This week I want to address two issues some people are encountering; ECO’s recognition as a Reformed body and some confusion over the term “subscriptionism” regarding the essential tenets for The Fellowship and ECO.
Is ECO a Reformed Body?
When congregations are in the discerning process of leaving the PC(USA), one of the issues that is at stake in some of the Presbytery discussions revolves around the question - What constitutes an approved Reformed body? Some have asked if ECO is a body to which a congregation can be dismissed. According to authoritative interpretation, the three qualifications any denomination must meet are; “doctrinal consistency with the essentials of Reformed theology as understood by the presbytery; government by a polity that is consistent in form and structure with that of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A); of sufficient permanence to offer reasonable assurance that the congregation is not being dismissed to de facto independence. Each presbytery has the right and responsibility to make that decision. To date, three Presbyteries (Tropical Florida, Pueblo, and Olympia) have already approved ECO as an eligible body to which congregations can be dismissed with many other presbyteries now in process.
Some people are asking about membership in the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). Other people don’t even know the WCRC exists. The WCRC was formed in 2010 by the merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Evangelical Council, and is committed to mission, church unity, and justice. ECO will apply for membership toward the end of this year. We need to wait until late 2012 because we need to be able to report the number and location of congregations in ECO, total membership, etc., as well as to be able to more fully participate in the ministry of the WCRC.
Essential Tenets and “Subscriptionism”
Some have voiced concern about “subscriptionism”. Anyone joining either The Fellowship or ECO will be expected to be in agreement with the “essential tenets,” a part of the theology project we presented in Orlando. Essential tenets are nothing new. Every ruling elder, teaching elder, and deacon in the PC(USA) has agreed to “…sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable exposition of what Scripture leads us to believe and do…”.
So why could clarifying what is essential be considered “subscriptionism” and why should anyone care if it is? As we learn from our history (1925-1927), in the midst of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy, it was decided we should not specify our “essential” tenets. For a season those beliefs could still be assumed but, over time, many doctrines of the church were subtly eroded: the authority of Scripture, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection, the divinity of Jesus, etc. Now when we come together in presbytery and General Assembly meetings, the same words can have very different meanings. The problem we are trying to correct is what Lefferts Loescher called “The Broadening Church.” We do not believe broad theological diversity and pluralism are helpful in building flourishing churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
But ECO and The Fellowship are committed to restoring clarity by calling people to the core of what it means to be followers of Jesus without fixating on the boundaries. “Subscription” can be undermined simply by crossing your fingers as you sign on the dotted line. Our hope is to do the hard work of re-learning our Reformed heritage and deeply embracing a biblical worldview. Our hermeneutic style needs lots of discussion as we move forward. We have spent years being united by what we were against. Now we need to learn how to join together to affirm what we believe. I believe our hearts are united in such a way that we can do this with grace and clarity. We are attempting to build a new kind of accountable culture, with Jesus Christ at its center.
President, The Fellowship of Presbyterians