Santa Barbara “Union Presbytery” Plan Found Unconstitutional

A Synod Permanent Judicial Commission has struck down one presbytery’s plan to form a union with a “presbytery” of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, saying that “the requirements of ECO… exist beyond the boundaries of what it is understood to be Reformed.”

On June 2, 2012, the Presbytery of Santa Barbara voted to form a “union presbytery” with the Presbytery of the West of ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

The Session of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church of Santa Barbara and a number of individual presbyters, troubled by the action, filed a remedial complaint against the Presbytery.  Covenant Network Director Doug Nave represented the complainants.

A trial was held by the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii on November 9, and the SPJC issued a unanimous ruling that “declares null and void the actions taken by Santa Barbara Presbytery at their called meeting of June 2, 2012 wherein the Plan for Union was approved.”

Read the full decision here.


  1. http://Arthur%20Shippee. says

    What requirements of ECO were deemed to be non-Reformed? Very interesting.

  2. http://Mark%20R.%20Patterson,%20PhD says

    As one of the authors of this union plan this decision of the PJC is disappointing. Our honest desire was to keep our presbytery together even as we acknowledged deep differences in our understanding of the gospel, Scripture, and ministry. St. Andrews Church and all who signed the complaint have successfully killed any attempt in our presbytery to work together and even remain together. We in the evangelical side grieve this even as we acknowledge its reality and turn to take another course. It has become radiantly clear to evangelicals that in spite of liberal claims of inclusivity we are welcome only when and if we submit to their values and rules. It is thus clear that the Presbyterian tent is not really as big or inclusive as some would like to believe.

    What is perhaps most frustrating is the inaccuracies found in both the complaint and judgement of the PJC. They ruled in article three that ECO requires members to agree with its list of essential tenets. The FACT is that ECO has no such requirement or rule. It is impossible at this point to determine if St. Andrews and the PJC are merely ignorant of this fact or chose instead to replace it with an untrue caricature.

  3. I’m fairly new to this discussion with and amongst the ECO, and I’ve been reviewing the ECO theology and polity documents as of late. Please correct me if I am wrong, but does the ECO Polity document not require agreement with its “essential tenets” even of union congregations in 5.0202? I’m not sure why that would not carry over to the statement on union presbyteries — the larger body made up of those congregations — in 5.0203.

  4. I think part of the challenge we’re all facing is that folks who are actually “in” ECO are also now “out” of the PCUSA and so are no longer participating in the conversation. So, although I do not presume to speak “for” them, I have spoken with them and here’s my take on it: the folks in ECO are determined to not engage in any mudslinging of any kind. They feel called to do church in a new way – outside of the PCUSA. They have attempted to craft a polity that is Presbyterian but not “old school,” they intentionally adopted the complete PCUSA Book of Confessions as their confessional standard in order to closely align with the PCUSA even as they seek to differentiate from it in other ways. It is my understanding that only officers, and not members, are required to express commitment to the enumerated essential tenets outlined in their Theology paper. Membership in both the PCUSA and ECO requires that a person express their trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. So, to your question, in a Presbyterian system of governance (as in both the PCUSA and ECO) the elected officers of the Session make decisions on behalf of the congregation. Again, I’m not in the EPC, but it is my understanding that the same kind of expression of commitment to a list of essential tenets is required there. And the EPC is certainly considered a Reformed body to which PCUSA can be dismissed and its presbyteries are considered comparable to PCUSA presbyteries.

  5. http://Doug%20Nave says

    Insofar as the SPJC’s decision about the “Reformed” nature of ECO has become a point of commentary, it should be understood that the SPJC interpreted this word as part of the PC(USA) Constitution – not in some abstract sense about what it might have meant over time or what it might mean today in different contexts. Indeed, one could fairly easily find interpretations of the term “Reformed” that are so broad they encompass all of the Protestant churches. The PC(USA) Constitution obviously envisages something more limited, and that is what the SPJC found.

    Complainants called several expert witnesses to testify about what the PC(USA) envisages when its speaks in its Constitution about the “Reformed” tradition. One of these witnesses, Dr. Jack Rogers, pointed out that both the Lutherans and the Anglicans probably would claim that they are “Reformed” communions – even though the Lutherans give much greater weight to church tradition than Presbyterians do and the Anglicans have a polity that includes bishops. Dr. Rogers also pointed out that the World Alliance of Reformed Churches at one point ousted the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa from its membership, because that church’s embrace of racism was deemed to be heretical. Whether a body is recognized as “Reformed” or not turns not just on that body’s self-definition, but also on the considered discernment of communions with which it wishes to be in relationship about what it means to be “Reformed.”

    The SPJC discerned that the PC(USA) Constitution, interpreted as a whole, gives particular meaning to the term “Reformed.” This includes a rejection of both subscriptionism and “works righteousness” — both of which are found in ECO’s theology and polity documents. While other communions might self-identify in a manner that leaves room for the imposition of abstract “essential tenets,” or for requirements that condition church membership on more than a person’s profession of faith, the PC(USA) does not.

    It might be noted that, in attributing a particular meaning to the word “Reformed,” the SPJC applied the same rules of construction that the GAPJC used in deciding that the word “chastity” in former G-6.0106b should be understood to mean “celibacy.” Even though the word “chastity” has meant very different things in the church over the centuries, the GAPJC asked “How did the PC(USA) mean to use that word in this Constitution?” So too, in the Santa Barbara case, the SPJC considered the fact that our Constitution affirms freedom of biblically formed conscience and the duty to show each other mutual forbearance in non-“essential” matters (see, e.g., Book of Confessions secs. 3.18-3.20, 5.010-5.014, 6.010, 6.109, 6.175, 7.215; Book of Order secs. F-3.0101, F-1.0305, F-1.0307, G-2.0105). Likewise, the SPJC considered whether ECO’s requirement that all church members subscribe to a set of “essential” behavioral requirements (chiefly celibacy outside marriage between a man and a woman) might be a form of “works righteousness” and something wholly at odds with our belief that members must be welcomed solely on the basis of their profession of faith (see, e.g., Book of Confessions secs. 5.089-5.091, 5.106-5.111, 5.118-5.119, 6.078-6.080, 6.091-6.092; Book of Order sec. G-1.0302). In all of this, the SPJC applied the principle from the GAPJC’s decision in Londonderry (2001), now enshrined as Book of Order sec. F-3.03, that each part of our Constitution – including its use of the term “Reformed” – must be interpreted in light of the whole Constitution.

    Consideration of the question whether ECO is “Reformed” was only a small part of a more extensive decision in which the SPJC also found that Santa Barbara Presbytery’s proposed “union” with ECO constituted an irregular use of our constitutional provisions for union (which are meant to promote reconciliation and true integration of existing programs). It was also found to be irregular given our constitutional provisions for the holding and disposition of property (which has been built over generations by faithful Presbyterians and which each church body holds in trust for the use and benefit of the whole church). Countless other constitutional provisions were considered, and the proposed “union” was deemed to be irregular under all of them. Ultimately, this decision stands as another hallmark in our long history as Presbyterians – occasionally dividing over disagreements of the day, but ultimately finding in mutual forbearance ways to witness more graciously and effectively to the reconciling power of Jesus Christ.

  6. http://Jim%20Caraher says

    I’m not nearly as theologically astute as the participants in this conversation but I hope someone will take a minute to explain something to me. From my former days as a Presbyterian, I recall that PC(USA) pastors and elders answered a resounding yes to this question: “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets (note: tenets is plural) of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead people to God?” So if the PC(USA) pledges its devotion to essential tenets as expressed in the confessions and the ECO has adopted those confessions in their entirety, why does the ECO’s devotion to the same essential tenets as the PC(USA) render the ECO incompatible with the PC(USA)? Thanks in advance to anyone who would be willing to take a minute to explain that to me.

  7. http://Doug%20Nave says

    This is a good question, and one that arises frequently in conversations about our ordination standards.

    Persons who are being ordained, installed, or commissioned in the PC(USA) are required to affirm that they “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions” (Directory of Worship sec. W-4.4003c). That leads to the logical question, “What are the essentials?” However, the Presbyterian Church over the centuries has consistently refused to adopt a list of “essentials,” believing that to do so would substitute fallible human expressions for the ultimate authority of Scripture as interpreted by the individual believer under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

    What the church requires, in its ordination vows, is the ordinand’s commitment to take the confessions with sufficient seriousness that he or she will engage them, constantly and sincerely, in a faithful effort to discern what parts of them require assent. Thus, our vows require that the ordinand be “continually guided by” – but not that he or she be wholly conformed to – the confessions (Directory of Worship sec. W-4.4003d).

    Not everything stated in the confessions can be treated as an “essential.” The confessions are statements that were made in a particular time, in response to particular circumstances and needs, given the human understandings that were then available. Thus, the Constitution reminds us that the confessions are part of a “living tradition,” and that they are always open to reform according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit (Book of Order secs. F-2.01, F-2.02).

    – Sometimes the confessions conflict with each other, and it is impossible to affirm everything that is found in them. For example, the Scots Confession and the Second Helvetic Confession both state that women should not be allowed to preach or to administer the Sacraments (Book of Confessions secs. 3.23, 5.191), while the Brief Statement of Faith affirms just the opposite: that God “calls women and men to all ministries of the Church” (Book of Confessions sec. 10.4).

    – Sometimes the confessions state principles that appear to be absolute, but that actually depend on the circumstances in which they are applied. For example, the Westminster Confession declares that believers should obey lawfully constituted civil authorities (Book of Confessions secs. 6.111, 6.130), while the Theological Declaration of Barmen called upon readers in a different time and place (Nazi Germany) to oppose them (Book of Confessions secs. 8.22-8.23).

    – Sometimes the confessions reflect principles that, in light of the church’s growing discernment, may later be rejected as unwise or unscriptural. For example, the Presbyterian Church amended the Westminster Confession (Book of Confessions secs. 6.132, 6.137-6.139) to rescind the original prohibition against divorce and remarriage for any cause other than adultery or irremediable desertion.

    In short, the confessions must be taken seriously, but not slavishly. The Presbyterian Church, countless times over its history, has affirmed that it is improper to identify “essentials” in some abstract list to which everyone must subscribe. Rather, an “essential” is something that an examining body (session or presbytery) identifies in the examination of a particular candidate, case-by-case, as having such unique importance that the body believes it is “incapable of communion” with that candidate (Adopting Act of 1729). When it comes to “essentials,” under the Constitution of the PC(USA), we have a multitude of conversations, not a single checklist.

    Our Historic Principles of Church Order admonish that “there are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ” and that where disagreements arise, we owe each other the “duty . . . to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other” (Book of Order sec. F-3.0105). Sometimes an examining body will discern that a point of disagreement is so important the body must decline ordination, essentially declaring that it is “incapable of communion” with a particular candidate – even though that person has trained for ordained leadership and been called to service by a congregation. Other times, given everything the examining body knows about a particular candidate and call, a matter of disagreement may be graciously accommodated. This process is not necessarily easy, but it is the way that Presbyterians over the centuries have discerned is most faithful and true to a calling to witness to the love and reconciling power of Christ in the world.

  8. http://Jim%20Caraher says

    So let me understand this. Pastors and elders are required to affirm that they “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions. However the Presbyterian Church over the centuries has consistently refused to adopt a list of “essentials….” So pastors and elders are supposed to receive and adopt the essential tenets even though no one has the faintest idea what the essential tenets are? Isn’t that intellectually embarrassing?

  9. http://Doug%20Nave says

    I think it’s intellectually honest. One of the more remarkable things to come out of ECO is the admission of some of its founders that a self-selected group of fundamentally like-minded persons has found it difficult to achieve consensus on what its “essential tenets” should be. While all Presbyterians doubtless would agree that there are “essential tenets” in the Reformed faith, and all share a commitment to upholding those, we more often agree what the “essentials” are when they are placed at issue in specific cases than we do when they are presented in abstract declarations.

    One of the more famous decisions from the US Supreme Court was written by a Justice who declared that he couldn’t define pornography, but that “I know it when I see it.” Something similar might be said about “essential tenets” in the Reformed faith. When we examine individual candidates, and explore with them particular points made in the context of a specific statement of faith and manner of life, we typically come to an abiding sense whether that person adheres to the “essentials” or not. That is the process to which our ordination vows commit leaders in the PC(USA).

    One will search our confessions in vain for any summary that says “These are the essential tenets.” At the same time, we know that not everything in the confessions is essential, or even right (the confessional prohibition of ordained service by women is one clear example). When we read the confessions, some discernment is always called for, recognizing that the confessions are each statements of their own particular time.

    If one wants the comfort of easy certitudes, those can certainly be found in other Christian communions – the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, offers a wealth of firm doctrines for those who believe that their faith is best nurtured in such a structured setting. However, Presbyterians have always followed a different path, believing like the sixteenth-century Reformers that God speaks through Scripture in the conscience of the individual believer, and that we owe each other mutual forbearance not only because we are a community that is committed to love and reconciliation in the Gospel, but also because we are a community that is committed to faithful discernment of the ongoing presence and activity of God in history, along with a realistic acknowledgment of our own all-too-human fallibility.

    Among the fundamental principles in our confessions is a belief that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” that “synods and councils may err,” and that we commit the sin of idolatry in placing man-made commands above the convictions of biblically formed conscience (Book of Confessions secs. 6.109, 6.175, 7.215). If those are “essential tenets” of the Reformed faith – and one can certainly make a strong case that they are, since without them the Reformation would never have occurred – then it must be wrong to require subscription to a vast number of other statements found in the confessions about which sincere Christians have long had good-faith disagreements. The very reason we in the Reformed communities of faith have adopted so many confessional statements is that our discernment continues and we believe that the final word is yet to be found in Scripture, rather than in the lesser statements that we use as guides.

  10. http://Jim%20Caraher says

    To say that there are essentials but that we conscientious, Biblically astute Presbyterians can’t figure out what they are stretches the English language well beyond its breaking point. If it can’t be discerned, it’s preposterous to pledge one’s fealty to the undiscernible as essential! That’s the kind of incomprehensible doublespeak that renders the PC(USA)’s testimony to the world so garbled and contradictory as to be incoherent.

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