First Presbyterian Votes to Affiliate With Evangelical Branch

First Presbyterian Church of Roanoke will become part of a more socially conservative branch

“The congregation’s vote was accepted by the church’s governing body of elders, and now must be approved by the presbytery’s regional governance group, the Presbytery of the Peaks, which meets Thursday in Lynchburg to consider First Presbyterian Church’s request. If the Presbytery of the Peaks approves, both groups will begin the church’s “gracious dismissal” process, the terms of which were negotiated over the past year.”

 

By the time members of First Presbyterian Church were called together to vote on whether to leave their denomination, supporters of either side had little left to say.

In the years leading up to Sunday’s vote, the issue of whether to stay a part of the mainline Presbyterian denomination or leave for its evangelical counterpart has divided the historic Roanoke church’s congregation. On all sides, there are hurt feelings from what one member described as a “torturous” process.

So while congregants waited Sunday for the ballots to be counted and tallied, the church’s pastor, who has been a leader in the effort to leave, urged members to think of one another’s feelings and the church as a whole. Evoking the image of an end zone touchdown spike, pastor Bob Smith urged members to refrain from excess celebration, no matter the vote’s outcome.

“I hope for the sake of the unity of this body we will restrain ourselves,” Smith said, adding light-heartedly, “We are Presbyterian after all.”

In the end, the supporters who pushed for First Presbyterian to end its affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA) greatly outnumbered adherents who wished to stay. Out of 182 votes cast by active members on Sunday, 145, or about 80 percent, voted in favor of leaving the mainline denomination. Thirty-seven members voted to stay. First Presbyterian had 298 active members as of Dec. 31.

The congregation’s vote was accepted by the church’s governing body of elders, and now must be approved by the presbytery’s regional governance group, the Presbytery of the Peaks, which meets Thursday in Lynchburg to consider First Presbyterian Church’s request. If the Presbytery of the Peaks approves, both groups will begin the church’s “gracious dismissal” process, the terms of which were negotiated over the past year.

Under those terms, First Presbyterian will change its name to First Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Roanoke. The church will keep control over its historic building on South Jefferson Street, appraised at $3.9 million, but will pay the Presbytery $800,000 over the next 10 years and hand it the title to the church’s manse.

First Presbyterian is the latest among hundreds of churches that have left the mainline Presbyterian denomination in recent years. Last year, the Presbyterian Church (USA) dismissed 101 churches to other denominations, up from 21 only three years earlier. Between 2011 and 2014, a total of 380 churches were dismissed, according to the church’s statistics. In Roanoke Valley, New Hope Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Salem is among those churches that have been dismissed.

At First Presbyterian and elsewhere, many members have chafed at positions the national Presbyterian church has embraced. The denomination’s General Assembly, which meets every two years with representatives from churches around the country, has supported progressive causes that some church members believe contradict Scripture.

In the past five years, general assemblies have expressed support for ordaining gay and sexually active individuals as pastors, along with allowing pastors to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies in states where it was legal. In the year since the General Assembly approved same-sex marriages, the Supreme Court struck down the remaining state bans, making it legal across the country. General assemblies have also expressed support for a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

Local churches have been granted the authority to choose whether to adopt these changes or not, and many that disagree with those decisions have still elected to remain members of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Sydney Nordt, who chaired the administrative commission tasked with overseeing First Presbyterian’s efforts to leave the denomination, reminded members of that on Sunday before the vote.

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