A Brief Comparison of EPC and ECO

February 14, 2012

As conservative/evangelical Presbyterian congregations and sessions discuss their options for responding to the liberal trends in the PCUSA, a question is voiced about the “leaving” option. Why do we need a new denomination (the future ECO) when we have the EPC in place now? What is the difference between transferring membership to the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (the EPC)? I understand that the folks at Fellowship of Presbyterians are working on a comparison chart that goes into some detail about the various elements to consider, and it is going to take them awhile to make this public (probably months). This suggests to me that the matter is complicated and detail-ridden, so I am humble in my offering some general ideas in this post. Yes, that was a disclaimer.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church affirms the Westminster Confession of Faith and its catechisms as its only system of doctrine.  In general, it subscribes to a list of essential tenets, but offers each other liberty on matters it does not deem essential, such as the ordination of women and the exercise of charismatic gifts. The essentials, however, are listed as these:

1. All Scripture is the true, infallible Word of God, uniquely and fully inspired by the Holy Spirit and the supreme and final authority on all matters on which it speaks. Sola Scriptura.
2. God is sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all things, existing in three Persons. Soli Dei gloria.
3. Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, was incarnated by miraculous conception and virgin birth, died on the cross a sacrifice for human sins and rose bodily from the dead to ascend into heaven where his reigns. Solo Christo.
4. The Holy Spirit glorifies Christ and applies the saving work to human hearts, convicting of sin, indwelling, empowering, instructing, gifting for service, and sealing believers for the day of redemption.
5. Human beings in their natural state are estranged from God and rely solely upon the work of God’s free grace for salvation, justification by faith, and the regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Sola fide, sola gratia.
6. The true Church is found in congregations where the Word is preached in its purity, the sacraments are administered in their integrity, and scriptural discipline is practiced in loving fellowship.
7. Jesus will come again personally, visibly, and bodily, to judge the living and the dead, to consummate history and God’s eternal plan.
8. The Great Commission requires all believers to proclaim the gospel and make disciples.

According to the EPC website the denomination is small, with approximately 115,000 members in approximately 300 congregations, organized into eight presbyteries plus the PCUSA transitional presbytery. However, doing the math, an EPC church has an average of 383 members, compared to the PCUSA average of 191. The median size of congregations in the PCUSA is now 95 according to denominational reports.  (A similar statistic is not available from the EPC).

The ECO embraces the witness of the entire Book of Confessions now held by the PCUSA, which includes Westminster standards but ranges from the Apostles’ Creed to the Brief Statement of Faith adopted shortly after the 1983 reunion. Its Theology Project enumerates essentials in perhaps more nuanced language than the EPC list (more on that tomorrow). While the EPC is inconsistent on the matter of accepting women’s ordination (it is “local option” by presbytery), the ECO makes it a hallmark. Further, the EPC has a more developed structure than the ECO, which seeks to stay “lean and mean” for missional movement and flexibility.

If you are interested in a very similar governing style, are flexible on the matter of women’s ordination, are more at ease with a single doctrinal confession, and want to join a body that is already up and running, it would seem that the EPC is ready to receive you. If you do not want to be shackled with a lot of governing red-tape and perceive yourself to be more missional in spirit than perhaps the EPC can accommodate, the ECO may be for you. The ECO retains the Book of Confessions in its entirety, which to some is problematic, but if you want continuity with the PCUSA, ECO will retain the spirit without as much regulation.


14 Responses to “A Brief Comparison of EPC and ECO”

  1. Mary, thank you for this comparison. I’d quibble with just a couple of things: First, I don’t think the EPC is “inconsistent” with regard to women’s ordination; rather, I think we are consistent with a view that sees it as a non-essential, and therefore leaves it in the hands of local churches (with regard to ruling elders) and presbyteries (with regard to teaching elders). But inconsistency may be in the eye of the beholder.

    Second, and more importantly, I think it necessary to say that there is actually very little “red tape” in the EPC. Yes, we have formal GA and presbytery structures. But in terms of what local churches can do to be missional, there is little or no process beyond what the congregation sees as necessary. Even starting a daughter congregation doesn’t have to come before a presbytery until such time as the daughter becomes an official mission church (unless a TE is called to lead the effort, in which case standard call procedures would apply). I especially think the word “shackled” if inappropriate in this context. I don’t know of any EPC congregation that would feel that way. I’ve been in two different mainline churches (United Methodist and Moravian), and believe me, I know what it is to be encased in red tape. The EPC isn’t.

    Beyond that, let me say how much I appreciate your efforts, and pray God’s blessings on the ECO and its work for His Kingdom!

    David Fischler
    Church of the Occoquan Valley (EPC mission church)
    Woodbridge, VA

    • revmary Says:

      David, thank you VERY much for this inside view of EPC’s ethos, which of course I cannot reproduce, being an outsider. My choice of words left something to be desired, and I concur with your critique of the word “inconsistent.” You said it much better. Regarding the red-tape thing, I personally look very kindly on your reality that it just isn’t as difficult to get good things done in the EPC as it is in the PCUSA, and yes, some PCUSA’ers feel “shackled” by their PCUSA polity and are looking for options. I see that you might have read that sentence to mean folks might feel shackled by the EPC’s structure compared to the ECO’s organization. I was actually thinking ‘PCUSA’ instead. So that was just plain bad writing. My apologies to you and your kin in the Presbyterian family.

  2. Love Is Only Love
    Leo Tolstoy

    Love is only love when it is given in the same degree to outsiders, to the adherents of other religions, and even to the enemies who hate us and do us harm.

    Source: Unknown

  3. Thomas L. Fultz, Ruling Elder, Westminster. Mobile, AL PCUSA Says:

    I wonder why the other reformed denominations, particularly the Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Church of America, are not considered as alternatives for PC(USA) congregations. I know there are confessional differences, but both would have much in common theologically and in polity; and any congregation or group of congregations in a general local area should include these two in the mix for consideration.

    • revmary Says:

      Yes, indeed, Tom, I agree that more research should be done on these two. I don’t think we have Cumberlands in California, hence they never come to my mind; but RCA is a possibility, though I understand they are dealing with some of the same issues we are and some might feel it is “more of the same.” Don’t know; I’ll look into it. Thanks for the comment!

      • Lee Pearson Says:

        There are Cumberlands in the San Francisco area, including a very large church in the Chinese community.

        My experience as a former Cumberland Presbyterian is that it’s a denomination of mostly rural churches. CP’s tend to operate in maintenance mode rather than mission mode because the churches are located in areas with deep family roots and also with little population growth.

        CP’s are generally conservative on social issues even though the denominational website calls itself “socially progressive”. Theologically they are relatively liberal. Compared to the PCA it’s an open or loose theology.

        CP’s were the first Presbyterian/Reformed body to ordain women and they were also a pioneer in the movement toward inclusive language.

        There was some discussion within the CP General Assembly in 2009 to welcome disgruntled PC(USA) churches, but the general consensus was that they did not want to insert themselves into someone else’s conflict.

  4. anonymous Says:


    I will try to post this as anonymous but if you do not feel you can do so, I will not disagree. You would recognize my name as one who posts regularly in TSWJ.

    I have tried to compare the ECO and EPC on my own in case it came time where I believed I needed to depart the PCUSA. A clarifying discussion elsewhere has led me to where I think I can now answer that question.

    The question was around Wynn Kenyon, who recently died. As you know, Kenyon was more than willing to serve in our denomination but he was not allowed to remain in the denomination. The issue was women’s ordination. Kenyon did not believe women should be ordained but he was willing to serve alongside women who were ordained in the denomination. He was not allowed to hold that position and remain in our denomination.

    The ECO would hold the same view toward Wynn Kenyon as the PCUSA. If Kenyon would not toe the line on that issue, he would not have been allowed in the ECO. While the EPC would have allowed Kenyon to have been a member.

    While I believe God’s word does support the view of women’s ordination we hold in the PCUSA, I do not see how that view can be elevated to an essential so that great servants of God like Wynn Kenyon would not be allowed to serve alongside others who disagree on that interpretation—-even though, remember, Kenyon would have been more than willing to serve alongside those who disagreed with him on that issue.

    If it comes to a time when I feel I must depart the PCUSA I cannot see joining a denomination like the ECO that would not allow for people like Kenyon, or Tim Keller and R. C. Sproul (if they should decide, like Kenyon, they could belong to a denomination that disagrees with them on the issue of women’s ordination).

    Thus, I believe the EPC is the one for me and should be for others who think the Kenyon case was decided wrongly and that we should not exclude from full membership those Jesus followers who are faithful in their methods of interpreting scripture but come to a different conclusion on this one matter.

    • revmary Says:

      Yes, friend, your reasoning is sound and I can’t disagree with it. If it comes to that, you have a tie-breaker that makes sense to me.
      For my readers, when you send a comment and do not want the general readership to know who you are, do what my friend here did and ID yourself as “anonymous”; but no matter what, when I am notified that your comment has come in, I see the email address from which it traveled. In this particular case, I therefore know the sender. And frankly, I prefer to know who you are (but do not insist that you reveal that to everybody reading this).

  5. […] To read Mary Naegeli’s article click here. […]

  6. gorjoel Says:

    Cumberland has a property trust clause in their constitution which leaves a bad taste for those looking at a PCUSA alternative.

    • Lee Pearson Says:

      Yes, that’s true, and that issue is about to get tested. The Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America (a much smaller African-American denomination) recently voted to merge. They have to somehow resolve the fact that the CP Church has a property trust clause and the CPCA does not.

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