Eastminster Presbyterian Church has broken with North America's largest Presbyterian denomination to affiliate with a smaller denomination that it says is more faithful to Scripture.
Eastminster's break with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been years in the making, and follows a vote by the majority of the denomination's congregations in May to remove language from their constitution requiring that ordained officers be either faithful in marriage between a man and a woman or be chaste as a single person, said the Rev. Kermit Oppriecht, associate pastor at Eastminster.
The change could be interpreted to allow homosexuals to be ordained, but, according to the Bible, homosexual behavior is sinful, Oppriecht said.
Eastminster has "a high view of Scripture," Oppriecht said.
"The modus operandi is that the Bible is the word of God ... and the sentiment was that the denomination on the national level was moving away from those standards."
He said that culminated in a decision this summer by Eastminster's elders to look at disaffiliating with the denomination. In a vote last Sunday, the congregation overwhelmingly approved the break on a vote of 657-20.
By a similar vote it decided to join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, a smaller but growing denomination among the numerous Presbyterian denominations in the United States.
"I was just amazed by the support of our congregation," said Deb Hilscher, an elder at Eastminster. "It really moved me."
She said that a couple of the elders were not completely comfortable with the decision — one remains undecided, while the other plans to stay with Eastminster despite the vote.
"We're blessed to have an elder board that works well together," Hilscher said.
The church does not have a permanent pastor, and its interim senior pastor, Dave McKechnie, was traveling in Israel at the time of the vote. McKechnie plans to stay with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) but also is requesting to fulfill his contract to Eastminster into March 2012, Oppriecht said.
Even before last Sunday's vote, "people have voted with their feet," leaving Eastminster because of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)' s drift, Oppriecht said.
With 2,302 members on its rolls, Eastminster had been the largest church in the Presbytery of Southern Kansas, its district governing body in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But it is far from the first to break with the denomination.
The Presbyterian News Service estimated earlier this year that 100 congregations had left the denomination in the past five years, and the Presbyterian Lay Committee says that at least four congregations, including Eastminster, have left this month. St. Luke Presbyterian Church in Newton also has voted to leave the denomination.
Scott Anderson became the denomination's first openly gay minister when he was re-ordained Oct. 8 in Madison, Wis. Anderson had served as a Presbyterian minister in Sacramento, Calif., for seven years before coming out to his congregation and resigning in 1990.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has joined other mainline Protestant churches that have opened a way to allow gay clergy members and church leaders, including the United Church of Christ, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Episcopal Church.
The largest mainline Protestant denomination, the United Methodist Church, is debating the issue.
Among the reasons cited for the loosened restrictions in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.): the trend in broader American society toward accepting same-sex relationships, decreased interest in continuing the debate, and the departure of congregations such as Eastminster that have differed with the denomination, changing the balance of votes in some regions.
Oppriecht, 64, said he could point to trouble with the denomination dating back to a visit he made to one of its seminaries more than 25 years ago. On his visit, he said, he was told that some of the professors did not believe in the miracles of Jesus.
The issue, Oppriecht said, comes down to: Is the Bible trustworthy or isn't it?
If Scripture says something is wrong, it is wrong, he said, and the Bible says, for example, that homosexual behavior is sinful.
The vote's aftermath
Eastminster's vote, while nearly unanimous, does not necessarily end the matter.
The denomination's presbyteries all have their own policies with regard to the property of their member churches, Oppriecht said, and some have laid claim to departing churches' property.
In the Kansas City metropolitan area, for example, the Heartland Presbytery took Colonial Presbyterian Church to court in Missouri and lost its claim to the church's property. Heartland is now suing Colonial in Kansas and is appealing the Missouri ruling, said Jim West, lead pastor of Colonial.
But both Oppriecht and the head of the Presbytery of Southern Kansas said they expect an agreeable resolution with regard to Eastminster's property.
"I think both sides are hoping for a good and amicable resolution," said Jay Ayers, administrator of the presbytery, based in Wichita.
"We're going to be stepping into a time of negotiation, and we hope (it comes) out in a way that is fair to all the groups that are involved."
But Ayers said the presbytery was sad about Eastminster's departure and would suffer from it.
"It certainly does affect finances, morale, the kind of mission projects we can take on," he said. "But certainly we are looking forward to ongoing mission projects and new church development. There are options and possibilities we are excited about.
"I think the Presbytery of Southern Kansas doesn't intend to be anybody's enemy and we're going to continue to get along well. There are many people in Eastminster who have been very active, both clergy and laity, in the life of the ministry."
Oppriecht echoed that when he said, with tears in his eyes, that "the deep desire is that when the dust settles the most positive relationships continue."
"I have dear, dear friends in PC U.S.A., and the desire for an ongoing positive relationship is huge."