The Administrative Commission (AC) in accordance with the Presbytery of St. Augustine’s Dismissal Policy has asked First Presbyterian Church (FPC) to summarize the reasons its congregation is seeking dismissal from the PC (USA).

The reasons enumerated below have come from more than a decade of active participation in groups (such as Presbyterians for Renewal) seeking to bring renewal and revival to the PC (USA).

First Presbyterian Church of Jacksonville, Florida
Denominational Steering Committee
Summary Statement Regarding Reasons for Seeking Dismissal from the PC (USA)
October 28, 2014

In 2011, with the change of ordination standards (1), FPC entered into a time of discernment regarding its denominational affiliation. In September 2012, FPC officially requested dismissal to a sister denomination (ECO), in accordance with the Book of Order and the Presbytery of St. Augustine’s Gracious Dismissal Policy. To date, FPC has provided reasons for dismissal in a variety of ways, including:

  • three congregational gatherings where the Presbytery’s Crisis Response Team (CRT) heard directly from members of the congregation
  • a congregational survey conducted by the AC
  • several meetings between FPC’s leadership team and the CRT and later with the AC, where reasons for dismissal were discussed
  • meetings of the elder board with both the CRT and AC, where convictions were shared
  • written documentation explaining the church’s reasons for leaving.

In this document it is our intention to be both clear and concise regarding the reasons FPC is seeking dismissal. We are happy to provide this short summary with examples of the most significant reasons that trouble us. However, the list is not to be seen as exhaustive.

We believe that FPC’s reasons for seeking dismissal can be categorized into four areas: Biblical Authority and Ordination, Theological Issues, Church Polity, and Political Activism.

Biblical Authority and Ordination

The congregation of First Presbyterian Church believes that it has major differences with the PC (USA) that divide us irreconcilably over the matter of the authority of Scripture in faith and practice.

In 2011, the PC (USA) voted to change the ordination standards of the denomination. First, this was a total disregard for what the Bible and our historic confessions clearly teach about sin and repentance, specifically in the areas of human sexuality. In other words, the PC (USA) voted to approve what Jesus came to redeem. Second, this decision changed what was authoritative in the life of the church. Until that time, all Reformed women and men would say that the Bible was the sole source of authority for the church. This changed when the former Book of Order, Section G-6.0106b was re-written.

The former G-6.0106b said:

Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Scripture and in conformity to the historic confessional standards of the church.

The new G-6.0106b replaced that sentence with:

Standards for ordained service reflect the church’s desire to submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life (G-1.000) (2).

Later it said:

Governing bodies shall be guided by Scripture and the confessions in applying standards to individual candidates (3).

These changes diminished the role of the Bible as our sole authority for ordination and made it a “guide”. It also removed the requirement of obedience to Scripture and replaced it with submit joyfully to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life, thus making one’s experience with Christ (which was never defined) equally authoritative with the teachings of the Bible. To us this was no small matter, and this was not a one-time event:

  • In 2008, the 218th General Assembly removed all past Authoritative Interpretations (declarations on the topic made by past General Assemblies) on these ordination standards.
  • In 2010, the 219th General Assembly voted to remove from the Book of Order the “fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness” clause – once again ignoring the clear teaching of Scripture.
  • In 2014, the 221st General Assembly voted to redefine marriage as being between two people. This was in complete disregard for what we see as the Bible’s clear definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman.

We do not see these critical decisions as matters of “interpretation.” We see these choices made by the PC (USA) as subjugating the authoritative role of the Holy Scriptures in the life of the church to one’s own personal “experience.” Also, it is contrary to not only Scripture but to the teachings of Calvin and Knox, our historic confessions, and five hundred years of Reformed theology. Once more, FPC sees no path to reconciliation on these matters and believes that continuing in the PC (USA) compromises our desire to operate under Biblical authority.

Theological Issues

First Presbyterian Church and the PC (USA) disagree over several theological issues.

Lordship of Jesus Christ

FPC’s primary theological difference with the PC (USA) centers on the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In 2001, the General Assembly was unable to affirm the sole saving nature of Jesus without equivocation (which launched the Confessing Church Movement) (4) . This issue continued to smolder until a poll conducted from 2009-2011 by the Presbyterian Panel of the PC (USA) revealed some shocking results. The “Christian Post” writer Lillian Kwon reported (5):

  • less than half of Christians in the PC (USA) believe Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation
  • only 66% of clergy affirmed the statement, "The only absolute truth for humankind is in Jesus Christ."

At FPC, we believe these positions are in conflict with Jesus’ claim in John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” We believe that salvation comes only through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

Universalism

Another significant theological issue that divides First Presbyterian Church from the PC (USA) is that of universalism. As defined by Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Baker House 1978 edition, pg 539):

Universalism is the doctrine of the ultimate well-being of every person…The universalistic heresy (it is rejected by the general tradition of the church – Eastern, Roman and Protestant) in Christianity teaches that although all of human creatures of God have fallen into sin and are lost, all will be saved through the universal redemption of Christ.

While the former Book of Order refers to the “Bible” and “faith” in its opening sentence (6) concerning the Church and its Mission, the current Book of Order (F-1.01) does not. Instead it says, “The good news of the Gospel is that the triune God--Father, Son and Holy Spirit—creates, redeems, sustains, rules, and transforms all things and all people.”

Given the above wording, this presents salvation as a reality for all, regardless of our action or inaction. We do not find this compatible with Scripture found in John 12:32, Matthew 13:30 and Matthew 25:32. Furthermore, it is inconsistent with the historic Reformed understanding of the doctrine of election. For example, this language is in conflict with the Heidelberg Catechism (Question 87) regarding salvation and the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter XXXIV, question #1).

Some have said that this opening sentence of the current Book of Order was just a poor choice of words and can be perfected in the future. Yet the most recent General Assembly, when given the chance to edit this opening sentence, voted not to make changes. We at FPC expect the PC (USA) to make no change in direction away from universalism and the eroding effect it will have on core teachings of the faith. Thus we see no way to reconcile on this matter.

Essentials of the Reformed Faith

There is no agreement in the PC (USA) regarding what is essential in the Reformed faith. The vow the PC (USA) asks those seeking ordination as pastors and officers to affirm is:

“Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets 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?”

However, because the PC (USA) has not enumerated a list of essential tenets, theological confusion reigns. ECO does provide tenets of faith that are aligned with FPC’s published Statement of Beliefs.

Church Polity

The PC (USA) over the last several decades inverted the structure of the church from historic, Presbyterian, “bottom up” structure with local autonomy to a “top down,” corporate hierarchy where decision-making is vested with a few at General Assembly level. What was for generations a church led at the local level by elders has now been changed to a system where the missional direction of the local church has been given to the General Assembly and Presbyteries (see G-1.0103 and G-3.0303a). Local congregations are viewed as serving the Presbytery, Synod and General Assembly, instead of the other way around.

The former church structure (see G-10.0102 of the old Book of Order) stated that the session is responsible for the mission and government of the local church. It is “(c) to lead the congregation in participation in the mission of the whole Church in the world” and “(i) to establish the annual budget, determine the distribution of the church’s benevolences ….” In essence, the local session had complete control over its mission and financial support thereof.

The current Book of Order sections G-3.0301c, G-3.0303, G-3.0401a, and G-3.0501a call for Presbyteries, Synods, and the General Assembly to set denominational mission goals and standards (7). Hence, as a denomination, we have gone from a polity where each elder board set its own mission goals and priorities to a hierarchical structure where mission is determined, prioritized, and strategized by the General Assembly, Synod, and Presbytery.

Political Activism

We remain dismayed at causes that the PC (USA) advocates and supports. To name just a few from among many:

  • 1993 Re-Imagining God – funded in part by the PC (USA). Leaders called on participants to worship the God within and exchanged the god “Sophia” for Jesus Christ, saying that Jesus “was first-born only in the sense that he was the first to show us that it is possible to live in oneness with the divine source while we are here on this planet.” (8)
  • As far back as 1970, the General Assembly declared that abortions were morally permissible (9). The Presbyterian – Pro Life (10) report said:

    In 2006 the General Assembly approved a statement on late-term abortions that said, “The lives of viable unborn babies — those well-developed enough to survive outside the womb if delivered — ought to be preserved and cared for and not aborted.” 

    However, in spite of this strong statement against aborting viable babies, the Board of Pensions continues to pay all claims for legal abortions without regard to the health or gestational age of the baby or the woman’s reason for choosing to abort her child.
  • Maybe of most concern is what the most recent General Assembly did not do. An overture was submitted which read: 

    “We call for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and member congregations to enter a two-year season of reflection upon the plight of children unwanted by human society, both born and not yet born, and to purposefully seek to enter the pure worship of God by offering aid, comfort and the Gospel to those responsible for the care of our most desperate orphans (including those who survive abortion procedures): parents, siblings, church and community leaders, and the medical profession.”  (11)

    This was voted down.
  • Since the PC (USA) formed the Israel/Palestine Mission Network in 2004, the General Assembly has been presented with overtures to impose sanctions on Israel. In 2014, the 221st General Assembly approved divestment from Caterpillar, Hewlett Packard, and Motorola Solutions for doing business in Israel.

FPC asks, “In a world that is broken and starving for Christ, why does the PC (USA) spend precious time and resources making political statements, advocating for financial divestments, condemning certain kinds of prisons, changing the U.S. Federal tax code, advocating for restrictive gun laws, calling for an end to coal mining, promoting travel rules to Cuba, hiring lobbyists in Washington, D.C., etc.?” We are not suggesting that all these issues are necessarily wrong. In our view, it questions our priorities and effectiveness while causing divisiveness among congregations and members.

Conclusion

The reality is this: the FPC congregation and the PC (USA) no longer see eye-to-eye on a number of issues. When impasse is reached on so many levels and issues, it is time for denominational realignment. This is the case for FPC.

Throughout the dismissal process, we have understood that our views are not the same as those of our brothers and sisters who find comfort and strength in the PC (USA) and who wish to remain there. We respect them. At the same time, we ask our brothers and sisters for the same understanding and respect in approving our request for dismissal. At the end of the day, the FPC congregation and the churches of the Presbytery of St. Augustine will still be brothers and sisters in Christ and fellow Presbyterians. While FPC seeks to transfer to ECO, we will still support missions together such as JEMM and SAMM and work shoulder to shoulder in northeast Florida to bring Jesus to those who don’t know Him.

Respectfully submitted,

Emil Albertini
Tom Jenks
Bill Stull
Charlie Towers
Katy Towers
Alan Weldon

References

  1. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) approves change in ordination standard
  2. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) approves change in ordination standard
  3. Ibid.
  4. PCUSA 2012: How we got ‘here’ written by Rev. Carmen Fowler LeBerge, Layman.org page.6 [Download PDF]
  5. 1 in 3 Presbyterians Affirm Jesus as Only Way to Salvation - ChristianPost.com, Jan. 13th 2010
  6. Book of Order G-3.0100 (2007-2009)
  7. NFOG section G-3.0113 says “Each council shall prepare and adopt a budget to support the church’s (again small c) mission within its area.” The use of the word “shall” – not may – suggests that the session has no choice in whether or not to support / join whatever mission project was put forth by the higher council.
  8. Five Solas: Reformation faith and the Presbyterian Church, The Presbyterian Layman Aug. 27th, 2012 - page 1 [Download PDF]
  9. Joel Rosenberg's Blog
  10. What is PCUSA policy on abortion?
  11.  Viola Larson “Naming His Grace" – The 221st GA-My final thoughts and advice to the orthodox July 13, 2014