The “Everything-Goes Presbyterian Church.” Plenty of pastors in the EPC have heard our church described that way. The EPC has a well deserved reputation for charity, for not splintering over non-essential issues, for valuing relationships over litigiousness. For that reason the EPC has become a refuge for many. I count myself among them. At the same time, this relaxed and charitable posture has been perceived as lackadaisical, that the EPC is the denomination you join if you want to be presbyterian and evangelical but still do whatever you want.
I expect that in the next few years the EPC will start receiving an increasing number of requests to join us from disaffected PCA congregations. Within the PCA there are a number of debates raging over what dissatisfied congregations may view as secondary issues which demand liberty. The allure of the EPC to these congregations is as an apparent landing place where they can now freely practice what is contested or banned in their current church.
My own Reformed ministry began in a PCA church before I headed to the EPC, and I retain a love for the PCA. The EPC is a more relaxed church than the PCA, but we are not in reality an “everything-goes” church. Below are a few areas that disgruntled PCAers should be aware of the EPC’s actual stands.
1. The EPC is a confessional church. All of our officers, like in the PCA, vow to sincerely adopt the Westminster Confessions and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine found in the scriptures. The EPC’s confessionalism is well known for presbyterian churches considering a new denominational home. But the implications need to be teased out. Like in the PCA, the Westminster Standards are the subordinate doctrinal standards of the church. “The Essentials of Our Faith” is often used as a shorthand for our essential doctrines, but it is not that in actuality. The Westminster Standards are. Which means the Westminster Standards restrict doctrine and practice in the EPC in the same way they restrict doctrine and practice in the PCA….
Last week Jake Meador urged the PCA and the broader confessionally Reformed, Protestant world to move on from the human sexuality debates. He says,
[T]he best thing that could happen right now is if reformed protestants in the US treated those [the PCA’s and ACNA Bishops’] reports as consensus documents that are broadly representative of where we are on these matters. There’s no reason that pastors in the PCA, OPC, EPC, ECO, ARP, REC, and ACNA can’t begin using these two statements in their ministry as a way of helping church members and visitors understand where they basically stand on these matters. Collectively, those seven communions number over a million weekly attendees. Given the disastrous ways evangelicals have often discussed matters of sexuality in the past, it would be an enormous win if a critical mass of our reformed congregations began to use these two statements more regularly.
I think Jake’s impulse is right, but there are still several legitimate barriers to doing that. There is not unanimity, and sometimes there is silence, on the pastoral question of whether someone should repent of an LGBT/SSA orientation. I have written extensively on this subject, but my argument is that orientation and desire/affection are distinct (something many Side B proponents also argue), that LGBT/SSA orientation may be sin, but may also describe an externally inflicted propensity, that mortification of sin and the flesh is the best pastoral category in addressing this subject, and that Westminsterian confessionalism bears this out…
I’ve drafted a white paper as a proposal to guide a presbyterially strategized, congregationally executed approach to church health. It is tailored to the EPC’s Presbytery of the East, where I am and the congregation I pastor are members. But the principles apply to any connectional denomination. David Brooks recently in The New York Times highlighted Tim Keller’s 8-point plan for Christian renewal in the United States. Jake Meador today drew out some of the implications of this plan for institution building. That is what this paper I drafted is trying to capture: a fresh, rooted, and aggressive approach to concrete institution building oriented by the church as God’s institution for mission.
The paper can be found here. Below is an excerpt of the first section.
The church receives its life from Jesus. The church is united to him spiritually and mystically, and receives its life from him. He is the vine, we are the branches. No approach to church health, revitalization (i.e. literally “re-lifeing”), or mission can proceed biblically without this reality foregrounded.
Churches are alive and healthy insofar as they truly united to Christ and practicing the means by which that union is deepened. Any conversation about church life cycles, budgeting practices, change management, congregational outreach, effective small groups, etc. is all tertiary to the redemptive work of God in Christ and the means by which the church receives those benefits.
Assuming this or backgrounding it in conversations about church health and mission only results in unhealthy churches and mission unaligned with God…
Much of my reading project over the last four years has been devoted to targeted reading in the deep and diverse well of the Reformed Catholic tradition. I’ll continue to do so in other avenues, but in 2022 year I wanted to intentionally read outside my tradition. Specifically, I want to read outside the white, European-descended Presbyterian tradition. Instead of focusing on the works of an individual author, I am going to read a variety of works mostly representing theological perspectives of the “Majority World”. The Majority World is a term used to describe the majority of the global population that resides outside of the Western World (Australia, Europe, New Zealand, North America). I also be reading a few books on the African American Christian experience; of course Black Americans are part of the Western world and tradition, but the African American church represents a distinct theological approach within that tradition for which I have done very little direct reading, to which I want to devote time.
The most important work in this reading is Majority World Theology: Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective. It has six parts, each containing a series of essays, with each part having been previously published as individual volumes. Below is the rough schedule I plan on following…
The Anglican Communion and World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), to which my EPC belongs, issued a joint report last week on “koinonia”, which comes from the Greek word κοινωνός (koinonos), meaning fellowship, communion, or participation. The report was initiated as part of the effort to renew global Anglican-Reformed dialogue, which had lapsed after a 1984 report discussing ecumenical cooperation. To that end, the report is generally weak and innocuous, and its strongest moments were when it quoted the 1984 report on baptism and Christian communion (e.g. §20-22, 40, 64).
The report refers to κοινωνός as “koinonia” throughout, rather than translate the term, which initially struck me as odd. The reaon became clear after rereading the report. Rather than treating koinonia as a definitional communion with God and his people, koinonia is a pseudo-substance that, as a gift or challenge (§7), served as an invitation into communion with God, and is a gift of God to creation, whether or not people are joined with him in redemption. If κοινωνός was translated, rather than transliterated as a distinct term, the weakness would have been made clear. For instance, 2 Peter 1:4 describes those with faith in Christ as κοινωνοὶ, (koinonoi, “participating” or “communing”) in the divine nature. Peter’s meaning is simple: salvation is union with God, which can be describe as partaking, fellowship, or communion (koinonia) with him. “Koinonia” is not a gift independent from God, albeit one that comes from him, but a way of describing the character of what it means to be united to him. This is what the Apostles’ Creed means when it references the “communion of saints” (cf. Heidelberg Catechism 55)…