EPC General Assembly re-drawing some presbytery boundaries around women’s ordination

Ordination of women to all offices is an essential "yes" in the PCUSA and ECO, and an essential "no" in the PCA; "non-essential" in the EPC.

Currently, two of the EPC presbyteries are majority complementarian, which means they do not ordain women to the office of teaching elder. And in Mid-America “a number of presbyters have expressed the view that churches with women ruling elders should not be received into the presbytery.”

 

The landscape of Presbyterian denominations in the United States has changed significantly since 2007, when the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) General Assembly voted to create two national, transitional presbyteries. At that time, the New Wineskins Transitional Presbytery and the National Transitional Presbytery were formed to facilitate transfers of congregations and clergy. The two presbyteries also created space and time during which those entering the EPC could acclimate to the environment and culture before becoming full members of the geographic presbyteries where they reside. During those five years, the EPC doubled in size and is now actively dealing with the challenges faced by growing diversity.

Accommodating 182 new churches and their tens of thousands of members has also meant a growth in the diversity of those in leadership. Missionally minded New Wineskins churches, three Hispanic congregations in extreme southern Texas and congregations with women in positions of ordained leadership have created opportunities for conversation, flexible boundaries and new ways of thinking about presbyteries in the EPC.

According to the New Wineskins/EPC Transitional Presbytery Joint Commission Report delivered to the 32nd General Assembly of the EPC meeting in Baton Rouge, La. on June 22, the goal of the transitional presbyteries formed by action of the 27th GA in 2007 was always to “work toward the full assimilation of these churches and pastors into the EPC.”

For both the New Wineskins Transitional Presbytery and the National Transitional Presbytery (designed for churches that were not related to the New Wineskins Association of Churches in the PCUSA), this action is now accomplished. Virtually all of the pastors and churches that entered the NWEPC over the five years have now become members of an EPC geographic presbytery. One church chose to transfer from the EPC into the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) and five others are now independent. All of the churches that entered the EPC through the National Transitional Presbytery have been assimilated into geographic presbyteries.

Along the way, the EPC formed an Interim Committee on Presbytery Boundaries. Created by the 30th GA (2010) to “study potential changes of presbytery boundaries and/or the creation of new presbyteries,” the committee has helped the EPC form three new presbyteries and helped find a way to accommodate churches whose natural geographic presbytery are in a different place on women’s ordination than the congregation.

The EPC created three new presbyteries in 2011: The Alleghenies, Rivers & Lakes and the Pacific to join the seven presbyteries that existed in 2007: Central South, East, Florida, Mid-America, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast and West.

In their report to the EPC GA, the Interim Committee on Presbytery Boundaries noted that they assessed “the present and near future adequacy of presbytery boundaries while attempting to take into account the high amount of fluidity of the number of churches resulting from dismissals from the PCUSA.”

Currently under evaluation are:

  • the adequacy of boundaries in Mid-Atlantic and Central South;
  • the fact that rapid growth in Alleghenies presbytery may be creating the need of an additional division there;
  • the perceived need to create a presbytery covering the Plains states. This particular conversation includes the observation that “the particular complexities of state boundaries in the metropolitan Kansas City area in relation to existing EPC congregations.” The conversation about a Great Plains presbytery is also being fueled by the issue of women’s ordination.

The issue of women

Whereas the ordination of women to all offices of the church is an essential “yes” in the PCUSA and ECO, and an essential “no” in the PCA, gender is regarded as a “non-essential” in the EPC. Currently, two of the EPC presbyteries are majority complementarian, which means they do not ordain women to the office of teaching elder. And in Mid-America “a number of presbyters have expressed the view that churches with women ruling elders should not be received into the presbytery.” Book of Government 5-5, on of the EPC’s constitutional provisions, accommodates congregations who desire, for theological reasons, to join a presbytery that geographically adjoins the one of which they would ordinarily be a part.

Contrasting convictions on the matter of the ordination of women are nowhere more poignant than in the presbytery of Central South. According to their presbytery report to the Interim Committee on Presbytery boundaries, “In 1994 the presbytery overwhelming voted to not receive a female as a candidate under care. In October 2011, a vote was taken to affirm the policy, which was passed by a 90-89 vote.” The presbytery acknowledges its deep division on the issue and they are working on a process “to help the presbytery work together in this divided environment.”

Potential East/West and North/South divisions of the Central South presbytery are being discussed. One would continue as a majority complementarian presbytery and the other as a majority egalitarian presbytery on the issue of women in ordained leadership. In the meantime, churches of the Central South that want to be members of a presbytery that ordains women now are joining the presbytery of the West under provision G. 5-5.

Churches in the only other majority complementarian presbytery, Mid-America, are doing likewise. The result is that the presbytery of the West will also need to be divided and a presbytery of the Great Plains is under discussion.

Forming new presbyteries

The interim committee also proposed a substantive revision of the EPC’s position paper on presbytery development. “The language of the statement provides clear witness to the nature of presbyteries within the EPC structure”

The revised paper reads:

 “The purpose of this position statement is to guide the General Assembly and presbyteries in making decisions concerning the establishment of new presbyteries or the realignment of existing boundaries.

“The church as the body of Christ is composed of all those persons who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, together with their children. The church on earth is not limited to particular forms of government or denominations; nevertheless, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church believes the perfecting of the visible church is best achieved through the Scriptural doctrine of government by a plurality of elders constituting church courts of regular gradation.

“The purpose of the Church is to bring glory to God in obedience to the will of Jesus Christ, the great Head of the Church, but faithfully ruling over all of whom He has made it overseer and by faithfully extending His rule to as many and as far as His Spirit enables it. As a regional manifestation of the visible Church, a presbytery must be earnestly committed to the reign of Christ through both Biblical mission and Biblical governance. As stewards of the Kingdom of God, church courts must neither ‘bury the talents’ of what has been entrusted to them by not fulfilling its mandate (Matt. 25:18) nor fail to exercise the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19) by sacrificing governance for mission. Christ’s will both to extend and govern His kingdom are one and the same. While sometimes coming in tension with one another, the church’s mission and its governance are not in conflict, but complementary.

“A presbytery is to organize itself as it prayerfully deems best to fulfill its purpose, subject to the Scriptures and the Constitution of the church. The specific duties included in this are described in Book of Government 16-16. In full recognition that the Spirit moves according to God’s good pleasure, a presbytery should provide ways to recognize and encourage, not impede, the active work of God the Spirit. Therefore a presbytery should encourage, promote and facilitate the formation of ministry networks within, throughout and across its boundaries. The particular way in which a presbytery organizes itself is to take special care not to hinder the mission of God but rather to foster cooperation with and faithfulness to it.”

“The mission of a presbytery is to organize itself as it deems best for the propagation of the Gospel, the advancement of the Kingdom, and the edification of the people by fulfilling its duties according to Book of Government 16-16.

  • “In order to be faithful to and effective in its mission, a presbytery must be self-sustaining, self-governing and self-perpetuating.
  • “In order to be faithful to its mission, a presbytery must be viable. It must have sufficient human and financial resources to carry out its work.”

The statement concludes with an observation that the impact to current presbyteries and the viability of resulting presbyteries must be weighed by the assembly as proposed changes in presbytery boundaries are considered.

Carmen Fowler LaBerge is president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and executive editor of its publications. This article first appeared on The Layman website and is used with permission.  

[Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced in this article is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]