Shortly after Easter this year, I took part in an interview roundtable hosted by Fare Forward and the nature and purpose of the church, especially in a post-pandemic world. The participants came from a variety of church traditions, and it was a lot of fun. The interview was just put online and will be in the forthcoming print issue of Fare Forward. Read it here.
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.
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…
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…