As one prominent metro area congregation considers parting ways with its denomination, it joins a shortlist of other churches who have done the same.
First Presbyterian Church of Edmond will vote to seek “gracious dismissal” from the Presbyterian Church (USA) on Sunday. The Rev. Mateen Elass, the church's senior pastor, said the congregation plans to join with another Presbyterian denomination, the evangelical Covenant Order.
Elass said his congregation began discussing the idea as early as 2005 but decided against it at that time. Elass said parting from a denomination is not a “split-second decision.”
A clergyman of another church in similar circumstances last year said much the same thing.
The Rev. Keith Falk became senior pastor of Peace Lutheran Church about a month after the Edmond church left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Like Elass, he said leaving a denomination is a process church members never take lightly.
“The process is quite long and arduous and it should be,” Falk said.
“It's an important decision for a congregation to say our practices and beliefs do not align with our denomination.”
Reasons for splits vary
Typically, congregations find themselves at odds with their denomination over certain issues.
Disagreement over core Scriptural issues/ordination of clergy in same-sex relationships: A majority of members of First Presbyterian Church of Enid voted to sever ties with the Presbyterian Church (USA) in October 2011. The church's pastor at the time, the Rev. Roy Schneider, chose to retire. This week, Schneider, who now serves as secretary of the Garfield County Election Board, said the church members who decided to leave formed a new church called Westminster Presbyterian. He said the church meets in the Enid Seventh-day Adventists building.
“I did not go and work with them though they're all dear friends,” Schneider said.
Perceived departure from Scripture/ordination of clergy in same-sex relationships: Peace Lutheran, 2600 E Danforth Road, voted in May 2011 to terminate its relationship with the ELCA, the largest Lutheran denomination in the country. Church members voted to become part of the North American Lutheran Church, a denomination created by others disenchanted with the ELCA. At the time, a Peace Lutheran leader said the ELCA's churchwide assembly in August 2009 had “raised the red flag” to church members regarding the denomination's perceived shift away from Scripture. At that time the denomination's leaders voted to allow pastors in same-sex relationships to be ordained and serve in the denomination.
Falk said it has been exciting working with the new denomination. He said the church's attendance has grown and it is trying to establish more global connections.
When asked if he thought Peace Lutheran lost some members over the fracture, Falk said there were some people who chose to attend church elsewhere.
“Some folks felt that they need to join another congregation, particularly some folks who agreed with the decision that our church body made (regarding ordination of pastors in same-sex relationships),” Falk said.
“Ultimately, the point is to try to remain faithful to God's leading and faithful to God's word and where He's leading us as a congregation.”
Disagreement over biblical principles: Members of Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Tulsa voted in August 2006 to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The congregation was later ordered by a district court judge to pay the denomination $1.75 million to retain its property at 4102 E 61.
Church members cited their perception that the denomination had “moved away from strict biblical principals” as reasons for their vote.
They said another factor was the denomination's decision to grant ordaining bodies greater leeway in determining candidates' fitness for ordination. This week, a church spokeswoman declined to comment on the matter, but said church members are happy at present.
Ordination of openly gay clergyman: The majority of St. James Episcopal Church in south Oklahoma City left the Episcopal Church USA in May 2004 and formed their own church, St. James Anglican Church. Leaders of the group that decided to leave said the denomination decision to ordain an openly gay man as bishop was reason for their leaving.
The congregation, meeting at 204 SW 104, is affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America.
Doctrinal difference and women's roles: In September 2001, First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City voted to end its 87-year affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention. The church's then senior pastor, the Rev. Jeffry Zurheide, citied dissatisfaction with recent Southern Baptist actions concerning doctrine and women's roles. The church, 1201 N Robinson, is affiliated with the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but remains part of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma. At the time, Zurheide, who is now deceased, criticized the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, a doctrinal platform adopted by the SBC. He also said First Baptist's leaders disagreed with the SBC's opposition to women serving as pastors and its requirement that wives “submit graciously” to their husbands.