Hard decisions

John Ortberg was a leading mover and shaker in the new Presbyterian body ECO — but couldn’t say so at the time. Here’s why.

When we interviewed John Ortberg about three months ago for last month’s CE Interview, we asked him about Menlo Park Presbyterian Church’s stance on the Presbyterian(USA) schism engulfing that body. In May of last year, the denomination changed its ordination rules to allow presbyteries to approve people who were in homosexual relationships for positions in the church.

Adroitly, Ortberg begged off on the question — “This is a sensitive and ongoing conversation around the denomination, so I don’t have a good response for publication at this point.” — and good folks as we are, we let it slide. Now, near the end of January, I know why he responded in that way.

Ortberg was heavily involved in a “new Reformed body,” that is to be called the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians. Two thousand Presbyterians, meeting in Orlando as the Fellowship of Presbyterians, were told January 19 about the new Presbyterian body that would embrace congregations who object to the PC(USA) actions on gay clergy.

“What problem are we trying to solve?” Ortberg asks. “The problem is not denominational ambiguity or ecclesiastical disunity or even ineffectiveness; we are doing this because people are going to hell and Jesus came to save them and we must be instruments of that salvation.”

Ortberg said hell prevails “every time a child is neglected or a marriage ends or a lie gets told or money gets hoarded or generations get divided or a workplace becomes oppressive or a culture of shamelessness emerges.”

Ortberg shows his theological stripes in his remarks at the meeting, saying that too many churches settle for “pretty good” and “pretty good is not okay with Jesus,” he opined. “Our job is to put hell out of business. I have no desire to be part of a church that believes pretty good is okay while the gates of hell remain open,” he told the assembly.

“I want to be part of a community that is willing to give everything we have to fulfill the redemptive purpose God has set before us. God has done it before, God will do it again. Will you devote your life to be part of such a church?,” he asked the assembly.

It has been reported that dozens of congregations have left the Presbyterian Church(USA) over its liberal direction on scriptural authority and homosexuality. Other church bodies are facing the same challenge to their decisions on the homosexuality issue. The Lutherans (ELCA) continue to lose congregations and members, and while the language in their reports is nuanced and polite, they are frank in saying that cuts have been required in the budget and missional work has been weakened and reduced. Episcopalians are having similar issues.

There is an old adage that denominations today exist only for real estate and pension plans. Dr. Mark Chaves of Duke University in his recent American Religion: Contemporary Trends says that “about one in five Protestant churches is now independent of any denomination, and about one in five Protestants now attends those independent churches.… If the unaffiliated congregations were all in one denomination, they would constitute the second largest in number of participants (behind only the Roman Catholic church) and the largest in number of congregations.”

One of the organizers says ECO’s values “will make and keep us a movement, not a bureaucracy.” Good idea! Avoiding the structure of a denomination is the smart move.


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