCRC members.
In June, 2021 the WCRC participated in a forum on gender equality which concluded with a Faith Communique. In a section titled “Bodily Autonomy”, the Communique states, “Religious actors are mobilising to address entrenched gender norms, which act as barriers to bodily autonomy. Religious leaders are often trusted voices in communities, and therefore, have a critical role in transforming gender norms, promoting Comprehensive Sexuality Education, and enabling access to gender responsive sexual and reproductive health services.” This appears to be a veiled reference to abortion, due to the forum using the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action as a starting point and calling on churches to fulfill that action plan. The Beijing Declaration endorses abortion where legal. However, the World Evangelical Alliance, of which the EPC is a member by virtue of our membership in the NAE, also signed the Faith Communique. Either the Faith Communique does not endorse abortion, the WEA was unaware that it endorsed abortion, the WEA believed that the abortion endorsement was outweighed by other positive statements, or the WEA is ambivalent about abortion, and therefore ok with it.
Again, the Faith Communique, while including a call to WCRC members, was not vetted by member churches nor binding on them. Other than this document, the WCRC has not appeared to endorse abortion.
The WCRC has never staked out a position on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, or any other sexual practice that deviates from the EPC’s standards. WCRC member churches may hold those deviant positions, and some of those churches may currently be among the most influential in the WCRC, but the communion as a whole and the majority of its members hold to an orthodox sexual ethic. While it may seem that the WCRC only promotes pro-LGBT+ news and members, that is not always the case.
“Synods and councils are to handle, or conclude nothing, but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth, unless by way of humble petition in cases extraordinary; or, by way of advice, for satisfaction of conscience, if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate.” -Westminster Confession of Faith, 31.4.
The news and blog pages of the WCRC are constantly filled with political activism, and make partisan, political pleas that do not represent the EPC’s perspective. This failure of representation includes the frequency with which the WCRC makes political statements, the content of much of the WCRC’s political statements, whether the political statements are for “cases extraordinary”, and the divergence of energies away from gospel work to social work. In previous correspondence with WCRC leadership, I was informed that per the WCRC bylaws member churches do not vote on the political positions taken (though they could at the next WCRC general council, which meets every seven years). However, the WCRC only takes political positions that reflect the sentiment of relevant, national member churches. For example, the WCRC is opposed to the U.S. embargo of Cuba because its member church, the Presbyterian-Reformed Church in Cuba, is opposed to it. In the case of responding to U.S. policies, the WCRC’s positions often do not reflect the EPC’s priorities, but it is unclear how often the EPC is consulted or provides advice.
 Minutes of the 32nd GA, page 269.
 Ibid, page 456.
 AoA 12-10.
 AoA 92-01.
 AoA 19-03.
 For example, by my count there are 37 African nations represented in the WCRC but not the WRF. This does not include countries with both organizations represented, churches in both organizations, or nations with multiple churches in the WCRC.
 For example, this article on difficulties in the CRC and RCA, including on homosexuality, was promoted by the WCRC (https://www.crcna.org/news-and-events/news/challenges-crcna-and-rca).
 Most recently here (http://wcrc.ch/news/wcrc-calls-for-support-to-end-us-blockade-of-cuba).