Evangelical Covenant Order unveils polity

New denomination’s structure is ‘decentralized, minimalist, smaller’

January 26, 2012


When talking about polity (church government), the Rev. David Dobler likes to quote Albert Einstein: “Everything should be as simple as possible, and no simpler.”

The Evangelical Covenant Order (ECO) ― the new Reformed denomination launched last week by the Fellowship of Presbyterians ― seemed to follow that maxim when it unveiled the constitution for the new body of dissidents from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Describing the ECO polity as “decentralized, minimalist, smaller,” Dobler ― who is pastor to the Presbytery of Alaska and chair of ECO’s Polity Task Force ― said that “rather than a national enterprise that plays out locally, in ECO the congregation is central, relating horizontally to other congregations.”

That’s not to say that ECO is congregationalist, said the Rev. John Crosby, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minn., and president of the new denomination. “Connection is needed,” he said, “but we want the connections to strengthen congregations, to hold each other accountable and to train future leaders.”

The ECO three-tiered structure is familiar to most Presbyterians ― congregations, presbyteries and a synod, but no General Assembly. Dobler, a former PC(USA) General Assembly moderator, said synod ― which he defined as meaning “together on the road” ― is a “fine theological word that has gotten lost in bureaucratic clutter.”

“General Assembly is not biblical in any sense,” added Crosby. “This constitution seeks to restore long-needed flexibility with minimal structure.”

Depending on how many congregations opt to leave the PC(USA) for ECO, the group anticipates starting out with three presbyteries ― West, Central and East. Presbyteries, which will be geographic, will consist of between 10 and 20 congregations each.

Congregations will also have the option of joining non-geographic “affinity networks” based on the types of ministries in which they are engaged, rather than geographic presbyteries. The Rev. Marnie Crumpler of Atlanta’s Peachtree Presbyterian Church cited campus churches, rural churches and urban churches as “affinity network” possibilities.

ECO leaders acknowledged that this looser system will require high levels of trust. “We believe that if we agree on theological essentials, then high trust is possible, vision is clear and accountability is natural,” Dobler said.

Indeed, ECO’s “essential tenets” are the core of the denomination’s theology and polity. The four-page essentials ― part of ECO’s constitution ― are more a theological treatise than a simple list of principles. But they include:

  • The infallibility of the Bible
  • “Special guidance” by the 10 commandments
  • “Chastity in thought and deed, being faithful within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman as established by God at the creation or embracing a celibate life as established by Jesus in the new covenant”
  • Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation and “in choosing some, God passes over others”
  • God’s “covenant community … an instrument of His saving purpose”
  • “Pray and work for the union of the church throughout the world even where institutional unity does not seem possible…”
  • Observance of the Sabbath as a day of worship and rest
  • Eradication of “a spirit of anger, resentment, callousness, violence or bitterness…”
  • Pursuit of truth “even when such pursuit is costly, and defend truth when it is challenged.”

 One of ECO’s ordination vows requires church officers to “receive and adopt without hesitation the Essential Tenets of the ECO…”

 Ordaining bodies “must ensure that all officers adhere to the Essential Tenets of the ECO. Failure of officers to continue to adhere to these standards is grounds for a session or presbytery to remove an officer from service…”

 And to join ECO, congregations must “craft a covenant which reflects their desire to be bound to Christ and one another as a part of the body of Christ according to the Essential Tenets and government of the ECO.”

 “Our vision is to see God establish a fresh covenantal connection among those who want to take radical steps into the future,” said Crosby. “We don’t want people who think ECO is the best of bad options.”

 There are two categories of ECO membership: “Baptized members” who have been baptized but have not made a profession of faith; and “covenant partners” who have made such profession,  have been baptized and have been received into the membership of the church.

There is no provision for transfer of membership ― persons changing congregations do so by reaffirmation of faith.

There is no property trust clause in the ECO constitution ― congregations own their property.

Congregations are governed by sessions. Presbyteries oversee the lives and missions of their congregations and minister members. The synod “is the widest council of the ECO, giving support and guidance to the presbyteries and congregations. The synod shall assess and proclaim the missional vision and theology of the ECO.”

A central component of ECO’s polity is “peer review.” All ECO pastors will be required to participate in a peer review at least annually with other pastors. In the reviews, conducted within presbyteries or affinity networks, participants will:

  • “Explore the health of each other’s current ministry”
  • “Explore the future objectives for each other’s ministry”
  • “Address challenges and obstacles to meeting those objectives”
  • “Share best practices and insights”
  • “Explore each other’s physical, spiritual, relational and emotional health”

 “This is something new ― not just a safe harbor ― a bold future that I can be proud of, unlike my experience in ministry so far,” said the Rev. Joe Farrell, associate pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Colorado Springs, Colo.

 The Rev. Emily McColl, associate pastor of Laguna Niguel (Calif.) Presbyterian Church, agreed. Like a house filled with teenagers, she said, ECO “is messy but cool. It requires boundaries, trust, flexibility. Our base is our essentials ― we don’t compromise on that ― which gives us clarity and a base to grow deeper disciples and new disciples.”

ECO’s leaders have already dealt with a number of practical matters, such as incorporation, a contract to provide mandatory health insurance beginning April 1, a staff of two full-time and two part-time employees, and a “play book” for pastors and sessions who are exploring ECO membership.

ECO leadership is also addressing funding. Crosby said “a few of us have provided the funding for this effort to date, but now we need your help.” No fewer than four fund-raising pitches dotted the Jan. 18-20 gathering here. An offering was collected at the Jan. 19 evening worship service, and pledge cards for individuals and congregations were included in the registration packets.

Crosby said the per capita assessment for ECO member congregations will be 1 percent of their budget.

“We are committed,” Dobler said, “to discovering who God wants us to be and what God wants us to do.”

  1. HOw is this different form the Evangelical Presbyterian church?

    by philip

    August 5, 2014

  2. God bless us all. I thank God that there are enough of us who have a deep enough relationship with our creator and enough courage to stand up for the scripture. Probably all of us are guilty of altering scripture to fit our own mortal desires...it is past time to stop, it is time to return to obedience to Him. I hope that the ECO will not adapt itself to the ever changing cultures of men, in such a way as to pervert the word of God, as we see happening continually in today's society. I will pray for guidance for all, and that those who are full of bitterness over this bold movement will find the peace of Christ. I am a born and bred Presbyterian, and I have watched my people fall from grace throughout my life...this reformation is a good thing. I pray that others will be able to let go of; their human politics, their anger, their rebellion against The Word, and return to The Spirit.

    by William H. Ranson

    January 13, 2013

  3. Are there any folks in the College Station/Bryan Texas community to associate with, ECO? We are long time PCUSA and are leaving.

    by Richard &Sherrell Phelps

    November 17, 2012

  4. Sadly, this schism will mean the closure of a 100-year-old church in Sitka, Alaska, where the congregation recently voted (with a 2/3rds majority) to oust the pastor who favors this breakup of the church. Rather than agree with this intolerant attitude (which extends far beyond gay rights), long-time members have left the congregation and taken their tithing with them. Too bad.

    by Heidi Welsh

    October 8, 2012

  5. do you have your polity and theology available in book form?

    by martha ayres

    August 26, 2012

  6. Please accept a sincere thanks to all of you that are working so hard on this. It has been needed for a long time.

    by M C Stoddard

    May 9, 2012

  7. In response to Rev. Sammler-Michael's contention that the ECO formation is simply homophobic I would agree that homosexuals have always been within our church, however the PCUSA now seems to affirm deviant sexual behavior and that is not biblical. There are plenty of other issues that are causing this disunion, such as boycotts of businesses including the government of God's chosen people. A list would be too long and those wishing to disassociate with the ideals of this social gospel can "just pick 'em".

    by Leslie Burns

    February 21, 2012

  8. It is so sad that an organization that allowed itself to be split during the Civil War to Promote Slavery no has split to enshrine Homophobia. Presbyterians are some of the most devoted people of conscience I have ever known - yet to do this - to allow hatred, fear and misunderstanding to taint your view of scripture - and to enshrine it in a new institution - is bad news not only for Presbyterians but for all people of faith. LGBT clergy have always served in every faith, whether they were open about it or not. To fabricate a denomination because of homophobia is sad and unholy. I pray for all the good folks of faith this will harm - and for the limiting influence the PCUSA will have in our public,moral dialogue as a result.

    by Rev Scott Sammler-Michael

    February 19, 2012

  9. Please explain the detail behind the following statement from the "essential tenants": "Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation and "in choosing some, God passes over others” and the Biblical basis for it. Thank you....

    by Margaret Boyd

    February 3, 2012

  10. What's the difference between the ECO and the Presbyterian church PCA or USA?

    by Ann

    February 3, 2012

  11. "essential tenets" are those of the Confessions of the PCUSA. Do those who would leave deny their vows to be governed by the polity of the church and their own assertion that God alone is Lord of the conscience? Or, like Henry the 8th, do they just want a divorce?

    by Mark Currie

    January 30, 2012

  12. I was surprised to read the comments about the "unbiblical" nature of General Assemblies. This seems a recent discovery, as all of us have taken our ordination vows for some generations within a church polity that has included General Assembly, as one of the "councils", "judicatories", "governing bodies" of the Presbyterian Church (with its various names and divisions) since the first General Assembly was organized in 1788 and held its first meeting in 1789, at the same time as the first Congress of the U.S.A. meeting under the new Constitution. Only going back as far as 1946, the ordination question read: "Do you approve of the government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America?" Current version: "Will you be governed by our church's polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God's Word and Spirit?"

    by Joseph Keesecker

    January 30, 2012

  13. Old Bennington Pres. church is in discerenment with EOP and are exploring which way to go. We are interested in the ECO and would like to know more about it and how to possibly join.

    by Jo Ann coker

    January 29, 2012

  14. "in choosing some God passes over others" I hope this stays. God with his election does just that.

    by Bill Hudson

    January 29, 2012

  15. I am so glad to read Dave B's follow-up comment that the "Fellowship/ECO board had voted to remove the phrase . . ." referring to double predestination. It literally took my breath away to read that fellow Reformed believers would actually articulate this as a foundational tenet of faith. And I am wondering whether the sings of grace, when it comes to real estate, will be mutual. I have seen presbyteries surrender their ownership claims to departing congregations; I have yet to see a departing congregation offer to surrender its property claim.

    by Beth Pyles

    January 28, 2012

  16. At a first glance, what strikes me is a question: will the unhesitating acceptance + peer review + decentralized be able to last over time? I suppose one answer will be: we'll see!

    by Arthur Shippee

    January 27, 2012

  17. One correction: Jim Singleton sent out a post-Orlando email informing attendees that the Fellowship/ECO board had voted to remove the phrase, "in choosing some God passes over others" from the Essential Temants paper.

    by Dave B

    January 27, 2012