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Presbyterian mega church leaves denomination

NASVHILLE (BP) — The 4,000-member Menlo Park Presbyterian Church has decided to sever ties with Presbyterian Church (USA) over differences in doctrine and evangelistic philosophy.

The move will cost the San Francisco Bay-area church, popularized by the preaching of Pastor John Ortberg, $8.89 million, because all church property is owned by the PC(USA)’s local presbytery and not individual churches. Menlo Park’s members, which include former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, approved the severance with the PC(USA) earlier this month, with 93 percent of the church’s members signing off on the move.

Menlo Park’s pastor and elders provided a rationale for leaving the denomination. In a statement, church leadership contended Menlo Park’s evangelical identity — its understanding of who Jesus is, the authority of Scripture, and its evangelistic methods — were “increasingly out of alignment with the PC(USA).”

“For years we have referred to ourselves as a ‘Jesus church.’ We believe that God has expressed himself uniquely in his son Jesus, who lived, taught, died and rose again for our sakes. We believe that … God has revealed the truth about himself in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament, which are our unique and authoritative guides in faith and action,” according to the rationale provided by the church’s leaders.

The rationale also said the PC(USA) “increasingly represents a wide range of beliefs on who Jesus is and on his relationship to our salvation.” Those beliefs include denials of the deity of Christ and his role in salvation. In a 2011 denominational survey, only 41 percent of the denomination’s pastors “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement, “Only followers of Jesus Christ can be saved.” Forty-five percent said they “disagreed” or “strongly disagreed.”

For those who teach doctrine contrary to what is contained in Scripture, the statement of rationale claimed “disciplinary actions provided for in the Book of Order are rarely if ever invoked against pastors for their theological views.”

The PC(USA)lost 61,000 members in 2010, 64,000 in 2011 and 103,000 in 2012. Today, only 1.8 million members remain in the denomination, according to the denomination’s own reports.

In a statement following the announcement of the church’s intention to separate, Ortberg said the departure from the denomination was “not an ending but a beginning. There’s a lot yet to come of what Dallas Willard called the unique life of spiritual adventure in living with God daily — entering fully into the good news Jesus has brought, for ourselves, and for us as a church.”

Menlo Park has voted to join the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO), which was founded in 2012 and which includes 115 churches previously separated from the PC(USA). It did not join the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), founded in 1973 over the increasing theological liberalism of the PC(USA). The PCA also has resisted female leadership in its churches, which may have prevented Menlo Park and other churches from joining its ranks.

Human sexuality, same-sex marriage and the ordination of homosexual ministers were not cited as reasons for the church’s departure from the denomination. However, in spite of the General Assembly of the PC(USA) upholding the traditional definition of marriage in 2012, the denomination dropped its prohibition on non-celibate homosexual ministers in 2010.

The issue of same-sex marriage is also expected to resurface at this year’s General Assembly.

Christianity Today reported March 7 the departure of the Menlo Park church came one week to the day after First Presbyterian Church in Houston narrowly voted to remain in the PC(USA) instead of joining the ECO. That church is the seventh largest in the nation, according to the Washington Post.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., told Baptist Press that Menlo Park’s departure from the waning denomination demonstrates the importance of biblical doctrine and the cost that may be associated with keeping it.

“The congregation voted to leave, knowing it would cost them nearly $9 million to keep their own facilities. This points to the fact that theology matters. Keeping the faith is worth infinitely more than $9 million,” Mohler said.

For their action, Malcolm Yarnell, director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said the church deserves praise. In fact, he said, it had no other choice but to separate from its parent denomination.

“The doctrinal error of the PC(USA) certainly requires the church to separate. The tragedy for this local church is that it has to purchase its separation. This is one place where Baptist polity is far superior, for local church Christonomy (direct rule by Christ as Lord) demands that no other church or denomination may own or direct a church, for Jesus Christ rules the church,” said Yarnell, who writes frequently on issues of church polity.

Doctrinal issues aside, Menlo Park also rejected the PC(USA)’s effort to control its evangelistic efforts after the church began an effort to establish multiple sites for ministry in recent years. The denomination argued these new sites infringed on the ministries of other local Presbyterian churches and were new churches requiring new leaders.

“[The church] feels called to help women and men in the Bay Area come to know and follow Jesus Christ with a sense of spiritual urgency. The changing social and technological landscape presents non-traditional opportunities for evangelism. For example, [the church] has seen attendance increase from 3,993 to 4,834 in the years since it started multisite campuses. Multisite is just one example of how we can reach people, and we want to be part of a denomination that celebrates and accelerates our capacity to do this.”

In a final note, the church cited its desire to avoid political distractions in the course of its ministry. The church’s statement of rationale pointed to a resolution adopted by the Presbytery of San Francisco urging churches to pull investments out of companies, such as Hewlett Packard and Motorola, which do business with the nation of Israel. That effort followed critical statements made against Israel at the denomination’s General Assembly.

Members of the Episcopal Church have also experienced some of the same denominational fracturing in recent years. In 2008, the Fort Worth Episcopal Diocese decided to leave the mainline denomination, following the same by dioceses in San Joaquin, Calif., Pittsburgh and Quincy, Ill. At issue in the Episcopal denomination were the appointment of homosexual ministers and the recognition of same-sex marriages.
Gregory Tomlin is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Gregory Tomlin