Fed up with what they see as a liberal slide in the Presbyterian Church (USA), the New Wineskins Association of Churches voted February 9 to initiate a significant shift in the Reformed world.

Meeting in Orlando, New Wineskins voted unanimously to ask the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) to create a transitional, non-geographic presbytery for congregations leaving the PCUSA. The arrangement would run five years. The EPC's General Assembly will vote on the proposal in June.

"I have a high level of confidence we're going to approve that," said Jeffrey Jeremiah, the EPC stated clerk.

For the EPC, a small denomination with 185 churches and about 70,000 members, this could be a significant alliance. Jeremiah said New Wineskins leaders have told him at least 40 of the association's 153 congregations will join the EPC.

Some high-profile PCUSA churches have already begun the process of departing, with plans to join the EPC. Signal Mountain Presbyterian, a 2,000-member congregation near Chattanooga, Tennessee, voted 1,172-10 on January 28 to leave the PCUSA. North Carolina flagship congregation Montreat Presbyterian Church, where Ruth Graham has long been a member, voted 311-27 on January 21 to ask for release.

"Our church has been vigilant in its effort to call our denomination to repentance," said Adam Boyd, a Montreat elder. Vigilant but unsuccessful, he admitted.

"The PCUSA is breaking up as we speak," said Ron Scates, senior pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas. Last August, he said, none of the pastors of the PCUSA's biggest churches planned to leave. But at a February gathering of the same group, Scates said, six were preparing to go, and two already had voted to leave.

For some evangelicals, the PCUSA's General Assembly in June 2006 proved to be a breaking point. The assembly approved a controversial task force report that conservatives say leaves the door open to ordaining gays and lesbians. The assembly also voted to receive a paper that offered alternative language (such as "Mother, Child, and Womb") for describing the Trinity.

New Wineskins leaders call for reshaped church polity that does not impede missions. A core group of younger pastors argues that hierarchy and denominational loyalties are unsuited for a postmodern world, so they do not want to spend any more energy trying to reform the PCUSA.

After creating New Wineskins in July 2006, leaders quickly began negotiating with the EPC. One sticking point may be women's ordination. Only two women serve as pastors in the EPC; one of them plans to retire soon. At the New Wineskins meeting, women pastors from the PCUSA pleaded with the association's leadership to make sure they will have a place to serve.

Jeremiah said the EPC holds that "people of good conscience can look at the Scriptures and come to different conclusions on women in the elected offices of the church." But at least one EPC presbytery has said it will not ordain women.

"It's not the case that we've been slamming the door for 25 years in women's faces," Jeremiah said. "We have not had very many women seek ordained pastoral positions in the EPC."

Scates and Highland Park are staying with the PCUSA—for now. He said that could change if a church court allows presbyteries to ordain sexually active homosexuals. Scates has told his parishioners to pour their energy into working with other evangelical congregations and to "let the denomination implode on its own."

Related Elsewhere:

New Wineskins endorsed a strategy report at its 2007 winter convocation, saying that "The NWAC recognizes that realigning and remaining are faithful options for our churches."

The Presbyterian News Agency reports that a "formal engagement" between New Wineskins and the EPC took place on February 9.

Ted Olsen addressed denominational splits in 'Church Divorce Done Right' from the March issue of Christianity Today.

Other news coverage includes:

Church Faced With Defection | Presbyterians vote to build a new bridge with conservatives. (Religion News Service)
Presbyterians ask churches not to leave | Some conservatives working on exit (The Courier-Journal, KY)

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