PC(USA) leader supports Pennsylvania congregants who have chosen to remain in the denomination despite schism

December 16, 2016

—by Michael Givler

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

On Sunday, December 11, the Peace Light—a flame taken from the grotto in Bethlehem where tradition places Jesus’ birth—was used to light the advent and chancel candles at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Those gathered hoped the peaceful message of the light would resonate with them, and with their brothers and sisters with whom they once shared pews.

First Presbyterian Church, a multi-acre property with enough space to accommodate a couple thousand congregants, is the focus of a controversial civil court case between some members and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Presbytery of Lehigh.  Some members have chosen to remain with the PC(USA) while others have aligned themselves with the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO). Congregations connected to both denominations currently inhabit the property, and which one will rightfully own the property remains to be seen.

For now both congregations worship separately in the church space, and on the third Sunday of Advent the Reverend Joyce Lieberman, director of constitutional interpretation for the PC(USA), shared with congregants who’ve remained in the PC(USA).

“God’s vision is here. God’s realm on earth can be seen in our midst. God’s promises yearning to be fulfilled call us into the future,” Lieberman preached. “We can see it in our hearts, souls, and minds. And as we stand in this season of Advent, between God’s promises seen and God’s promises yet to be fulfilled, we wait in patience, as we move toward God’s realm on earth, as it is in heaven.”

It was a message needed for the worshippers who have been struggling with schism declared by the Presbytery of Lehigh, which named the PC(USA) as the true church. A court date has been set for March to determine who gets control of the church property.

—by Michael Givler

“Grief is a profound thing,” Lieberman said during a question-and-answer period after worship. “It’s really hard because you can’t imagine that your brothers and sisters in Christ would treat you the way you have been treated.”

Lieberman stressed that congregations cannot in and of themselves vote to leave the denomination. “You need to engage with the presbytery,” she said.

“As the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we believe that no one part of the church is the church in and of itself. We together collectively are the church,” Lieberman said.

On average 200 congregants who did not want to transfer to the ECO continue to worship as First Bethlehem PC(USA) on Sunday mornings. Four other weekend services that bring in roughly 600 people fall under the ECO umbrella, and the Sunday school program that encompasses both congregations is run by First ECO.

A session for the PC(USA) congregation at First Bethlehem Church is being finalized and will meet for the first time in January. Despite moving forward, there is still plenty of healing that needs done.

“The stages of grief are all there: shock, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance,” said the Reverend Bill Hess, a retired minister called to lead the PC(USA) congregation.

Lieberman advised that during this tough time the people in both the PC(USA) and the ECO congregations continue to pray and to respond to how they are being led.

“What is God calling you to do, and I don’t mean just worship,” Lieberman said. “You have abundance to work with—of people, of resources. And I believe you can claim where God is calling you, but you really do have to look.” 

“That’s your challenge—to look outside your walls and look outside what you’re currently dealing with, because God’s mission field is out there and you are called to do that,” she said. “You need to be out there finding that place where you all can gather together and bring the good news of the gospel. That’s going to help you no matter what the courts decide.”

미국장로교회 지도자는 분열에도 불구하고 교단에 남아 있기로 선택한 펜실바니아 회중을 지지한다

  1. What is the Presbytery "law" re: USA and Christian Flags being presented on our Christian Alter? Why are we being asked to remove our flags. Seems very unChristian.

    by C. R. Nissen

    September 9, 2017

  2. I am sorry that some PC USA congregations believe that they were forced out of their churches. The 'faithful remnant' chose to stay with a denomination that practices 'mutual forbearance' regarding ordination. I believe that Jesus is the way to God, salvation and eternal life. I want my pastors to believe that as well. And because I hold these beliefs, that does not make me judgemental, intolerant, unloving & non-accepting. PCUSA and ECO congregations have differing beliefs & values...and so be it! It's ok! Why should any of us compromise our beliefs just because it's 'church'? All the more reason to stand firmly, peacefully and lovingly with those who believe as we do. It is sad that the Presbytery abandoned the dismissal process when it was clear that the overwhelming majority desired dismissal to ECO. It is also sad that the PCUSA faction refuses to settle despite being extended offers to settle. The PCUSA constitution provides for dismissal of churches. Hundreds of PCUSA churches have already been dismissed to other denominations. There are reasons for this large number of dismissals! Lehigh Presbytery has refused to dismiss the majority congregation....and therein lie all the problems.

    by Joan Glover

    December 23, 2016

  3. At the end of the day a vibrant or even functional PCUSA type worshipping body at the current church campus is a secondary consideration for Lehigh Presbytery and the PCUSA. As the Property in Trust clause clearly states, the end result of such a process will either involve money changing hands or some other real estate transaction done in the best interest and use and benefit of the PCUSA. The Trust clause is neither restorative or reconciliatory in nature. It was never designed for such, but punitive, seeking only extraction of resources. The PCUSA and Lehigh only have themselves to blame for such a mess.

    by peter gregory

    December 20, 2016

  4. The same thing is happening at my church, First Presbyterian Church of Newport RI. It is very sad. Something should be done to stop it. ECO is doing the suing and ECO is very predatory. The national denomination and the Presbyteries should put a stop to this acquisition of property by ECO.

    by Mary Waddell

    December 18, 2016

  5. Me thinks the author of this piece is gilding the PC(USA) lilly. The local Bethlehem newspaper reports that 76% of the 1,048 church members voting voted to leave the PC(USA). This piece claims that the post-vote Sunday attendance is running 300-400 for the PC(USA) faction and 600 for the newly emerging ECO faction. Either PC(USA) loyalists failed to vote in accordance with their proportion of the congregation or this writer is puffing the PC(USA) post vote attendance. As in most PC(USA) property cases the last ten years, this case will be settled with a payment by First Bethlehem to the Lehigh Presbytery. Lehigh has already dismissed two congregations on that basis and is in the process of dismissing a third. The sober reality for Lehigh is that the 24% of the congregation remaining in the PC(USA) has no way to continue as a viable congregation rattling around in a massive 31-acre property intended to accommodate a congregation of 2,700.

    by Jim Caraher

    December 18, 2016

  6. Sadly, this is what happens when unreconciled free will Baptists join the Presbyterian church. Congregations leave , there is baptism by immersion ,and other uneducated practices such as women not being elders or deacons.Do I agree with everything , no, but I appreciate the knowledge of God by grace and intellect and will stay and fight

    by Karen

    December 17, 2016

  7. I have been attending this church for a collective of 20 years. Although I am personally not a member yet, my children are and we are very active in the life of this church. I am also typically a traditional worshiper, which is predominantly the "over 50" group. Of those over 50, more than half of the regular attendees have moved to ECO. Less than half are worshiping with the PC-USA. The numbers of attendees that this article references are extremely inaccurate based on actual attendees. I am guessing that they are using numbers enhanced by the homebound numbers of the over 50 crowd. The reality is.. the active, viable (give or take a handful) demographic of the church has voted and is moving forward to ECO but can't support the church like the older "over 50" crowd. In the end, it comes down to money. If ECO were the group holding the cash.. this would have been over with a long time ago.

    by Natalie Faroun

    December 17, 2016

  8. I highly recommend fact checking prior to publishing.

    by Marcy Liddick

    December 17, 2016

  9. It's unfortunate PC(USA) Lehigh Presbytery feels the need to exaggerate these numbers. I personally was at the congregational meeting where over 1074 people voted with 800 or more voting to move forward to ECO with only a little more than 250 voting to stay PC(USA). This entire ordeal has only been blown out of proportion due to money. First presbyterian church of Bethlehem is the largest source of income to the Lehigh Presbytery. To me the issue boils down to greed. If the Lehigh Presbytery was truly acting in Christian love, they would accept the majority ruling and move on.

    by Jennifer Murphy

    December 17, 2016

  10. 300-400 members is a pretty serious exaggeration, as the real number is closer to 75-80 worshiping as the PCUSA congregation; and those worshipping with the ECO Church are closer to 1500. We have been nothing but polite and accommodating to this congregation and they have been stealing our donation evelopes that have ECO printed on them and publishing lies like this in the media. I'm saddened by this, we are all God's children, but you shouldn't act like a child.

    by ECO FPCB congregant

    December 16, 2016

  11. In August, 2015 our congregation in Springfield Missouri underwent a similar traumatic experience. The 200 persons considered "the faithful remnant" left the premises and began worshiping at a neighbor PC(USA) congregation. Theyopened their doors to us and treated us as brothers and sisters in Christ, unlike our old congregation. We were forced out with nothing and have built a powerful family and we worship and carry out mission with dignity and love. State law (and possible deceptive actions) worked against us in regards to real estate and money, so we continue to build in faith and courage.

    by Lois Zerrer

    December 16, 2016

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