PCUSA’s Santa Barbara union presbytery plan with ECO struck down

The only essential tenet is the freedom to believe that there aren't any

Although the ruling states that “Councils do not have the right to bind the conscience of either pastors or members to a pro-forma set of essentials,” the SPJC has sought to do just that by elevating the freedom of conscience above all other values in our common life


In an act of judicial activism, the Synod PJC of Southern California and Hawaii has issued a sweeping ruling, sustaining 18 of 19 charges against Santa Barbara presbytery’s plan of union with ECO’s presbytery of the West.

1. Conferring on a “special interest” group a veto over the constitutional governance of the church. (The “special interest” group is ECO.)

2. Promotion of division and schism.

3. Mischaracterization of ECOP as a “Reformed” body.

4. Mischaracterization of the “Presbytery of the West” as a “comparable” council or governing body (to Santa Barbara presbytery).

5. Mis-use of our constitutional provisions for union presbyteries.

6. Disregard of important constitutional requirements for union

7. Violation of our constitutional guarantee of respect for biblically-formed conscience.

8. Conditioning congregational membership on more than a profession of faith.

9. Infringing congregations’ right to elect, and sessions’ responsibility to assess the fitness of, congregational leaders.

10. Violation of presbytery’s obligations in assessing its congregations’ choices of pastoral leadership.

11. Defiance of the church’s discernment that categorical exclusion of gay and lesbian Presbyterians is improper

12. Denial of our commitment to remain open to God’s continuing reformation of the church.

13. Violation of presbytery’s duty to exercise genuine, good-faith discernment in providing for dissident congregations

14. Undermining of the property trust provisions in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

15. Violation of obligations to congregations and members who remain exclusively loyal to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

16. Deprivation of full rights of membership in the presbytery.

17. Violation of presbytery’s duty to pursue ministry, and to establish ecumenical relationships, within its geographic bounds.

18. Failure to conduct business decently and in order.

But that is not all they did. The SPJC also functionally redefined what it means to be “reformed.”

The church’s passive role in reformation as a body being actively reformed by the Word of God, has yielded itself to an aggressive politically motivated judicial activism. No longer humbly sitting under the Scriptures nor even under the denomination’s Constitution, one the SPJC has wielded it’s institutional power to the detriment of the body of Christ.

The only essential tenet is that there are none

The issues raised in the case are myriad. The most glaring is the SPJC’s effective reduction of the Reformed faith to one tenet: freedom of conscience. To say that “it is the current understanding that the Reformed tradition rests on a clear understanding that Jesus Christ alone is Lord of the conscience” is a gross misrepresentation of those who would self-describe as Reformed Christians the world over. For a PCUSA body to so thoroughly misunderstand its own heritage and misrepresent its own confessions is tragic.

The SPJC should read the PCUSA’s own published materials on the matter which include theological papers, confessional studies and curriculum. Therein the SPJC would learn that being Reformed begins with God’s sovereignty, is built on a Christ-exclusive soteriology, and uses Calvinistic language with very specific attached meanings. To say that there is some “current” understanding of what it means to be Reformed that is divorced from these, is to admit that the faith once delivered is not the same faith as is now in vogue among those whose opinion is expressed in the ruling. The error then is not with ECO, but with the PCUSA.

It would seem wise to seek the counsel of the larger Reformed family in this matter. The World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) is the successor body to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC). It represents 75-million Reformed Christians around the world and the PCUSA is a major player. The WCRC says in its constitutionthat “The basis of the World Communion of Reformed Churches shall be the Word of the triune God, incarnate in Jesus Christ and revealed in the holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is to this triune God that the church bears witness. The World Communion of Reformed Churches is committed to embody a Reformed identity as articulated in the Ecumenical Creeds of the early church, in the historic confessions of the Reformation, and as continued in the life and witness of the Reformed community.”

The current understanding of the Reformed tradition by the WCRC does not include the elevation of the individual conscience above the Scriptures. Nor does it allow for the freedom of conscience to trump the historic ecumenical creeds of the early church. Nor does the freedom of the individual conscience outrank the historic confessions of the Reformation. So, according to the WCRC, what it means to be a Reformed body has actual identifiable substance, also known as essential tenets of the Reformed faith.

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